Seventy years ago today on August 5, 1949 a wildfire entrapped 15 smokejumpers and a fire guard in Mann Gulch on the Helena National Forest in Montana. The fire took the lives of 13 men and burned nearly 5,000 acres.
The fatalities on the Mann Gulch Fire
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 sketch below is from the official report.
The fire occurred near the Missouri River in Western Montana 20 miles north of downtown Helena, and 6 miles north of the North Hills Fire that burned about 5,000 acres a couple of weeks ago. (see map below)
A paper 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.
Here is a photo of Mann Gulch taken in 2008, from The Travels of John and Breya.