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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Mann Gulch Tragedy: 50 Years Later

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood talks with Laird Robinson, a former Smokejumper and assistant to Norman Maclean on his book Young Men & Fire, about the blow-up wildfire that killed 13 Smokejumpers in Mann Gulch, Montana, fifty years ago this week.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the summer, when the forest is hot and dry and lightning strikes, wildfires get started. And out west, especially, the call goes out to Smokejumpers to put the fire out. This week, Smokejumpers mark the 50th anniversary of perhaps their profession's most memorable disaster: the fire at Mann Gulch, Montana. On August 5, 1949, a team of 16 firefighters led by foreman Wag Dodge parachuted into Mann Gulch, a two-mile valley just north of Helena. These young men had come to put out a small lightning fire that had started the day before. In less than two hours, all but three would be dead. Laird Robinson is a former Smokejumper who worked with writer Norman Maclean on his book about the Mann Gulch disaster, called Young Men and Fire. Laird Robinson says from the moment they hit the ground, the men made mistakes that would seal their fate.

ROBINSON: They were doomed. Their casual approach to getting down to the river indicated that they were not concerned about this fire. But if you look at it, Mann Gulch is a chimney. With natural winds in August, every day in August that it's 95 degrees in Helena, if you went to Mann Gulch at 5 o'clock in the afternoon the wind is blowing hard up-canyon. It's a topographical, geographical phenomenon that occurs every day when it's hot. It's a blowtorch.

CURWOOD: So what did they see when they jumped out of the airplane?

ROBINSON: They saw a smoldering fire 50 to 60 acres, a sleepy fire, and I can't overemphasize that. One that's smoldering, creeping, and crawling. The fire that Wag Dodge saw at 5:45, only less than an hour and a half later, is now a crown fire coming up out of the bottom, directly at them.

CURWOOD: Crown fire. You mean the flames were leaping from the top of one tree to the next.

ROBINSON: That is correct. And at this point, Dodge turns and begins to retreat. He knew that there were problems ahead. He also had a visual from the air while they were circling and picking a jump spot, and knew his best chance was probably to angle up out of the gulch. Except from the air it was difficult for him to see that for over 10,000 years the talus off a reef that separates Mann Gulch and what later became Rescue Gulch has been peeling off and making little marble-like rocks all the way down on that 76% slope. That's significant.

CURWOOD: So this is almost straight up.

ROBINSON: It's almost straight up. Seventy-six percent with marble-like stones all over the side. They traveled the next 240 yards across this slope with tremendous heat in approximately two minutes. They hit a small opening with grass, and that's when the foreman Wag Dodge decided that he had to save his crew. He knelt down, he had several of the crew members with him, when he took out a book of matches and he lit the grass. The fire now was approximately 50 yards behind him. He lit it immediately. It began to burn up-canyon, up-slope. His intent was to burn out a small grassy area and have the crew get into the grassy area with him. The comment that has been made to me by the two survivors was, the man has gone crazy, he's lost his mind, we have more fire than we know what to do with. And essentially, they had to scramble for their lives. They had about 30 seconds to get from where they were to the top of the ridge.

Dodge was beckoning everyone to get into his fire as they went by. They didn't understand what he was doing and they did not join him. Not one person joined Wag Dodge. Wag lay down in his burnt-out area, put on his jump coat, lay face-down, and during the events that occurred for the next five to seven minutes he was lifted two or three times off the ground, and slammed back down on the ground, from the force of the main fire coming through. But fortunate for him, there was no fuel. So the main fire essentially escaped right over the top of him, and then picked up the fuel and continued burning. There were some jumpers, particularly what is known as the Four Horsemen. There are four individuals that went the furthest distance. They covered all the way to where they were hit by the main fire, a distance of 620 yards. This wasn't a run, but it was probably as fast as a human can traverse that particular area.

CURWOOD: Have people ever tried it in modern times?

ROBINSON: They have tried it. Several individuals, including marathon runners, have gone up there under the circumstances and tried to cover, with similar conditions, that distance, and they're unable to do so. I think the biggest reason there is the lack of adrenaline that these individuals had, knowing that there was a fire licking at their heels and they only had one choice. And that is draw on everything they can to survive. Bill Hellman, the squad leader, had no choice but to take the down-canyon side of Dodge's fire and scramble for his life to the top of the ridge. He arrived at the top of the ridge only to be caught by the main wall of fire. I say wall of fire; we have varying flame lengths estimated between 100 and 150 foot.

CURWOOD: A hundred and fifty feet high?

ROBINSON: That is correct.

CURWOOD: A hundred and fifty feet high. This is a 10-story, 15-story building worth of flame.

ROBINSON: That's correct. And it's laying out with gusts of 40 miles an hour. When Dodge lit his set fire, the fire is covering 100 yards a minute. When it all was done, Wag got up out of the ashes of the fire and walked to a voice, a calling person below him, about 160 feet below. There he found one of his jumpers badly burnt: hands burnt off, completely charred. Completely, at this point, the central nervous system having shut down. His name was Joe Sylvia. He didn't feel any pain but he knew he looked terrible. He was cold. Wag met with him for a little bit, sat him down, and said he'd go for water and come back. From here on, essentially, it was a rescue. It was a rescue operation with Wag Dodge, the foreman, heading for the Missouri River to get a ride to let people know that there's been a disaster in Mann Gulch, at 4 minutes of 6 on August 5th, 1949. Joe Sylvia and Bill Hellman were taken out of Mann Gulch to St. Joseph's Hospital in Helena, and they died that following morning of severe burns. (Sighs) The rescue began. The location, it took almost two days to locate all of the charred remains. The body count, all in all, was 13 individuals. All Smokejumpers, including one individual that was the headquarters guard and a previous Smokejumper, Jim Harrison.

CURWOOD: When Wag Dodge set his escape fire, the men who ran by him had less than 30 seconds to live. What would you have done? Would you have joined him?

ROBINSON: Absolutely not.

CURWOOD: And why not?

ROBINSON: I think that at that time, what he did was unknown, and there was no time for him to explain. He didn't explain, and had he even tried, the group that was standing with him within a foot of his face, he was shouting, and they couldn't hear him because of the tremendous roar. They could see his lips moving, but they didn't know what he was saying and couldn't hear him. But I definitely would not have joined Wag inside his little tiny grassy escape fire, with the kind of fire that was licking at his heels. I would have stayed with the rest of the group and taken the angle that they took.

CURWOOD: And it would have killed you.

ROBINSON: And it would have killed me.

CURWOOD: So were these guys really, essentially, dead the second they jumped out the airplane? Did they have no chance?

ROBINSON: Essentially (sighs) it's almost like a puzzle, in that if you find the piece the puzzle comes together. And they weren't finding pieces. This fire would have blown up and done the same thing that it did if the jumpers hadn't even been there, on the same timetable. So how they fit into that timetable, and where they were at what time was critical. And they didn't realize it until all of a sudden it was too late.

CURWOOD: Laird Robinson is a former Smokejumper and employee of the US Forest Service, and worked with Norman Maclean as Maclean wrote the book Young Men and Fire, the story of the Mann Gulch disaster. He spoke to us from member station KUFM in Missoula, Montana. Thank you, sir, for joining us.

ROBINSON: Thank you.



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