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 of 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, July 9, 1953.

All but one of the firefighters that 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 firefighters from their group 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 food 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 personnel on the fire. And, the missionaries could not see the rest of the fire.

book river of fire 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, titled 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 piece about the fire that Mr. Maclean included in his Fire and Ashes book published in 2003 which also had sections about three additional 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 photos freshly-taken by Kari Greer, a photographer who specializes in wildland fire. Mr. 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, Superintendent of the Mendocino Hotshots from 1988 to 1994. The book explains that the Mendocino Hotshots were the unofficial caretakers of the tragedy site for years.

River of Fire has a number very compelling stories scattered throughout. For example, it describes the process of developing the first air tanker that could drop water on a fire. In the early 1950’s there had been some attempts at designing an apparatus that could drop water from an airplane, but everything was crude and not effective. Two years after the fire, in 1955, Joe Ely, the fire control officer on the Mendocino who also helped fight the Rattlesnake Fire, worked with a crop-duster 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 intentionally ignited along a runway at the Willows, California airport was a success. Later that year it was first used on a wildfire near Covelo on the Mendocino National Forest.

There 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 died. But in 2010 she found information about the tragedy online and had to find out more. After driving eight hours 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:

…Instead, they acquired two eager tour guides, the former and current hotshot superintendents [Daren] Dalrymple and [Jon] 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 tragedy led to the development of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders as well as 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 took place on that fateful day. In 1993 a plaque was installed that had the names of the firefighters that perished, 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 lead visitors along the routes taken by those 15 firefighters, and the ones who survived.

The development of the memorial and the maintenance of the trails and the original firelines and dozer lines help to facilitate 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.

There are, of course, other wildfires where 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), 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 Mr. Maclean for permission to use an excerpt from the book (longer than the brief one above), 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 Kari, “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 Daren stayed at the Overlook wrapping up the photo shoot. They watched as the hikers made their way along the stand trails and the staff ride locations, spotting them now and then through the brush and across the canyon on the north slope.

“It was interesting to see it to scale,” said Kari, “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 electronic version expected late this summer or autumn will have Kari’s photos in all their glorious color. It will be available for Amazon Kindle devices or apps, 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 written by John N. Maclean: The Thirtymile Fire, Fire and Ashes, Fire on the Mountain, and The Esperanza Fire.

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.

Last survivor of Mann Gulch Fire dies

Mann Gulch Fire
Investigators on the Mann Gulch Fire looking south from Foreman Dodge’s escape fire.

The last of the three firefighters who survived the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire died Monday. Robert Sallee passed away from complications following open heart surgery.

Mr. Sallee was 17 when he parachuted into the Helena National Forest (map) above the fire along with 14 other smokejumpers from Hale Field in Missoula, Montana. As the crew worked their way toward the bottom of the fire at the Missouri River, the winds changed causing the fire below them to blow up and begin moving in their direction. As the crew retreated up the steep slope, Foreman Wagner Dodge lit an escape fire in the light fuels and told the rest of the crew to join him in the burned area, but none of them did. Mr. Sallee and another crewman, Walter B. Rumsey, took a different route than the other smokejumpers, squirming their way through a narrow crevice in a rim rock, finding much better conditions in a rock scree on the other side of the ridge. Foreman Dodge, when the main fire caught up with his escape fire, eventually followed the other two where the three of them had to keep moving around in the rock scree as the fire burned around them. The blowup burned about 3,000 acres, claiming the lives of 12 of the smokejumpers and one former smokejumper who had been fighting the fire for 4 hours before the jumpers arrived.

Foreman Dodge died five years later from Hodgkin’s disease, and Mr. Rumsey died in an airplane crash in 1980.

Norman Maclean wrote Young Men and Fire, a book about the smokejumpers and their demise in Mann Gulch. His son, John N. Maclean helped to edit and make some of the finishing touches on the book which was published in 1992, two years after his father’s death. John said that Mr. Sallee became a companion for Norman while he was collecting information for the book, and in later years was very generous in telling his story about the fire. John said Mr. Sallee had abundant social skills and “was almost courtly in his personal manner”. John later wrote Fire on the Mountain about the 1994 South Canyon Fire that killed 14 firefighters in Colorado.

About eight years after the Mann Gulch fire the “Ten Standard Firefighting Orders”  were developed and incorporated into firefighter training.

Funeral arrangements are pending at Hazen and Jaeger Valley Funeral Home in Spokane, Washington.


Thanks and a hat tip go out to Jay, Dave, Steve, Chris, and Shaun.

Wildfire briefing, December 9, 2013

Hunter to be charged for starting Rim Fire

A hunter is expected to be charged for acts that resulted in starting the Rim Fire, which this summer burned 402 square miles of forest in and near Yosemite National Park in California. reported that Michael Knowles of the U.S. Attorney’s office has indicated that charges will be filed, but the identity of the person has not been revealed. Fire officials said earlier that a hunter’s illegal campfire was the origin of the blaze.

Reporter remembers writing the story about the South Canyon Fire

A reporter has written an interesting article about what it was like to first hear the news and write the story of the 14 firefighters that were killed on the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado in 1994.

Billie Stanton was working in the news room with Jim Kirksey, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, when the call came in from reporter Robert (Bob) Kowalski near the fire scene.

…As the fastest typist, I was taking down the victims’ ages and names as Bob carefully recited the spellings. Kirksey was fashioning the story.

But the names kept coming and coming. “Is that it?” I would ask. “No, I have more,” Bob would say.

I’m uncertain now on whose name I began to cry. One of those four beautiful young women from Prineville, Ore., I think — Tammy Bickett or Kathi Beck, Terri Hagen or Bonnie Holtby.

I’d never covered a wildfire; I didn’t even know women were fighting them. But the image of 14 young firefighters trapped by flames was seared into my consciousness.

$225 burial allowances for Mann Gulch Fire victims

I’m not sure if this fact was in Young Men and Fire or not, but the Billings Gazette, in writing about the passing of attorney Louise Replogle Rankin Galt who died last month at age 90, reported that she was involved in a court case related to the Mann Gulch Fire. Obviously litigation following fatal fires is not a recent phenomenon.

Replogle unsuccessfully sued the federal government seeking more than the $225 burial allowances for the families of each of the 13 firefighters, including 12 smokejumpers, killed in the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, her niece, Candace Johnson Kruger, of Columbia Falls, recalled.


Thanks go out to Wendy

Mann Gulch Fire, 64 years ago today

A wildfire entrapped 15 smokejumpers and a fire guard in Mann Gulch on August 5, 1949 on the Helena National Forest in Montana. The fire took the lives of 13 men and burned nearly 5,000 acres.

The fatalities:

  • 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 13 men who were killed in the Mann Gulch fire. U. S. Forest Service photo.

The story of this fire was told by Norman Maclean in his book “Young Men and Fire”.

The sketch below is from the official report.

In light of the June 30 deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots on the Yarnell Hill Fire and their attempted use of an escape fire to create a refuge zone, you may be interested in a paper that 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.