How the Mann Gulch Fire became part of the conversation about COVID-19

Seventy years ago 13 firefighters died fighting a wildfire north of Helena, Montana

Mann Gulch aerial photo
From Richard C. Rothermel’s 1993 publication, “Mann Gulch Fire: A Race that Couldn’t be Won”.

“Remember the story about Mann Gulch? We are at the equivalent of about 5:44,” said Dr. Carter Mecher, Senior Medical Advisor for the Department of Veteran Affairs. He was referring to the time when 16 firefighters faced a fire burning uphill below them, forcing the crew to attempt an escape up a steep slope.

In email messages about the COVID-19 pandemic published April 11 by the New York Times, the Mann Gulch Fire was mentioned three times. It was apparent that many if not most of the dozens of medical experts participating in the message threads were familiar with the references.

Here are excerpts from the messages published by the Times, all written by Dr. Mecher:

  • February 20:  …Remember the story about Mann Gulch? We are at the equivalent of about 5:44. I anticipate that when we reach 5:45, there is going to be chaos and panic to get anything in place. I doubt that what we would then hurriedly put in place will be any better than what they did on that cruise ship . As a consequence, would expect much the same results.
  • February 27:  …That would suggest we already have a significant outbreak and are well behind the curve. We are now well past the equivalent 5:45 moment at Mann Gulch. You can’t outrun it.
  • March 12:   …There is no value to these travel restrictions. A waste of time and energy. The lesson from Mann Gulch was to drop those things that are not essential. That lesson was not heeded. I wouldn’t waste a moment of time on travel restrictions or travel screening. We have nearly as much disease here in the US as the countries in Europe.

For the last 70 years wildland firefighters have studied the fire that killed 13 men who were fighting a wildfire north of Helena, Montana. Lessons can be learned about leadership, communication, fire behavior, firefighting tactics, and improvisation during an emergency.

(More details about the fire are farther down)

I was not aware that the Mann Gulch story had spread like a virus into a much broader audience.

In an interview, Dr. Mecher said he first heard in 1999 about what the medical community could learn from the Mann Gulch fire from a lecture by Don Berwick, former head of the Medicare program and cofounder of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Mr. Berwick has spoken about it many times and is the author of “Escape Fire: Lessons for the Future of Health Care”, where several of the 56 pages explore what happened on that steep slope above the Missouri River in 1949.

Escape Fire Don Berwick

Dr. Mecher said the use of an escape fire during the Mann Gulch Fire, which was the first documented use of the tactic,”… pointed to innovation in an emergency on the fly. It also spoke to us of a very fast-moving event and what the consequences were in terms of what happened to many of the firefighters. Years ago when we were working on developing a pandemic plan, or a plan for responding to a disease outbreak, it was one of the stories that we told each other to put ourselves in the setting of a fast-moving event.

Mann Gulch escape fire
Dodge’s escape fire. From Richard C. Rothermel’s 1993 publication, “Mann Gulch Fire: A Race that Couldn’t be Won”.

“I found it a riveting story,” Dr. Mecher continued, “and when we told it to other people I think they found it the same way. It’s a very powerful story. It kind of gets people into the game, to understand this is what it could feel like and that’s why we referenced back to it several times.

Mann Gulch fire wildfire exponential curve
From Richard C. Rothermel’s 1993 publication, “Mann Gulch Fire: A Race that Couldn’t be Won”.

Dr. Mecher referred to the chart from Richard C. Rothermel’s 1993 publication, “Mann Gulch Fire: A Race that Couldn’t be Won”, and said, “That curve looks like an epidemic curve. Fire spreads exponentially and an epidemic spreads exponentially.”

At Mann Gulch after the men had been running for 8 minutes up the hill ahead of the flames, the crew boss, Wag Dodge, told them to drop their tools and keep moving, something that had not been covered in their training.

“The lesson was,” Mr. Mecher said, “if you’re in one of those events sometimes you have to be smart enough to know that you have to drop some things. You can’t outrun it. It moves too quickly. That was a lesson for us, thinking about fast-moving events like epidemics. By the time you realize what you’re in, it’s like a fire. It moves so quickly that it can overcome you.

“One of the things we drew from that story was, ‘What is the equivalent of an escape fire’ “.

After I interviewed Dr. Mecher, I received an email from him that summed up his thoughts about the lessons his medical community learned from the Mann Gulch Fire:

  1. You cannot wait for the smoke to clear. Once you see things clearly it is already too late. You will need to be comfortable living with uncertainty and incomplete information and make the best decisions you can.
  2. You can’t outrun a wildfire or an epidemic. By the time you turn to run, it is already upon you.
  3. In an emergency, you need to figure out what is important and what is not. And that means you might need to drop things you thought, or were taught were essential, and hold on to those things that are the most important. You just need the wisdom to discern the difference between what is important and what isn’t — and the strength to drop things that aren’t important.
  4. And when in the middle of a fast moving crisis, continue to ask yourself, “What is the equivalent of an escape fire?”

A word from John N. Maclean on the topic

A book about the fire, “Young Men and Fire,” was written by Norman Maclean. He passed away before the book was finalized, and his son John N. Maclean, continued the project, editing it before it went to the printer.

I asked John by email about the references in the emails to Mann Gulch:

“It’s tempting to criticize Dr. Mecher for using the Mann Gulch Fire to push a fatalistic notion, that once you’ve crossed a crucial point you should drop your tools and run like hell,” John wrote. “He does in fact say: ‘There is no value to these travel restrictions. A waste of time and energy. The lesson from Mann Gulch was to drop those things that are not essential. That lesson was not heeded. I wouldn’t waste a moment of time on travel restrictions or travel screening.’

“Mecher was wrong about travel restrictions, which have proved to be valuable tools in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. But he was right and early and brave about the general situation, calling for strong actions weeks and months before they were undertaken. In the full context of his reported remarks, it appears he used the Mann Gulch Fire mostly to sound an alarm that immediate action was necessary to avoid a calamitous outcome: right on.

“It’s heartening to see lessons from the fire world make their way into thinking about other disasters. Dropping tools, though, is probably not the best lesson here. The two Standard Firefighting Orders most closely linked to the Mann Gulch Fire offer much in the way of relevant wisdom: Know what your fire is doing at all times. Give clear instructions and ensure they are understood.

After 70 years, do we sometimes take lessons from Mann Gulch for granted?

Most wildland firefighters who have been around for more than a couple of years, and especially those who have read “Young Men and Fire”, are very familiar with the Mann Gulch Fire, but I wonder if we sometimes take it for granted, not seeing the forest for the trees. Not only do many in the emerging disease community know about the lessons that can be learned, but others do as well.

Mr. Berwick’s “Escape Fire” has a photo of a group of people sitting on the steep slope in Montana’s Mann Gulch. Below it is the caption, “Learning from disaster. A group of students from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania learn vital lessons in teamwork, communication, and improvisation from the Mann Gulch tragedy.”

Some firefighters have also cross-trained, taking Staff Rides to learn how military leaders, for example, made decisions in stressful rapidly-evolving situations.

Staff ride Battle of San Pasqual
Don Garwood, former Incident Management Team Incident Commander speaks to participants about the Battle of San Pasqual in San Diego County. Photo by Heather Thurston.

Other mentions of “fire” in the emails

“Fire”, unrelated to the Mann Gulch, was mentioned at least four other times in the emails published by the NY Times:

  • “Any big or urban cities are going to face the challenges in containment, and the homeless population needs to be taken care of. If there is any infection there, it will spread like fire.”
  • “By the time you have substantial community transmission it is too late. It’s like ignoring the smoke detector and waiting until your entire house is on fire to call the fire dept.”
  • “I don’t know what medical reserve we have and we have multiple fires burning simultaneously.”
  • “Now, everyone is fighting their local fire, and it’s already quite stressful for everyone. I don’t even know if anyone has extra resources.”

A brief description of the Mann Gulch Fire 

On the Mann Gulch Fire 15 smokejumpers and a fire guard were led by their leader, Wag Dodge, down a steep slope toward the Missouri River in an attempt to get below a fire, where they could attack it more safely than being above it. They knew that fire spreads much more rapidly uphill than downhill — usually.

As they hiked down the slope, spot fires appeared 150 to 200 yards below them in a stand of timber, so they turned around and proceeded back up the grassy slope. Their pace picked up as the fire grew quickly toward them. They moved as rapidly as possible, running where they could on the rocky 76 percent slope as the wind pushed the fire up the hill through the grass.

About eight minutes into their retreat back uphill, Dodge told the men to drop their tools so they could move faster, a concept that was very contradictory to their training to always take care of their Pulaskis and shovels. Two minutes later Dodge took matches out of his pocket and set the grass on fire to the great surprise of the other 15 firefighters. He told them to join him in the burned area but no one did. This was the first documented case of what became known as an escape fire. Dodge remained in the blackened area as two men climbed over a rim rock side ridge and survived in a rock slide. Dodge was not injured but the fire caught and killed the other 13 firefighters further up the hill. About 12 minutes had elapsed since the crew encountered the spot fire which forced them to turn around and head back uphill.

Researchers concluded that Dodge’s escape fire was about 120 feet by 86 feet when it was overrun by flames from the main fire.

A biography of Dr. Carter Mecher, from the National Institutes for Health website:

Senior Medical Advisor/CDC Liaison
Carter Mecher, M.D. (Planning Committee Member), is the Director for Medical Preparedness Policy on the White House Homeland Security Council. He supports the development of federal policies to enhance public health, biodefense, and pandemic preparedness. He served as a member of the White House National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Writing and Implementation Team. He has served as the chief medical officer of the VA’s Southeast Network since 1996. As chief medical officer, Dr. Mecher was responsible for all VA health care services in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. Dr. Mecher received his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois and his medical degree from Chicago Medical School. He completed a medicine residency and fellowship in critical care medicine at Los Angeles County-University of Southern California.

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.

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 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 on July 9, 1953.

All but one of the firefighters who 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 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 suppers down 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 men on the fire — and the missionaries could not see the rest of the fire either.

 river of fire by 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:  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 previous story about the fire that Maclean included in his Fire and Ashes book published in 2003 — which also included sections about three other 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 new photos by Kari Greer, a photographer who specializes in wildland fire.

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, who was superintendent of the Mendocino Hotshots from 1988 to 1994. The book explains that the Mendocino Hotshots were for years the unofficial caretakers of the tragedy site.

“I knew there had to be people like her out there,” Dalrymple said.

River of Fire has a number of very compelling stories scattered throughout. For example, it describes the process of developing the first airtanker that could drop water on a fire: In the early 1950s there were attempts at designing an apparatus that could drop water from an airplane, but everything was crude and not very effective. Two years after the fire, though, in 1955 Joe Ely, the fire control officer on the Mendocino who had helped  fight the Rattlesnake Fire, worked with a cropduster 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 that was intentionally ignited along a runway at the Willows airport) was a success.

Later that year the new prototype airtanker was first used on a fire near Covelo on the Mendocino National Forest.

In this book 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 had died. But in 2010 she found information about the tragedy online — and decided she had to find out more. After driving eight hours south 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, in which she tells about family members meeting up with Daren Dalrymple and Jon Tishner:

… Instead, they acquired two eager tour guides, the former and current hotshot superintendents Dalrymple and 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 1953 tragedy contributed directly to the 1957 development of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders — and 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 had happened on that fateful day. In 1993 a plaque was installed with the names of the firefighters who had perished there, 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 on the site lead visitors along the desperate escape routes followed by those 15 firefighters.

The development of the memorial and the maintenance of the trails and the original firelines and dozer lines help support 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 back in 1953.

There are, of course, other wildfires in which 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), the 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 Maclean for permission to use an excerpt from the book (longer than the brief one here), 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 Greer, “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 Dalrymple stayed at the overlook wrapping up the photo shoot. They watched as the two hikers made their way along the stand trails and the staff ride locations, spotting the two men now and then through the brush and across the canyon on the north slope.

“It was interesting to see it to scale,” said Greer, “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 kindle version of the book expected later this summer or autumn will have Kari’s photos in all their glorious color. It will be available for both Amazon kindle 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 by John N. Maclean: The Thirtymile Fire, Fire and Ashes, Fire on the Mountain, and The Esperanza Fire.

Montana town to host festival honoring author Norman Maclean

Young Men and Fire

The Montana town of Seeley Lake will host its first ever Norman Maclean literary festival this summer, celebrating the author’s works and his life fishing and exploring in Montana.

Maclean, best known for his novella “A River Runs Through It” and “Young Men and Fire” — his recounting of the Mann Gulch fire of 1949 — will be honored with lectures from former students, fishing hole tours and trips to the Mann Gulch burn area. Maclean’s son, journalist and author John Maclean, will speak, and National Book Award winner Pete Dexter will deliver a keynote address. Dexter is also the author of “The Old Man and the River,” about Norman’s life in Seeley Lake.

The three-day event will also feature tours of conservation efforts on the Blackfoot River, and full day trip to Mann Gulch with a forester who toured the area with Maclean while he was researching for his book.

The festival will run from July 10 to 13th, and tickets can be purchased on a daily-event basis. Local non-profit Alpine Artisans is sponsoring the event.

Wildfire briefing, June 2, 2014

Rescued wolf pups to find home

Wolf pup at Alaska Zoo

The five abandoned wolf pups that were rescued by firefighters on the Funny River Fire on March 27 are doing well and will be adopted by the Minnesota Zoo, located south of Minneapolis-St. Paul in Apple Valley, Minnesota. The pups will remain at the Alaska Zoo until veterinarians are certain the animals are old and healthy enough for transport. When found last week, they weighed about 2.5 pounds apiece and suffered from dehydration and punctures from porcupine quills.

Thirty five applicants awarded funding for their fire research projects

The Joint Fire Science Program announced that 35 applicants have received funding for their proposed fire-related research. The topics include smoke, fuels treatment effectiveness, fire behavior and effects, bats and fire, people and fire, and more.

Fire Training in Pennsylvania

New York Times obituary for Robert Sallee

typical smokejumpers Mann Gulch Fire Ford Trimotor aircaft
Typical smokejumpers and their equipment around the time of the Mann Gulch Fire, with their Ford Trimotor aircaft.

On May 29 we wrote about the death of Robert Sallee, the last survivor of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, and later we linked to some rare photos of the incident.

Surprisingly, the New York Times on May 31 published an obituary of Mr. Sallee. John N. Maclean pointed it out to us, saying that he learned some things from the article. After the death of his father, Norman Maclean, John helped to edit the almost finished Young Men and Fire, the book his father wrote about the fire. John later wrote several books of his own about wildland fires, the latest being The Esperanza Fire.

Below is another photo related to the fire. It was taken in Mann Gulch by Alan Thomas, who was the editor at the University of Chicago Press who worked on Young Men and Fire with the Macleans.

Mann Gulch,
Mann Gulch. Photo by Alan Thomas of the University of Chicago Press.

Colorado Fire Chief talks about how climate change has affected his job — and his life

The video below features Elk Creek, Colorado fire chief Bill McLaughlin, whose department fought the Lower North Fork Fire in 2012 that killed three residents and burned 4,140 acres. “Climate change is very real,” says McLaughlin. “It’s changed my entire life.”

Mann Gulch fire, historic photos

Above: Removal of victims at the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire. USFS photo.

Along with an article about Monday’s death of Robert Sallee, the last living survivor of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, the San Francisco Chronicle has a gallery of nine photos related to the fire, Mr. Sallee, and the investigation. Some of them I don’t remember having seen, like the one above.

Earlier this week we wrote about the passing of Mr. Sallee.