Back down the fireline

  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 cost.

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.

John 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 tragedy.”

Fire and Ashes: On the Front Lines of American Wildfire
by John N. Maclean
238 pages, hardcover $25.
Henry Holt and Company, 2003.