Published 22 years ago, Young Men & Fire still crackles today. Norman MacLean’s account of the Mann Gulch fire, which claimed the lives of 13 firefighters in 1949, is a powerful piece of narrative journalism. But MacLean warps the form—fearlessly. He practically instructs us how to react and think about the tragedy, yanking us up steep canyon walls to ponder the series of easily-made mistakes in the tragedy, where “young men died like squirrels.”
The lightning-sparked fire was a “catastrophic collision of fire, clouds and winds” in Mann Gulch, located between Butte and Great Falls along the upper Missouri River. The fire was first spotted by a forest ranger and soon a C-47 was on the way with smokejumpers on board, heading to the remote canyon with winds so rough that one smokejumper got sick and did not jump. Fifteen smokejumpers parachuted into the fire and joined the forest ranger, who had been fighting the fire on his own for hours, on the ground. MacLean parses these first few decisions carefully and highlights the many ways in which it was unlikely this crew might succeed—their youth, lack of training and lack of training together. To make matters worse, their radio was destroyed during the jump (its parachute failed to open).
The tragedy unspools over a few fast hours, flames racing up the steep slopes of the canyon, feeding on knee-high cheatgrass. MacLean does an admirable job of breaking down the series of events, but it gets a bit complicated and hard to picture, no matter how many times MacLean takes us back to various vantage points to consider (and reconsider) how the flames won and the men lost.
The Mann Gulch fire is infamous for the tragedy but also noted for the “escape fire” lit by Wagner Dodge, who figured out in the high-pressure situation that the way to survive was to light his own fire and lay down in the smoking embers in order to hide, essentially, from the bigger onrushing blaze. Dodge urged others to join him, but they didn’t heed his pleas—or didn’t understand the strategy, given the panic. Dodge was one of three survivors. The controversy over this moment—could others have survived as well?—remains.
MacLean takes on the role of investigator, prosecutor and philosopher. In spots, the writing leans purple. He compares the cliffs to the Gates of the Mountains as the “rearings and collisions and roarings of the bottoms of oceans as they stood up like sea beasts struggling to prevent anything from find a way around them.” MacLean laments how hard it is to make sense of all the available information. The detail, he writes, “rises out of a fire as thick as smoke and threatens to blot out everything—some of it is true but doesn’t make any difference, some is just plain wrong, and some doesn’t even exist, except in your mind, as you slowly discover long afterwards. Some of, though, is true—and makes all the difference.”
But Young Men & Fire is compelling reading precisely because MacLean asserts his point of view and takes us inside his thought process, neatly interweaving his personal take with events on the ground and almost insisting that we try and figure out what happened.
“To see how Dodge’s life as a woodsman shaped his thoughts in an emergency and to follow his thoughts closely, one more tick must be added to the tock of his makeup. In an emergency he thought with his hands. He had an unusual mechanical skill that helped him think, that at least structured his thoughts. It was a woodsman’s mechanical skill—he liked to work with rifles, fix equipment, build lean-to’s or log cabins. He wasn’t fancy, he was handy. And in fact that spring had been excused from training with Smokejumpers so that he could be maintenance man for the whole Smokejumper base—no doubt part of the cause of the tragedy he was about to face with a crew only three of whom he knew.”
“We enter now a different time zone, even a different world of time. Suddenly comes the world of slow-time that accompanies grief and moral bewilderment trying to understand the extinction of those whose love and everlasting presence were never questioned. Al there was to time were the fixty-six speeding minutes before the fire picked watches off dead bodies, blew them up a hillside ahead of the bodies, and froze the watch hands together. Ahead now is a world of no explosions no blowups, and, without a storyteller, not many explanations.”
Where some writers of narrative non-fiction work hard to keep their distance from their subject, MacLean purposely weaves himself into the story, determined to come to terms with the tragedy in the same way he wrote the novel A River Runs Through It as a way to come to terms with the death of his brother.In the end, MacLean doesn’t have all the answers and views the Mann Gulch with a long view. The “truculent universe,” he concludes, “prefers to retain the Mann Gulch fire as one of its secrets—left to itself, it fades away, an unsolved violent incident grieved over by the fewer and fewer still living who are old enough to grieve over fatalities of 1949.”
The youngest man among the firefighters that day was Robert Sallee. He was 17 years old at the time. He was the last living survivor of the Mann Gulch fire until his death in April (2014). He was 82. In his obituary in the New York Times, Sallee’s son Eric was asked to reflect on how survivors viewed the awful day. Concluded Eric Sallee: “If he was sitting here, he’d tell you, ‘We were just goddamned lucky.’ ”