Young Men and Fire
(1992) by American author and University of Chicago professor Norman Maclean is a heavily researched look into the true story of 13 men who died in a wilderness fire in Montana. It was published two years after Maclean’s death and received the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award. Technically unfinished, editors at his publishing house completed fact-checking and some stylistic edits they thought were in line with his vision; Maclean was too ill to finish the book after 1987. The story of the 13 deaths haunted him for more than 40 years, and he spent 14 years actively researching and writing this book.
Its themes include compassion, mortality, human suffering, understanding tragedy, the search for truth, and self-identification. Maclean’s publisher wrote that the work combined all of the identities Maclean had engendered throughout his life, including teacher, woodsman, firefighter, and scholar.
The work begins on August 10, 1949 when McLean, then 47, saw the raging fires in the Helena National Forest. The fire had been going on since August 5th. It was especially dangerous because it formed in a dry, deep valley (known as a “gulch”). McLean was in the area to spend a couple months at his cabin in western Montana near the Missouri River.
A postwoman tells him that 13 men died in the gulch while trying to escape the fire; most of them were still in college, and the youngest only 15 (later it turns out the youngest was really 17). In this first chapter, “Black Ghost,” Maclean describes how he walked toward the fire, which was still raging away from the gulch, and hallucinated seeing a “black ghost” which represented the cruel, inhuman force of the fire.
As he talks to more people in town, he learns that all of the men were official and voluntary firefighters. The fire was trigged by a lightning strike. It was first noticed by a forest ranger, who radioed the fire station and started doing what he could to fight the fire. On the hottest afternoon ever recorded in Montana, the fire was primed to grow at a ferocious rate.
Maclean learns that 15 men in total flew out to the fire on a C-47. They parachuted from the sky. Unfortunately, the wind was incredibly powerful, and one man became so sick that he couldn’t make the jump. As Maclean hears about the inexperience of the firefighters, he considers their inexperience and youthful bravado and figures that none of them stood a chance of curbing the fire. Their escape route was also cut off when their radio broke during the helicopter jump. Still, at this point, none of the 15 men think that the fire will be lethal.
Looking at pictures of the previously uncharred area, Maclean writes that the fire spread rapidly because of weeds that were two to four feet high. That the men had to battle these huge weeds along with the smoke and air pressure that bottled up in the valley, and the flames that easily climbed toward the top of an incredibly steep valley (when the author visited the site later, he had to crawl and clutch the remaining grass to not fall backwards), it’s not as surprising that so many of them perished.
Maclean learns even more after interviewing the survivors and reading reports from the city’s Board of Review. One of the men, 33-year-old R. Wagner “Wag” Dodge who served as the boss, lit his own fire then sat in the embers to wait out the larger fire. The other men didn’t realize that after the micro fire was set, the larger blazes could not once again strike that area of land; there would also be a thin layer of oxygen they could breathe for some time. Dodge was one of three survivors. In one sad example of human folly, one victim was preoccupied taking photos so that he didn’t focus on running from the fire.
The other two men who survived were Walter B. Rumsey and Robert W. Sallee. This surprised Maclean, as they were on the younger side and very inexperienced with managing wild fires. He’s further surprised by Dodge’s description of the moment the fire went out of control. Dodge describes a “blowup” firestorm that, from the bottled wind and heat, exploded to over 200 feet tall and 300 feet wide. The firestorm sounds like a train blaring out of a tunnel and coming directly toward them. The fire was at least 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. In less than two hours of landing at the fire side, 13 of the men were dead. When it first started, the fire was .09 square miles. By the time it killed more than a dozen firefighters, it was over 78 square miles.
The families of the victims were understandably aggrieved and angry. They blamed Dodge for not doing more to save their loved ones. On a national level, the tragedy prompted a national review of firefighting policy and increased funding for fire science. Maclean, who placed a high premium on truth, does question whether the event was a true tragedy. The young men were, after all, brash and self-confident heading to the fire; he views their actions to be at once heroic, foolish, and reflective of human nature.
Maclean concludes Young Men and Fire
with a discussion of why he wrote the work, mostly because all the victims were young, didn’t leave much behind, and deserved to be remembered.