70 years ago today: Mann Gulch Fire

Thirteen firefighters, most of them smokejumpers, lost their lives on the fire

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

13 Mann Gulch Victims fatalities 1949
The 13 fatalities at the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949.

The story of this fire was told by Norman Maclean in his book “Young Men and Fire”John’s website has a new page that features a new retrospective on the fire.

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)

map Mann Gulch Fire 1949
Map showing the location of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire.

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.

Mann Gulch
Mann Gulch in 2008, from The Travels of John and Breya.

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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.