‘Men standing in the shadows began to weep’

Two authors explore wildfire deaths and liability

  • Rescue workers carry a body recovered from the 1949 Mann Gulch fire in Montana, where 13 firefighters died


This review discusses two recent books about deadly wildfires:

The Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal
John N. Maclean
256 pages, hardcover: $25.
Henry Holt and Company, 2007.

A Great Day to Fight Fire: Mann Gulch, 1949
Mark Matthews
280 pages, hardcover: $24.95.
University of Oklahoma Press, 2007.

When people die while battling wildfires because someone made mistakes that put them in harm's way, should we imprison the culprit? Or should we maintain that casualties in wildfires are the inevitable result of chaos and human frailty, and thus hold no one responsible?

The questions are timely: More than a dozen people have died in Western wildfires in the average year since 2000, including, this year, three Utah farmers and a helicopter pilot in California. They're also as timeless as the human relationship with wildfire. Two new nonfiction books, by authors who specialize in fire, explore the answers. And they take very different perspectives.

In The Thirtymile Fire, John Maclean examines moment by moment how flames trapped 14 firefighters and two tourists in a canyon in central Washington's Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. By the time that fire moved on, July 10, 2001, four firefighters had died, ranging from rookies to veterans: Karen FitzPatrick, 18; Jessica Johnson, 19; Devin Weaver, 21; and Tom Craven, 30.

Fire is impartial; the flames kill whoever gets in their path. But Maclean likes to draw conclusions, and he has his routine down. He's examined other lethal Western blazes in Fire on the Mountain (1999) and Fire and Ashes (2003). He pores over government reports and does original interviews, and always discovers that people are not perfect. In Thirtymile, he reports that helicopters and planes arrived late; communication overall was bad; no lookout was posted at crucial times; and many in the crew just watched in awe as the monstrous fire approached, instead of taking action to survive.

"The word decision is too strong for what happened; matters went forward in a kind of trance, like a blind man groping toward the edge of a cliff," Maclean writes. Along the way, he illuminates details: "A wave of pine needles glowing like fireflies swept over them ... Embers stenciled freckles on exposed skin ..." He even takes us inside the crewmembers' tentlike emergency shelters, where one man uses his Leatherman tool to dig frantically in the dirt seeking pockets of breathable air, a woman hardly realizes her belt is melting on her waist, and others peer through pinholes in their shelters' folds to assess the firestorm raging around them. In the aftermath, one of the dead women is found in her burned shelter in a position of prayer.

The many teams of investigators, including the U.S. Forest Service, also make mistakes, misconstruing evidence, flubbing interviews of witnesses, and hinting that the victims helped cause their own deaths. Finally, federal prosecutors concentrate the blame on the immediate crew boss, Ellreese Daniels, a 46-year-old black man. Today, Daniels faces four manslaughter charges in a federal court in Washington, amid allegations he lied to investigators in an attempt to cover up his mistakes. It's reportedly the first time a fire-crew boss has been hit with criminal charges.

The Thirtymile fire itself can't be charged and convicted of anything, but it behaved crazily, making unexpected twists and turns and accelerations. Experts using the best computer models and satellite photos can't explain why it leapt over a rockpile to kill its victims. Even as Maclean chronicles that unpredictability, he apparently has the prosecutor's reflex. At least he insists on identifying all those who make mistakes, pounding it home so that tactics might be improved and deaths reduced on future firelines.

A survey of thousands of firefighters, done this year by the International Association of Wildland Fire, finds 93 percent believe the charges against the crew boss are "bad" or "very bad" for their profession. Clearly, many don't like all the second-guessing on Thirtymile.

Author Mark Matthews adopts their perspective in A Great Day to Fight Fire. Instead of looking for mistakes, Matthews dedicates his book to honoring the crew that got trapped by probably our most infamous wildfire, the one that raced up Montana's Mann Gulch on Aug. 5, 1949.

Tapping historical records, family letters and interviews, and sometimes imagining dialogue that feels genuine, Matthews writes terse, powerful scenes of the 16 men who ran for their lives in Mann Gulch. He describes how their youthful bravado, work ethic and need for money put them in harm's way.

Fifteen were pioneer smokejumpers, which accounts for some of this fire's notoriety. Matthews gives us a seat with them in the prop-driven plane, where they joke anxiously, some nauseous, on the way to the burning gulch. They line up at the windy doorway to hell, stepping out one by one. He gets inside their hearts, where it really was a great day to fight fire.

It's a psychology Matthews has felt firsthand, wielding a Pulaski on firelines. His experience informs his descriptions of the fire, the families struggling to accept the fate of the 13 who died, and the emotional scars left on everyone touched by the fire.

When the men in the "rescue party" hike up the smoking ruins of the gulch at night, between glowing embers, they find one of the burned crew, Bill Hellman, waiting stoically on a rock, not quite done dying. "They decided to leave his charred clothing where it stuck to his skin and spread a thick salve over the exposed areas. Through it all (he) never complained. Some of the men standing in the shadows began to weep."

A father, Henry Thol Sr., comes to the funeral parlor where his 18-year-old son's charred remains have been sealed in a metal tube, ready for shipment. He insists on grabbing a wrench and undoing the bolts on the lid, so he can have a farewell look at Henry Thol Jr. Later that night, he walks the streets of Montana's capital city, "sobbing and yelling at the top of his lungs."

A widow, Julie Reba, 10 years after her husband, Stanley, burned up in Mann Gulch, keeps having nightmares of the men running from the flames; they always ignore her shouts of warning. The dream jolts her awake one more night, so she rereads some old letters from her husband, then presses a pistol against her temple, considering relief in the form of suicide.

Matthews showed similar empathy in his first fire book, Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line (2006), where he unearthed the little-known history of conscientious objectors during the Second World War who volunteered to risk their lives as smokejumpers.

In Great Day, ironically, Matthews fleshes out a story begun by John Maclean's father, Norman Maclean, whose Young Men and Fire (1992) claimed to chronicle the Mann Gulch fire. Young Men wasn't a finished book; a publisher patched it together from the author's notes, two years after Norman Maclean died. It was never in the league of Maclean's fishing memoir/novella, A River Runs Through It, which was made into an Oscar-winning movie. Among Young Men's many shortcomings, it hardly mentions some of the men who died in Mann Gulch. Most of it is Norman Maclean's introspection as his own life wound down.

Matthews' book on the gulch fire is the literary landmark there now. It's also a kind of policy landmark. Matthews spends a few words on how the Mann Gulch deaths led to improvements in firefighting, but his underlying message is that, no matter what tactics we try, no matter what technologies we develop, wildfires will always be wild, chaotic and lethal. As global warming promotes more intense blazes, we can only reduce the risk of casualties by backing away from the flames. Let more fires burn on their own terms; that's part of Matthews' acceptance. And the next time prosecutors and next-of kin rush to assign blame for casualties, maybe we should hold off. The deaths and injuries radiating outward are already punishment enough. In the desperate moments when the flames come too close, we're all perfect in our imperfections.

The author is HCN's senior editor.

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