The Back Story: The Development of the “River of Fire” book

Earlier we wrote a review of John N. Maclean’s book that he officially released today, River of Fire: The Rattlesnake Fire and the Mission Boys. It covers the 15 fatalities that occurred July 9, 1953 on Rattlesnake Fire on the Mendocino National Forest in Northern California. Of those, 14 were members of the New Tribes Mission based at a nearby facility at Fouts Springs. Known to the locals as missionaries, they often mobilized firefighters from their group as needed when fires were burning in the area. The 15th person killed was a Forest Service employee who had volunteered to carry food to the missionaries who were working on a spot fire down in a drainage where they could not be seen by the other personnel on the fire. And, the missionaries could not see the rest of the fire.

Before having a chance to read the entire book, we asked photographer Kari Greer about her experience in providing the images. We also asked Mr. Maclean some general questions about the book and how it was different from Fire and Ashes published 15 years ago.

Their emailed responses are below — first, Ms. Greer:


Maclean’s objective in having me photograph for River of Fire, in my mind was to personalize the events of the Rattlesnake Fire in 1953 for a current audience, to make it visceral and logical. Since it happened so long ago it’s easy to perceive the legend with remote nostalgia. It’s an innocuous-seeming minor drainage and that’s where the warning lies. The chaparral fuel type and the now well-worn route of the race with fire (and subsequent recovery road) are cautionary for any slope at risk for sundowner winds.

I think a visual tour helps the mind process what to look for in other similar scenarios. The lessons are there and Don Will, Daren Dalrymple, Jon Tishner and Jim Barry have kept the hallowed site a laboratory for further introspection and reverence. It’s a heavy place loaded with ghosts who have something to teach us. Their help on-site was invaluable, I could not have seen the nuances without their expertise.


(From Mr. Maclean)

Summary:

River of Fire has a very different theme from my first account of the Rattlesnake Fire, published in 2003 in Fire and Ashes. That version included the first extended account of the motives of the arsonist, Stan Pattan, a recreation of the events of the fire by more than 30 firefighters – the first semi-formal staff ride at the site – and a detailed check of the credibility of the fire report, which passed. River of Fire updates all those items, but its theme looks to the future: Passing It On.

In the years since Fire and Ashes first appeared the site of the Rattlesnake Fire has been recovered, the old firelines opened, and an explanatory memorial installed. Its lessons are being passed on to new generations of firefighters and others. These days hundreds of firefighters go there every year as part of a formal staff ride. Families of the fallen have visited the site and reconnected to lost parents, friends, and their own pasts. As stories of these encounters came in over the years I added them to the story – sometimes I wouldn’t touch the manuscript for a couple of years; other times I spent weeks in research and writing. One sad effect of the passage of time has been the loss of living memory, as participants and witnesses came to the ends of their lives, sometimes only a few days after talking to me. Earlier this year I looked at the manuscript and realized it had grown enough in bulk and scope to justify an update. Once Kelly Andersson, my longtime editor, and I started to pull it together this spring it became clear the Rattlesnake Fire had turned into a living event, its lessons now bright and alive to a new generation of firefighters. The contrast with what I had found two decades ago – a forgotten, overgrown canyon site fading into history – was extreme.

River of Fire quickly turned into a community project, a telling of the tale through the eyes of people who have lived for decades with the effects of the fire. Three past superintendents of the Mendocino Hotshots – Don Will, Daren Dalrymple and Jon Tishner, keepers of the flame – helped enormously, and many others willingly told their stories. River of Fire contains everything that was in the old version: a precise account of what happened July 9, 1953, and the immediate aftermath. But as Will correctly states in his foreword, the Rattlesnake Fire has become a story of resurrection.

River of Fire would not have happened without the sustained enthusiasm of Andersson, who once lived in Willows herself, frequented Nancy’s Café, and knew some of these people. Andersson kept after me for years until I had the material for a new book. She then made contact with Kari Greer, whose photos bring the new reality crackling to life. She worked with the hotshot superintendents; Chris Cuoco, the meteorologist who provided insight into the weather events of that day in 1953; Jim Barry and others. The result is a deeper examination of a once nearly forgotten story, restored by a community to its rightful place as a landmark in the history of wildland fire.

John N. Maclean releases new book about the Rattlesnake Fire

When I worked at Log Springs in 1968 on the Mendocino National Forest in Northern California I don’t remember much discussion about the catastrophe that killed 15 wildland firefighters only a couple of dozen miles away 15 years before. The Rattlesnake Fire was not a huge campaign fire that blackened tens of thousands of acres and took weeks to contain. It burned about 1,300 acres and was declared under control roughly 40 hours after Stan Pattan threw the match out the window of his green Buick, July 9, 1953.

All but one of the firefighters that perished that day were affiliated with the New Tribes Mission based at a nearby facility at Fouts Springs. Known to the locals as missionaries, they often mobilized firefighters from their group as needed when fires were burning in the area. Some had taken fire training, and others had none. The 15th person killed was a Forest Service employee who had volunteered to carry food to the missionaries who were working on a spot fire at night down in a drainage where they could not be seen by the other personnel on the fire. And, the missionaries could not see the rest of the fire.

book river of fire john macleanJohn N. Maclean, an author well known in wildland fire circles for his previous work, has released a new book about the Rattlesnake Fire, titled River of Fire: The Rattlesnake Fire and the Mission Boys. The official release is today, June 23 at the 75th Region 4 Smokejumper Reunion in McCall, Idaho.

The book builds on the piece about the fire that Mr. Maclean included in his Fire and Ashes book published in 2003 which also had sections about three additional wildland fire topics. The new book adds more details and includes information from, and sections written by, firefighters who have recently worked in the area, including three past superintendents of the Mendocino Hotshots. There are also photos freshly-taken by Kari Greer, a photographer who specializes in wildland fire. Mr. Maclean told us that one of the themes of this book is “Passing It On”, which is the title of the foreword written in May, 2018 by Don Will, Superintendent of the Mendocino Hotshots from 1988 to 1994. The book explains that the Mendocino Hotshots were the unofficial caretakers of the tragedy site for years.

River of Fire has a number very compelling stories scattered throughout. For example, it describes the process of developing the first air tanker that could drop water on a fire. In the early 1950’s there had been some attempts at designing an apparatus that could drop water from an airplane, but everything was crude and not effective. Two years after the fire, in 1955, Joe Ely, the fire control officer on the Mendocino who also helped fight the Rattlesnake Fire, worked with a crop-duster pilot named Vance Nolta who designed a tank with a gate and a dump valve that could be operated from the cockpit. A test of the system on a fire intentionally ignited along a runway at the Willows, California airport was a success. Later that year it was first used on a wildfire near Covelo on the Mendocino National Forest.

There is also a touching story about a young child who lived at the Fouts Springs missionary camp when the fire started in 1953. Her father was killed in the fire, and as she grew up her mother did not talk about him or how he died. But in 2010 she found information about the tragedy online and had to find out more. After driving eight hours from Oregon she contacted the Forest Supervisor’s office in Willows and asked for directions.  Here is an excerpt from one of the later sections of the book:

…Instead, they acquired two eager tour guides, the former and current hotshot superintendents [Daren] Dalrymple and [Jon] Tishner, who volunteered to take them to the site and show them around. “I knew there had to be people like her out there,” Dalrymple said. “It was the best day on the hill I’ve ever had.”

The tragedy led to the development of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders as well as changes in wildland fire training, safety standards, and awareness of weather and fire behavior.

memorial 1953 Rattlesnake Fire
Part of the memorial at the site of the 1953 Rattlesnake Fire. Larry Cregger photo, 2005.

For decades there was not much at the site to identify it or interpret what took place on that fateful day. In 1993 a plaque was installed that had the names of the firefighters that perished, and in 2005 a new interpretive and training site overlooking the area in Grindstone Canyon was built on the old Alder Springs Road. It features exhibits describing the events that day in 1953, and trails lead visitors along the routes taken by those 15 firefighters, and the ones who survived.

The development of the memorial and the maintenance of the trails and the original firelines and dozer lines help to facilitate the numerous visits and staff rides each year. Passing on the lessons learned to new generations of firefighters can help build up their knowledge base about fire behavior and weather and may keep them from repeating some of the unfortunate decisions that led to the deaths of 14 missionaries and one agency employee.

There are, of course, other wildfires where large numbers of wildland firefighters died — the 1910 fires (85 killed), the Griffith Park Fire in 1933 in a Los Angeles City Park (29, most were not firefighters but were pulled from other tasks to work on the fire), Blackwater Fire of 1937 (15), Mann Gulch of 1949 (13), Inaja in 1956 (11), South Canyon Fire of 1994 (14), and the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire (19).

We asked Mr. Maclean for permission to use an excerpt from the book (longer than the brief one above), and this is what he sent us:

During the photo shoot for this book this spring, Kari Greer, photographer, and Daren Dalrymple, former Mendocino Hotshot Superintendent, ran into two young men, a former firefighter and a hopeful one, hiking the firelines at the site.

“When Daren and I were up there,” said Kari, “these two guys drove up and chatted with us briefly when we were shooting near the Gillaspy ranch. They said they were headed for the Rattlesnake site and they proceeded on to the Overlook. They must have stopped there, paid respects and read about the fire, and then walked around a bit from there.”

She said the two continued all the way up to Powderhouse Turn, while she and Daren stayed at the Overlook wrapping up the photo shoot. They watched as the hikers made their way along the stand trails and the staff ride locations, spotting them now and then through the brush and across the canyon on the north slope.

“It was interesting to see it to scale,” said Kari, “the size of the guys hiking in the chaparral and their pace as they traversed the landscape. They did the entire thing, even going down to Cecil Hitchcock’s cross at the bottom and clear up to Stanley Vote’s cross at the top. This showed us that they knew the history and were doing the full experience.

“Daren and I made our way up to Powderhouse Turn, and we caught up with them as they were hiking out, coming up the Access Route that goes downhill to the Missionary Spot Fire. We talked a bit more with the two of them and learned that José Gonzalez was here being mentored by Daniel Hartrum, who is a former firefighter, now a teacher. José was working hard; he was wearing a Pack Test Vest and carrying a tool. They told us he was hoping to get hired onto a crew and Daniel was giving him some field experience at the site.”

The book is very well written and edited, as usual for a John N. Maclean product. As mentioned above, much of the content is from the Fire and Ashes book published 15 years ago, but there is a good deal of new text and updated information covering what has transpired in the intervening years. The contributions by the three hotshot superintendents are especially valuable. I recommend this book for Students of Fire and all wildland firefighters for the lessons that can be learned, especially if they have not read the Fire and Ashes book. It would be a good reading assignment before participating in a staff ride at the site.

The black and white photos are helpful to figure out the context and geography. The electronic version expected late this summer or autumn will have Kari’s photos in all their glorious color. It will be available for Amazon Kindle devices or apps, and Apple products.

Related: read “The Back Story: The Development of the River of Fire book”.

The video below, uploaded to YouTube in 2017, shows the memorial site and some of the crosses marking the locations where the firefighters lost their lives.

Other books written by John N. Maclean: The Thirtymile Fire, Fire and Ashes, Fire on the Mountain, and The Esperanza Fire.

Errors in a review of a book about the Yarnell Hill Fire

The article below was written by John N. Maclean and Holly Neill.

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The Wall Street Journal and Fire

By John Maclean and Holly Neill

Kyle Dickman’s new book, On the Burning Edge, about hotshot culture and the Yarnell Hill Fire, has been reviewed in the Saturday, May 23, edition of the Wall Street Journal by Mark Yost, who is identified as a firefighter and paramedic from Highwood, Illinois. The review makes a number of errors and misleading assertions about fire policy and the Yarnell Hill Fire independent of the material in Dickman’s book. Journal reviews receive respectful attention, but the review is wrong on so many points that it should be answered in a timely fashion–Maclean is preparing a review of Dickman’s book for the Journal of Forestry, but that won’t appear for several months.

Yost writes: “The policy of letting low burns do their work was in place until the 1980s, when environmentalists began lobbying for letting underbrush and tracts of forest go uncut, unmanaged and uncleared by small fires. The result was denser forests and forest beds of virtual kindling.”

Response: As every student of wildfire knows, after the Big Burn of 1910 the Forest Service developed a policy, in force for many decades, to put out all fires by 10 AM the morning after they were spotted.

Yost writes: “The Yarnell assignment came on a Sunday, normally a day off for the crew. The fire, started by lightning the day before…”

Response: The fire was started Friday, June 28, 2013, two days before the fatalities occurred on Sunday.

Yost writes: “When the Granite Mountain crew arrived, the flames were closing in on the small town of Yarnell.”

Response: When the Granite Mountain crew arrived on Sunday morning, the flames, which were far from Yarnell, were headed north and away from the town, toward Peeples Valley.

Yost writes that the lookout, Brendan McDonough, was in his fourth season.

Response: McDonough was in the beginning of his third season.

Yost writes that when the fire turned toward Yarnell, in the afternoon, McDonough “was no longer in a position to see what was going on and warn his crewmates.”

Response: McDonough reported to Jesse Steed, acting Granite Mountain Superintendent (normally assistant superintendent) that he could see that the fire had reached his trigger point and he was departing, which he did. At that point, photo and other evidence proves that Steed and the other hotshots could see exactly what the fire was doing.

Yost writes that Eric Marsh, (normally the superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots), was “attached to the command staff on the day of the Yarnell fire, he was at first stationed in a makeshift outpost along a highway.”

Response: Marsh was never stationed at a makeshift outpost. He led the crew to the fire by scouting ahead and flagging an upward route. As far as being “attached to the command staff,” Marsh was made division Alpha supervisor and performed that duty in the field.

Yost writes: “The Granite Mountain crew had left the black and were working on the side of a hill, a dangerous position, Mr. Dickman explains, because it put them in danger of the fire coming down on top of them.

Response: The hotshots were digging direct handline, with one foot in the black, on the side of the hill. There was risk of the fire coming up to them from below, not coming down on top of them from the black above.

Yost writes: “Some investigators have speculated that, when the wind reversed, sending flames speeding toward the firefighters, they made a desperate attempt to get to a nearby horse farm and just didn’t make it.”

Response: No serious investigator has made that charge. It is agreed, and supported by photo and recorded radio exchanges as well as interview accounts, that the hotshots deliberately left their position and headed toward the ranch, which was identified as a safety zone. The ranch is not a horse farm: it is owned by Lee and DJ Helm who keep pets, including miniature horses, donkeys and shelter animals.

Yost writes about the fatalities, “In the event, the fire moved so fast that rescuers were able to get to the team within minutes—but too late.”

Response: Firefighters work as crews, not as teams. It took an hour and 43 minutes, or 103 minutes, from the time Eric Marsh said over the radio that the crew was deploying until a medic reached the deployment site, according to official investigation records.

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The book review in the Wall Street Journal can be seen HERE, but you generally have to be a paid subscriber to view it. However, mobile phone users can sometimes read it without a subscription.

John N. Maclean has written several books about wildland fire, including “Fire on the Mountain”, “Fire and Ashes”, and “The Thirtymile Fire”. His most recent book, “The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57”, is slated to be made into a movie. Currently he is working on a book about the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Last survivor of Mann Gulch Fire dies

Mann Gulch Fire
Investigators on the Mann Gulch Fire looking south from Foreman Dodge’s escape fire.

The last of the three firefighters who survived the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire died Monday. Robert Sallee passed away from complications following open heart surgery.

Mr. Sallee was 17 when he parachuted into the Helena National Forest (map) above the fire along with 14 other smokejumpers from Hale Field in Missoula, Montana. As the crew worked their way toward the bottom of the fire at the Missouri River, the winds changed causing the fire below them to blow up and begin moving in their direction. As the crew retreated up the steep slope, Foreman Wagner Dodge lit an escape fire in the light fuels and told the rest of the crew to join him in the burned area, but none of them did. Mr. Sallee and another crewman, Walter B. Rumsey, took a different route than the other smokejumpers, squirming their way through a narrow crevice in a rim rock, finding much better conditions in a rock scree on the other side of the ridge. Foreman Dodge, when the main fire caught up with his escape fire, eventually followed the other two where the three of them had to keep moving around in the rock scree as the fire burned around them. The blowup burned about 3,000 acres, claiming the lives of 12 of the smokejumpers and one former smokejumper who had been fighting the fire for 4 hours before the jumpers arrived.

Foreman Dodge died five years later from Hodgkin’s disease, and Mr. Rumsey died in an airplane crash in 1980.

Norman Maclean wrote Young Men and Fire, a book about the smokejumpers and their demise in Mann Gulch. His son, John N. Maclean helped to edit and make some of the finishing touches on the book which was published in 1992, two years after his father’s death. John said that Mr. Sallee became a companion for Norman while he was collecting information for the book, and in later years was very generous in telling his story about the fire. John said Mr. Sallee had abundant social skills and “was almost courtly in his personal manner”. John later wrote Fire on the Mountain about the 1994 South Canyon Fire that killed 14 firefighters in Colorado.

About eight years after the Mann Gulch fire the “Ten Standard Firefighting Orders”  were developed and incorporated into firefighter training.

Funeral arrangements are pending at Hazen and Jaeger Valley Funeral Home in Spokane, Washington.

 

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Jay, Dave, Steve, Chris, and Shaun.

Wildfire briefing, March 30, 2014

Prescribed fire smoke in Manhattan, Kansas
Prescribed fire smoke in Manhattan, Kansas, March 29, 2014. Photo by Eric Ward.

Prescribed fire smoke in the Flint Hills

In light of the discussion on Wildfire Today about prescribed fire as a tourist attraction in the Flint Hills of Kansas, Eric Ward sent us the above photo that he took Saturday afternoon in smoky Manhattan, Kansas. He explained that many of the ranchers in the area conduct extensive burning projects this time of the year in order to enhance weight gains of cattle if they plan to stock pastures in May. On days when the relative humidity and wind speed are within an acceptable range, the evidence of the burning is very visible in the atmosphere, especially if weather for the previous week or so has been bouncing between snow and red flag weather conditions, as it has this year.

Colorado report recommends contracting for air tankers and helicopters

Colorado Firefighting Air CorpsA long-awaited report about aerial firefighting by state agencies in Colorado was released Friday by the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC). Some of the more significant recommendations include:

  • Increase the number of Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) on exclusive use contracts from two to four.
  • Contract for the exclusive use of four Type 3 or larger rotor-wing aircraft. (Type 3 helicopters can carry 100 to 300 gallons.)
  • Contract for the exclusive use of two Type 2 or larger air tankers. (Type 2 air tankers can carry 1,800 to 3,000 gallons). The contingency, if the State is unable to contract for two air tankers, is to contract for two helitankers, or a combination of one fixed-wing air tanker and one helitanker.

More details are at Fire Aviation.

Arizona seeks to immunize the state from liability from wildfires

A bill that was approved unanimously Tuesday by the Arizona Senate Appropriations Committee, House Bill 2343, would exempt the state and state employees from prosecution for harm resulting from the action, or inaction by state employees on state lands. Hundreds of millions of dollars in claims have been filed by the families of the 19 firefighters killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire and by property owners whose homes burned. The fire was managed by the state of Arizona in June, 2013.

Firefighters assisting with Oso landslide

Personnel that usually can be found at wildfires are helping to manage the response to the tragic landslide at Oso, Washington. We have reports that some of the resources assisting include Washington Incident Management Team #4 (a Type 2 team), miscellaneous overhead, and some Washington Department of Natural Resources chain saw teams. The IMTeam was dispatched on March 27.

New topic from “Safety Matters”

The “Safety Matters” group has released their “Topic #5”, and they are seeking input from wildland firefighters. Below is an excerpt:

…2014 marks the 20th Anniversary of South Canyon and the 38th Anniversary of Battlement Creek. Both fires fit the model of firefighters dying in a brush fuel type, on a slope, during hot and dry conditions.

The loss of the Granite Mountain Hotshots indicates that a significant accident occurs every 18 to 20 years. Is there a reoccurring cycle, and if so why? Could it be related to a cyclic turnover of firefighter culture, training and attitude? What are the thoughts of Safety Matters readers?

Bushfire season ends in New South Wales

The bushfire season has reached its official end in New South Wales.

Tribute to author Norman Maclean

The Daily Beast has reprinted an excellent essay that Pete Dexter wrote for Esquire in 1981 about Norman Maclean. It explores a side of of the author that is not revealed in his book about firefighters, Young Men and Fire. Mr. Dexter spent quite a bit of time with Mr. Maclean, who at that time was writing the final chapter. Mr. Maclean also wrote A River Runs Through It, which was made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. The Esperanza Fire, a book written by his son John N. Maclean, is working its way towards becoming a movie.

U.S. National Guard assists with fire in Puerto Rico

From the AP:

Puerto Rico has enlisted the U.S. National Guard to help extinguish a fire that has ravaged a forest in the island’s central region. Firefighting Chief Angel Crespo says that about 40 percent of the Modelo Forest in the town of Adjuntas has been destroyed. Authorities say they believe the fire was intentionally set and that it has consumed up to 290 acres (117 hectares). A U.S. National Guard helicopter helped dump water over the area on Friday.

Fantastic photo

Update from John Maclean about Yarnell Hill Fire

John N. Maclean and Holly Neill sent us some updated information about their quest to ferret out details about what happened on the Yarnell Hill Fire the day 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed outside of Yarnell, Arizona, June 30, 2013. The text below builds on their previous information that we published here and here.

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“The discussion about what actually was said by members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and others in the final minutes before the fatalities on the Yarnell Hill Fire has sometimes been instructive. But the online discussion is missing the larger picture.

The radio transmissions uncovered in the background by Holly Neill conclusively show that the hotshots were communicating extensively, and not just among themselves, during the critical period from just after 1600 hours until the end. There was no substantial gap in communications, one of the several allegations used in effect to discredit the decision making and actions of the hotshots, and in particular of their superintendent, Eric Marsh. On the contrary, Marsh’s voice can be heard — and has been authenticated by those who knew him — making several radio transmissions during the crucial time. Perhaps the person or persons to whom Marsh was speaking in several of those transmissions could come forward: there is no mention of these conversations in any of the interviews with participants.

What the background communications do not show, at least not so far, is any formal communication by Marsh or anyone else explaining why the hotshots left the ridge and headed down into what became known as deployment valley. The background transmissions also do not disclose, at least so far, any direct order to the hotshots to go down to Yarnell and engage in structure protection.

Put in context, however, the background transmissions add a great deal to the picture of what happened, and what likely happened, during those final minutes. Obsessing about a single word, “house,” is appropriate up to a point. That’s the word Holly and I and many others hear in that one of several conversations we disclosed; it is not the word everyone hears. It would be best, perhaps, if investigators for the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health, who are well alerted to the background communications, could have the recordings analyzed by some outside audio expert and themselves make a report. Meanwhile, a consideration of those transmissions should not be restricted to the credibility of one word, with everything hanging on that, but rather should look at what all the communications say about what happened, because they add new, contrary, and vital information to the picture of those events.”