Young Men And Fire

Just up river from the place where we love to fish on the Missouri River in Montana is the site of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire. It’s near the Gates of the Mountain where Lewis Clark once came through in the Helena National Forrest. The fire claimed the lives of 13 firefighters, including 12 smokejumpers.

mann gulch

Wagner Dodge who was leading the team realized that when the blaze “blew up” they would not be able to outrun it, so he used a technique used by Native American Indians to survive grassfires. He started his own fire which uses up all the oxygen and creates a safe place where the wildfire can’t burn. Unfortunately most of the team thought he was nuts and wouldn’t participate, thus they perished. Families of the lost firefighters tried to sue the government for what they perceived as Dodge’s mismanagement of the fire. His “escape fire” technique was very controversial at the time. These days, it’s recognized as a necessary firefighting technique.

It’s hard to peel away from the epic dry fly fishing on the Missouri River but every so often I take time out from the drift boat and instead, travel on one of the Gates of the Mountain Boat Tours that takes you to see the site of the Mann Gulch Fire. I’ve done it four or five times. Every time as I am standing in line with all the tourists, about to board the novelty boat with the tour guide and his headset I am kicking myself that I’m not fishing instead. But the minute the tour starts, I am so grateful I chose to do it. Besides seeing bighorn sheep and Indian pictographs, the Mann Gulf Fire is always a moving experience.

young men and fire Norman Maclean (yes, the same flyfishing literary juggernaut who brought us A River Runs through It) wrote a book about the Mann Gulch Fire called Young Men And Fire. In 1952 the adventure film Red Skies of Montana was released, a fictional adaption of the events of the Mann Gulch Fire.

As you can see, I’ve got fire on my mind. Here in Texas we are experiencing devastating fires across the state. When I flew into Austin yesterday morning you could see plumes of smoke and a bizarre orange-like haze blanketing the sky. Hundreds of families are homeless, a mother and her infant were trapped and burned in the nearby Bastrop. Yesterday we learned that two employees at Little Chick’s school lost their homes and everything so we are collecting donations for them.


It’s bad.


Texans are scrambling to get enough firefighters and equipment. Donation sites are popping up across the state to help those that are now homeless. Most retail stores and restaurants are collecting loose change at the checkout.


If you would like to help, please take a look at this Texas Wildlife Relief Fund created by the state Fireman and Fire Marshall’s Association. My hunch is, these donations will get straight to the frontline here in Texas faster than any other.

And since the other thing raging in Texas this morning is the debate about whether Gov Perry should attend tonight’s GOP debate in California or stay in Texas during this wildfire crisis, I suppose I will suspend my No Politics Policy on this site and weigh in. He needs to stay here. I don’t know if he is going to be the Republican nominee for president or not. But he’s not it right now. He is the Governor of Texas and we are experiencing a terrible natural disaster. He needs to do the job he has first and worry about the one he wants later.

And finally. To the moron who flicked his lit cigarette onto the ground on Barton Springs Road this morning, this is for you:


5 Responses to “Young Men And Fire”
  1. Rod says:

    An essay from The Norman Maclean Reader entitled, “Black Ghost” reads, “…Maclean imagined for himself: that of a career Forest Service employee, possibly a wildland firefighter, even a Smokejumper.” In this book he further recounts from Chapter 8, From Young Men and Fire. Brave men. Good stuff.

  2. Melissa says:

    Wow, what a post. I’m not even sure what to say other than my heart goes out to all of you Texans. Hang in there. Sending good energy your way.

    PS LOVE the Willie Nelson salutation. Perfect!

  3. Steven Koch says:

    Interesting to use the Native American Indians knowledge to help fight the grass fire. Smart idea, it all makes since to fight the grass fires like that. Those that stuck by Wagner Dodge were lucky.

  4. 2jay says:

    That’s the irony. No one stuck by Dodge. The rest ran, and three made it over the ridge. One of those three died from his burns, together with the rest of the crew that tried to outrun the blaze roaring upgulch. Dodge was pilloried. Parents of some of the other firefighters blamed him for their sons’ deaths. A fascinating book.

  5. It’s really an incredible story.

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