Summary: Four results of revival
The Results of Revival
July 18, 2005
On August 5, 1949, a fire ignited in a remote forest in a remote Montana wilderness area named Mann Gulch that permanently changed the way the US Forest Services fights fires. A crew of 15 young firefighters parachuted into the area, ready to extinguish what was to be a manageable fire.
The Mann Gulch fire was spotted in late morning, on the point of a ridge overlooking the river and the mouth of the gulch. By the time the smokejumpers arrived, the fire had disappeared from its point of origin and migrated more than a mile along the ridge top, up from the river. The men landed in the head of the gulch, a half mile below visible fire.
They gathered gear as crew foreman Wag Dodge climbed the ridge to scout. He returned in minutes with news that the gulch would be allowed to burn, saying the fire was a death trap and ordered the crew to hike down the gulch toward the river, over a mile away.
One of the men would later describe the fire as a very interesting spectacle; some of the men took photographs. As they moved along, something about the fire had spooked the foreman. Halfway to the river, Dodge crested a rise, turned, and came rushing back toward the crew, ordering them to retreat.
Flames, which boiled in the crowns of Douglas fir and ponderosa pines, catapulted forward on heavy winds partly of the fire’s own making-a classic crown fire. The fire was right behind the men as they emerged from the timber onto a broad, grassy slope, the amphitheater-like expanse. The flames dropped from the crowns of trees into dry grass and began to close the gap with the men.
In panic, the men broke for the ridge above them, but the 76-degree angle of the slope made escape all but impossible. The men barely had made 300 yards before Dodge told them to drop their gear to lighten the load. Flames were estimated at 50 feet high and were moving 50 yards every 10 seconds. The grade was steep and the men were becoming exhausted, but they moved even faster because of what they saw happening around them. Ashes and hot firebrands were beginning to fall around them, and the heat and smoke were becoming sickening. Dodge was a seasoned fireman. He knew that fires tend to loose intensity near ridge tops. His plan was to take the crew to the rock slide he had seen before the jump. However, the slide was on the other side of the ridge, toward the head of the drainage.
The crew made another 200 yards when Foreman Dodge knew the fire was going to catch them. Dodge then did something that had never been heard of in the 50,000 fires the Forest Service had fought to date. He lit the first escape fire known. Dodge’s theory was that the escape fire would quickly burn out, allowing his men to get into the burned area and be saved, while the fire burned around them. So with the fire breathing down on him, he knelt down, struck a match and ignited another fire that, pushed by the wind, burned quickly up the hill. For reasons unknown, Dodge could not get this idea across to his men. They panicked and continued heading for the ridge top. Dodge stood there mouthing silent shouts as four or five jumpers hesitated nearby. He waved at the men, urging them to join him in the ashes of his fire, but no one joined him.