Saturday, July 28, 2007

Young Men & Fire

Young Men & Fire by Norman Maclean

This true story by the author of A River Runs Through It tells the events surrounding the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949. A good portion focuses on the smokejumpers (paratrooping firefighters)13 out of 16 of which perished in the fire.

In those days, the smokejumping program was very new having been introduced within the past 8 to 10 years. The men had to be between the ages of 18 and 30, single, and in superb physical condition. The main tools they carried were a shovel and something called a Pulaski which is a combination ax and hoe built into one. They utilized these tools to dig fire lines, and fell trees ahead of the fire so as to reduce the amount of fuel and prevent it jumping from one tree to the next.

When dropped from the plane onto the ground by the fire, a foreman would be in charge of the crew as they fought the fire. In the instance of the Mann Gulch fire in Montana, the fire started out as a fairly decent sized fire. It then progressed into what is known as a "blowup." This occurred as a result of a combination of factors such as fuel type, moisture, incline of terrain, and wind.

It quickly got out of control and the crew had to run for their lives. Occasionally, in a blowup a vortex of fire will be formed which will sweep across a vast area burning everything in its path. It looks and functions like a tornado. I recently talked with a man who used to be a farmer and he indicated that when they burned fields to prepare them for future seasons a fire vortex would sometimes occur. He said it was an awesome and amazing sight to behold.

During the blowup it was not possible for the majority of the men to outrun the fire and they perished mainly from suffocation due to lack of oxygen. The foreman saw this happening and created a secondary fire to try to create a burned out place which would provide shelter from the main fire. Unfortunately, amidst the confusion of the fire, the men did not understand the foreman and thought he had gone crazy to be lighting a second fire. He did survive but all but 2 others did not.

A secondary portion of the book analyzes the various components of the fire, what caused it, and some of the science behind fire. Maclean spent around 12 years researching the book, gathering documents, interviewing the 2 remaining survivors and returning to the site of the fire. He was well equipped to tell the story having spent time as a forest fire fighter in his younger years before going on to be a literature professor and writer. The book was masterfully written but slightly meticulous at times. It is the type of story that would make a very dramatic movie if a studio were interested in producing it.

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