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 the 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, the religious group often mobilized firefighters from their ranks 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 men on the fire — and, the missionaries could not see the rest of the fire.

Before we had a chance to read the entire book, we asked photographer Kari Greer about her experience in collecting 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)


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 re-creation 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 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 almost 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; with Chris Cuoco, the meteorologist who provided insight into the weather events of that day in 1953; Jim Barry, and other contributors. She edited and designed the book in both paperback and kindle, and 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.

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.

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

  1. Thanks Bill. It’s been a real journey for this fire. I finally feel like it’s had its say, and (as Don Will puts it) the teachers there on the Rattlesnake can now be heard. (Hey Don, can you see young Cecil waving today?) 🙂


Comments are closed.