Dick Rothermel’s collaboration with Norman Maclean

Dick Rothermel
Dick Rothermel

The Missoulian has an article about how Norman Maclean, in researching the fire behavior on the Mann Gulch fire in 1979, sought out Dick Rothermel of the Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula when Maclean was working on his “Young Men and Fire” book. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Rothermel, an aeronautical engineer, had developed a fire-spread model at the lab in 1972. It’s a model that, while technologically enhanced over the years, remains the engine of tools used to predict fire behavior today.

At first his involvement with Maclean’s book was “something I really didn’t want to do,” Rothermel told a packed room Thursday at the fire sciences lab’s weekly seminar series.

Controversy still swirled around the Mann Gulch fire, in which 13 firefighters died, and he had no desire to reopen emotional wounds. But the tragedy was what spawned establishment of the research lab itself, which recruited Rothermel shortly after it opened in 1960.

“We set up a communication that went on for several years while (Maclean) was back at the University of Chicago, and when he’d come to Seeley Lake and hang out, he’d come and see us,” Rothermel said.

They went to work on Mann Gulch questions that Maclean felt remained unanswered. How did the fire near the Missouri River north of Helena get from a ridge above the firefighters to the mouth of the gulch below? Where did the men go and why couldn’t they escape? Did the escape fire that saved foreman Wag Dodge’s life overtake his own crew?

“We never could get it straight, in (Maclean’s) mind anyway, as to just what happened until finally I worked out a diagram,” said Rothermel.

The graph shows the rate of spread of the fire and the rate of travel of the men, and how “they finally meet in a race that couldn’t be won,” he said. Maclean used it in “Young Men and Fire.” In 1993, the Forest Service published the chart along with Rothermel’s own assessment of the day in a 10-page pamphlet called “Mann Gulch Fire: A Race That Couldn’t Be Won.” Rothermel has high praise for Maclean’s work, calling it “an almost poetic rendition of what happened that day.”

“Norman was kind of a feisty little guy, and he was an English professor,” Rothermel said, recalling the days of scientific discussion with Maclean and fellow fire scientist Frank Albini.

“Norman would look at us and we’d get into ‘rate of spread’ and ‘flame lengths’ and ‘heat content,’ and pretty soon his eyes would glaze over. He’d start saying how strong these young men were. His main thought in this book was the young men themselves, and the tragedy that occurred.”

Rothermel retired from the fire lab 15 years ago. When Norman Maclean died in 1990 the book that he had worked on for 14 years was still not finished, but his son, John N. Maclean completed some editing on the book and it was published in 1992.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

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.