A Benchmark Year for Wildland Fire

This year is a benchmark year in the history of wildland fire, marking off the past and leading the way for a new generation of firefighters and the nation.

Sixty-five years ago a fire in a narrow gulch in northwestern Montana exploded in front of a crew of smokejumpers and chased them back up the gulch, killing 13 men.

Mann Gulch 1949
The Mann Gulch Fire, USFS photo

This spring, on May 26, the last living survivor of the Mann Gulch Fire, Robert Sallee, died at the age of 82 in Spokane, Washington. Sallee was 17 at the time of the Mann Gulch Fire, having lied about his age to join the smokejumpers, but he had the legs of a mule, which helped save his life.

Sallee and Rumsey
Bob Sallee and Walter Rumsey after the Mann Gulch Fire. Photo by Peter Stackpole.

In the aftermath of the fire, Sallee became a successful executive in the pulp and paper industry in Washington and put his brush with death behind him, until one day my father, Norman Maclean, came knocking on his door. My father took Sallee and his friend and fellow survivor, Walter Rumsey, back to Mann Gulch, and he recounted their stories in his book Young Men and Fire. Rumsey died in an airplane crash in 1980, leaving Sallee as the last living survivor of the fire.

Sallee became an elder statesman of the wildland fire community, telling his story quietly and without histrionics to rapt gatherings of firefighters until advancing age wore him down.

Then twenty years ago this July 6, another fire in another gulch, eerily similar to Mann Gulch, chased a fire crew and caught and killed 14 men and women, three of them smokejumpers. It was the first loss of life by fire for the smokejumpers since the 1949 episode in Mann Gulch. The South Canyon Fire of 1994 became the benchmark for a new generation of firefighters.

Storm King Mountain
Storm King Mountain with Hell's Gate Ridge branching off to the right.
Photo by Jim Kautz, USFS Hell's Gate Ridge
Hell's Gate Ridge in the aftermath of the fire. Photo by Dan Jackson.

And then last June 30, yet another fire in yet another narrow canyon exploded in front of a crew of firefighters near Yarnell, Arizona, and killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Granite Mountain Hotshots
The Granite Mountain Hotshots on the ridgeline, as the Yarnell Hill Fire turned toward them. Photo by Christopher MacKenzie.

The Yarnell Hill Fire instantly became the iconic symbol for the current generation of firefighters, the same role the South Canyon and Mann Gulch fires had played for past generations.

Yarnell blowup
The Yarnell Hill Fire at about the time of the fatalities. Photo by Matt Oss.

These events, terrible and sad as they are, have also served as rallying points, teaching safety lessons to the wildland fire community and extending the understanding of wildland fire to a wider community. The sites where the fires occurred have become shrines. The men and women who died there have not been forgotten.

As the nation looks on this year, the fire community has much to remember and to mourn, and much to do in the future to honor those who fell.

~ John N. Maclean, July 2014

Read the 20-year anniversary piece in:
National Geographic

 

John Maclean books