Scott Hatch
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Mann Gulch Fire

There have been many devastating fires that have burned in the U.S. Many acres and houses have been burned. But the Mann Gulch fire left more than just burned acres; it left 12 smokejumpers dead as well as a forest ranger. On August 4, 1949, a thunderstorm passed over the Helena Forest in Montana at the Gates of the Mountains Wild Area (now Gates of the Mountains Wilderness) and started a fire that would live on in history.
The Mann Gulch Fires were started as a direct result of a lightning storm that passed through the Helena Forest. On August 4, 1949, the storm left a very high fire danger in the forest. The Forest Service estimates the possibility of a fire starting and rates them by suspected flammability and how much furl it may have. After the lightning storm, the Forest Service declared the fire danger rating to be an astounding seventy four out of one hundred, which is described as very "explosive potential". Almost immediately after the fire danger rating, three small fires ignited near an area known as Mann Gulch. These fires began to expand and by August 5, 1949 at about noon these fires were spotted and reported to the officials. The wind was also a very strong player in the fires starting. Wind paired with extreme heat and ugly weather is a very dangerous combination. The heat creates hot and very dry conditions that cause large amounts of dry brush. This brush is a fire's best friend. The heat or thunderstorms ignite the fire, the dry conditions are fuel and the wind keeps the flames moving to more and more fuel; this causes the fire to spread across wide distances.
It was east of the Missouri River, 20 miles north of Helena. The name of the fire is the Mann Gulch Fire and is probably the most infamous fire. Eventually, it took 450 firefighters to control the fire, which began at 60 acres and ended up over 3,000 acres. (Figure 1 is a picture of the fire).
Smokejumping had been around for 10 years to that point. It proved to be a safe and effective way of getting the best firefighters to remote backcountry fires and stopping them. The basic rule was to reach a fire quickly while it was still small. This way fire managers were able to attack the fires and actually keep them small; which prevented millions of tress burning and kept firefighting costs down.
15 smokejumpers parachuted into Mann Gulch, a half mile from the edge of the fire at 3:00 P.M. on August 5. It was spotted at It was a hot and windy day. Temperatures reached 97 degrees F that day. The fire began close to the top of the ridge between Mann Gulch and Meriwether Canyon. Mann Gulch is a minor drainage that leads into the Missouri River. It is funnel shaped and narrows to about one-fourth of a mile at the river.
The only thing that went wrong with the jump was that the parachute on the cargo pack that held the only radio failed to open. The plane encountered turbulence, so it climbed before dropping the radio. The radio was destroyed on impact with the ground and left the jumpers with no communication with the outside world. The jumpers gathered up their tools, water and food after landing, and eventually headed down Mann Gulch to the Missouri River, a mile away. Unfortunately, before they were able to reach the river, the fire blew up. The wind switched direction, south, and increased to 24 mi/h. The winds blew from the river towards the crew. The fire leaped into the tree canopy and raced at an incredible rate towards the men. Soon some burning material dropped into some thick grass on the north slope of the Gulch, cutting off their route and escape to the river.
The crew foreman, R. Wagner “Wag” Dodge, instructed them to reverse their direction and they headed up the hill. He realized they would be overrun and set the deep grass where he was on fire (escape fire), which burned off a 10’ x 10’ area. He stayed in the burned area and instructed everyone else to follow him, but no one followed him; either because the men didn’t hear him or because they didn’t know what he was doing. The men ran up the ridgeline where they were swept over by the fire. (Figure 2 shows the route the men took). Wag Dodge, and two other smokejumpers survived without injury, two others were badly burned and unfortunately ended up dying later. (Figure 3 shows the men that died). The deaths were a major shock to the Forest Service. There had not been a single fatality through a decade of smokejumping. Crosses stand at the locations where the men lost their lives. No structures were lost and no one else died as a result of the fire.
Many actions resulted from the fire. The forest service committed to understanding fire behavior and committed to the safety of firefighters. The first action was that the smokejumpers training was modified. Smokejumpers began to undergo a paramilitary regimen that allowed veterans to help train the crews that they will lead into fires. The physical conditioning was stiffened. Also, the Forest Service put more effort in studying the science of fire behavior; the firefighters knowledge of fire behavior was extended, especially of large fires.
Two new fire centers were created, one in Montana and another in California. The centers study the behavior of fires, how weather affects them and the best way to fight them. Equipment was modified. Another requirement made was that the crews had to carry a backup radio.
There have been many questions about the fire; such as did the fire set by the foreman overtake the crew? Also, why couldn’t they escape the fire? These questions, as well as others have been answered in the book “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean. Fire experts where very interested in how the fire got from the ridge on the south side to the mouth of the gulch and then onto the north side. Two opinions developed, one was that a small thunderstorm blew the fire from the ridge down to the mouth; which has been supported by a film, lost now, that was taken by a Forest Service photographer that dropped the crew. Others suggest that whirlwinds may have spread the fire.
There was a realization that the primary responsibility of the crew foreman was the safety of the crew and the secondary responsibility was to control the fire. It was important for the overhead to constantly put the safety of their crews in front of anything else and to know where their safety zones are.
The number of firefighters lost during a single blaze was unsurpassed until July 6, 1994. A fire on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, killed 14 firefighters, thee being smokejumpers. This has been due to some of the concrete, objective safety measures that were established from the tragedy; including the additional training courses for grass fires. Probably the most important result was the realization that one risks one’s life and at times has to put one’s life into the hands of a boss in order to save your own life.
Unfortunately, with the way firefighter training was going, it seemed as though the only way smokejumpers would actually become safer was if a tragedy occurred, and it did. Fortunately, with the training that has resulted from the tragedy, many lives have been saved and will continue to be saved. Hopefully no more lives will be lost in the future.

Figure 1 (3)
The fire.

Figure 2 (4)
The escape routes of the men.

Figure 3 (3)
The men that died.

Fig 4: Mann Gulch Fire Tribute


When Dodge began starting the escape fire, it is indeed reported that some did not hear him or did not understand what he was doing but it is also reported that some men simply did not want to stay while the escape fire did its work. It is stated that one man actually said, "To hell with that, I'm getting out of here" (1.) Dodge's escape fire saved his life but it acted in a way contrary to expectations. Instead of running towards the main fire, the escape fire went up the slope and to the left of where the other firefighters had taken their escape route. This variance in "normal" fire behavior could be due to the direction of the convection column of the main fire. In whichever way the escape fire behaved, the important part is that it saved a life.

Written by Diana Blanco