Mann Gulch Fire, 64 years ago today

A wildfire entrapped 15 smokejumpers and a fire guard in Mann Gulch on August 5, 1949 on the Helena National Forest in Montana. The fire took the lives of 13 men and burned nearly 5,000 acres.

The fatalities:

  • Robert J. Bennett
  • Eldon E. Diettert
  • James O. Harrison
  • William J. Hellman
  • Philip R. McVey
  • David R. Navon
  • Leonard L. Piper
  • Stanley J. Reba
  • Marvin L. Sherman
  • Joseph B. Sylvia
  • Henry J. Thol, Jr.
  • Newton R. Thompson
  • Silas R. Thompson
The 13 men who were killed in the Mann Gulch fire. U. S. Forest Service photo.

The story of this fire was told by Norman Maclean in his book “Young Men and Fire“.

The sketch below is from the official report.

In light of the June 30 deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots on the Yarnell Hill Fire and their attempted use of an escape fire to create a refuge zone, you may be interested in a paper that analyzed Smokejumper Foreman Wag Dodge’s escape fire that probably saved his life on the Mann Gulch Fire. In the 27-page document written by Martin E. Alexander, Mark Y. Ackerman, and Gregory J. Baxter, they concluded that the size of Mr. Dodge’s escape fire was about 120 feet by 86 feet when it was overrun by flames from the main fire. Mr. Dodge later told investigators that he explained to the firefighters nearby that after the escape fire spread and cooled in the interior, they should take refuge in the new burned area with him. Unfortunately, none of them did.

The paper includes a statement made by Mr. Dodge that was included in Earl Cooley’s 1984 book, Trimotor and Trail.

When the main fire reached my area, I lay down on the ground on my side and poured water from my canteen on my handkerchief over my mouth and nose and held my face as close to the ground as I could while the flames flashed over me. There were three extreme gusts of hot air that almost lifted me from the ground as the fire passed over me. It was running in the grass and also flashing through the tree tops. By 6:10 p.m. the fire had passed by and I stood up. My clothing had not been scorched and I had no burns.

The Six Minutes for Safety overview of the fire is HERE.

Here is a photo of Mann Gulch taken in 2008, from The Travels of John and Breya.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

2 thoughts on “Mann Gulch Fire, 64 years ago today”

  1. the photo was probably taken from one of the Gates of the Mountains tour boats.

    The top of the ridge you are seeing is where the fire started. No other Mann Gulch Fire points of interest are visible from the mouth of the gulch.

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