Mann Gulch: The Wrath of Nature


[ Music ]>>August 5, 1949. It’s a broiling hot day across Montana. The thermometer in Helena reached 97
degrees but it’s even hotter in Mann Gulch, a funnel-shaped canyon that adjoins the
Missouri river 20 miles north of Helena. It’s been a busy fire season and the young
smokejumper program is getting a good test; 1949 is the 9th year young men in prime
physical condition have risked life and limb to attack wildfires in the
national forests of Montana. The program has been remarkably successful. The smokejumpers have proven the value of
quickly getting to remote road-less areas to attack fires in the early stages. In the afternoon of August 5th, a fire is
reported on the south ridge of Mann Gulch and 16 smokejumpers take off from Missoula
and fly 120 miles east to the jump site. One smokejumper becomes ill on the bumpy
flight and remains on the airplane. The remaining 15 jumpers hook onto the jump line
and hurl themselves into the wrath of nature. [ Music ]>>This is where the whole story
begins, right here at the jump spot. At about 3:10 p.m., the airplane
arrives over the fire area. Earl Cooley, the spotter,
informant Wag Dodge are in the door of the DC-3 scanning the area
for a suitable jump spot. This is the spot they decide on jumping into. They circle. They drop a drift streamer. It drifts about a quarter mile down the canyon. It carried the jumpers a quarter mile into
the wind and have them exit the airplane. At 3:30, Wag Dodge followed by three jumpers
take off out of the airplane and land here. Three more passes and the rest of
the 15 jumpers are on the ground. They assemble their parachutes
and their jump gear right here. The next step is to gather the cargo. Since the winds are so turbulent in the canyon,
it’s impossible for the airplane to drop down low and accurately drop the
cargo in a concentrated area, so they have to drop from a high altitude. The cargo is scattered down the
canyon about a quarter mile from here. [ Music ] Well now it’s about 4:00 o’clock and the
jumpers and all the cargo are on the ground. Since the airplane had to drop
the cargo at a high altitude, it’s fairly scattered throughout
the bottom of the Gulch. The foreman tells his men to gather up all
the cargo and put it in this area right here. He, in the mean time, is planning to
take off and head over toward the fire because he’s heard someone yelling. The rest of the crew takes about 45
minutes to gather all the cargo up and then they grab a bite
to eat, fill their canteens, and then each man grabs double
tools, Pulaski shovel. Two of the men grab saws and then
after about 20 minutes, they, too, head this way toward the fire. [ Music ] Once Foreman Dodge left the cargo
assembly point, he headed up to the fire. He arrived at the fire’s edge at about
5:00 o’clock and found James Harrison. James is a wilderness guard on the Helena
National Forest and he’d been working on the fire for several hours by himself. Dodge didn’t like what he saw up there,
so he and Harrison headed out back down toward the cargo assembly point. It was there they picked up a little bit of
food and water and continued to chase the crew down the canyon where it
took them about 20 minutes. Finally when they caught up with the crew,
Dodge ordered Bill Hellman, squad leader, to the back of the line and
Dodge took over the lead. When they got to this point, Foreman Dodge could
see that the fire had now jumped from the top of the ridge from the Meriwether side of
the canyon to the north slope of Mann Gulch, so the fire was now burning at both
sides of the Gulch at the crew. Dodge realized he had to turn
his men around and move quickly up toward the ridge top and get out of here. At some point, and there are some
speculation here, some say maybe 500 yards, some say as little as 200 yards, the foreman
ordered his men to drop all their heavy tools. About half the men did and half the men didn’t. From that point, the men
had to race for their lives. [ Music ] Now we’re at the crossroads
between life and death. This is the point where Dodge
started his escape fire. After leaving the drop tool point and traveling
at top speed, the men reached this point and Dodge turned to look down the canyon. Below him he could see the fire was
moving very fast, catching up with them, leaving them about a minute
before they would overtake him. So Dodge calmly reaches into pocket, pulls
out matches and starts lighting the grass on the hillside above him on fire. The men are confused by this. They don’t know what he is trying to accomplish. He’s putting fire above the men on the
hill when below them they have fire, more fire than they can deal with. Dodge then stands up and motions to the
men, follow me men, in here boys, follow me, but the men are confused amid the heat, the
smoke, and the flame and they continue on. One of the men was overheard saying, “To
hell with that, I’m getting out of here.” Dodge finally has to give
up his plea to get the men into the escape fire and he
walks into the burn area. He wets a handkerchief, covers
his face, and lays down and waits for the flames to move up onto his area. The rest of the men head up the hill. Only two outrun the fire. Dodge stood up about ten minutes
later and started looking for his men. [ Music ] After running up the right flank of
Dodge’s escape fire, Rumsey and Sallee, followed closely by Eldon Diettert,
reached the top of the ridge and it’s there they find a very
small opening along this ridgeline and they sneak though just in the nick of time. Eldon Diettert, for some reason, continues
on and chooses not to go through the opening. Sallee and Rumsey run down the hill to
a scree slope and it’s in this rockslide that they take refuge as the fire comes
at them from both below and the top. They move across the rockslide avoiding the heat
and once the flames battle down, they stand up and start up back up for the ridge top. [ Music ]>>The Mann Gulch fire was a harsh wake-up
call for just how unpredictable fire can be. The conditions in Mann Gulch changed quickly
and resulted in 16 firefighters racing a fire up a brutally steep slope,
a race 13 men would lose. The unusual fire behavior in Mann Gulch
created a new interest in fire research and the field of fire science was born. Out of this, two forest service fire
sciences laboratories were created, one of which is located in Missoula, Montana. Along with research came technology that
has produced better tools for firefighters such as fire shelters, fire-resistant
clothing, and better communications equipment, but most important is the need to understand
the various elements that drive a wildfire. From this knowledge, we can better understand
that nature is not always as predictable as we would like, but if we use
our past experiences and combine it with research knowledge, we can at least
be better prepared for the new challenges that wildfire will create next;
however, the ultimate legacy of Mann Gulch is the loss of
the young men who fell here. Because they died so young, they
had little time to experience life. That is why it is so important
that they be remembered. [ Music ]>>And as we move into the next millennium,
it’s time to rededicate ourselves to the memory of these fine young men and the lesson
their deaths taught us, that wildfires are and always will be dangerous and we must respect
its potential to put a firefighter in harm’s way and that life is precious
and for some very short. And now please join me in a moment of
silence in memory of those 13 young men who lost their lives in Mann Gulch: Robert J.
Bennet, Eldon E. Diettert, James O. Harrison, William J. Hellman, Philip R. McVeya, David
R. Navon, Leonard L. Piper, Stanley J. Reba, Marvin L. Sherman, Joseph B.
Sylvia, Henry J. Thol, Jr., Newton R. Thompson, and Silas R. Thompson. [ Music ]

Comments 10

  • A very informative video. Thank you for uploading this video.

  • I was a rookie SJ in 1949. I sat in the training room with the 13 who died in the MannGulch fire – along with others – and ask "What about back fires?"  The answer was: "They only use them on large fires."  Three weeks later my two close friends and 11 others died. Unfortunately Wag Dodge had not been there for our itraining.  Others from 1949 have let me know they remember my question. Lessons: Learn as much as you can before taking risk, anticipate and minimize your risk.

  • Firefighters are heroes lest we forget.

  • Firefighters stand alongside soldiers

  • If interested, do a search forJames Keelaghan's "Cold Missouri Waters", a 1996 folk song that tells the story of the Mann Gulch fire from the perspective of Wag Dodge, the leader who lit the escape fire.

  • I first went through Missoula in 1998, there was a wildfire burning north of town I spent the night there and could smell the fire. I passed through again in I think 2012 and there was a wildfire burning that was even larger. I only learned about this tragedy today. My mother's first cousin was an employee of the Forest Service here in Missouri who often volunteered to fight fires in the west. He had some photographs taken at night at the camps where men ate and slept, they were taken at night and it was bright enough no flash was needed. This is an amazing story that lets people know about these men and their sacrifice. I will tell my friends to come and view it by sharing it on Facebook.

  • Hello GOOD VIDEO

  • Too bad, so sad.

  • This song by James Kelaghan: Cold Missouri Waters is a poignant recounting of the Mann Gulch story. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dztj4X3fQps

  • The records of the Mann Gulch Fire are stored at the "Fire Labe" in Missoula, which was founded in part because of the Mann Gulch Fire. The first Director of Fire Research, Harry Gisborne, was so concerned about Mann Gulch that he went there himself a few months after the fire, to see the area first hand. He died of a heart attack while hiking in Mann Gulch, the 14th victim of the fire, just a few months after the fire itself. Norman Maclean did his research for "Young Men and Fire" at the Northern Forest Fire Laboratory (as it was then called) for about four months, meticulously going through the records collection, and calling on the expertise of the fire researchers there at the time. Since, he had spread his documents all over the conference room table where I generally ate my lunch, I spent am hour or so every day following the progress of his work. Immediately above us was a portrait of Harry Gisborne, the founder of USFS Fire Research.

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