In a new book, Fire and Ashes, author John N. Maclean leads readers through three sweaty-palmed stories about human encounters with wildfire.
Maclean returns to the ground his father, Norman
Maclean, covered in the 1992 book, Young Men and Fire. He joins the
last living survivor of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Montana to
retrace the final steps and moments of the 13 smokejumpers who
died, and to re-evaluate government reports and his father’s
own conclusions. The author also pushes us into thick chaparral in
California during the 1953 Rattlesnake Fire; the arson-caused blaze
killed 15 firefighters, 14 of them volunteers from a
“missionary boot camp” in the hills. Both fires taught
sweeping lessons about fire behavior that came at a tragic
In the book’s central story, Maclean drops us
into the northern Nevada desert in 1999. On the Sadler Fire, a fire
whirl — the near-supernatural spawn of a dust devil and
flames, scarier than any horror-film stalker — entraps six
inexperienced firefighters who are saved by an inexplicable,
last-second change of wind. The story, which began as a column
Maclean wrote for HCN’s Writers on the Range in 1999,
chronicles a new era in firefighting where crews can “just
say ‘no’ ” to dangerous situations.
Maclean’s accounts of people and flames are threaded with
themes of faith, mortality and the mysteries of the natural and the
supernatural. “As long as no one is standing in its way, a
(wildfire) is a natural event,” writes Maclean. “Put
people in front of it, and it becomes the stuff of
Fire and Ashes: On the Front Lines of
by John N. Maclean
pages, hardcover $25.
Henry Holt and Company,
Back down the fireline
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