What Fire Changed the Way Smokejumpers Protect Themselves?
In this hot, dry summer, we remember the smokejumpers who died on another hot, August day in Montana, in 1949.
On August 5, 1949, a wildfire in Mann Gulch, Montana took the lives of 13 smokejumpers, the most lost to a single fire until then.
Two survived a fire that overtook them an hour and 45 minutes after they landed.
What Led Up to the Fire?
It was hot. The wind was high.
The lightning-sparked fire jumped across a gulch to climb up the dry grassy mountain ridge next to it after the smokejumpers landed.
As the foreman, Wagner Dodge estimated the speed of the fire on the slope below his men.
He realized he and his crew could not outrun the fire on a slope with a 75% incline to the safety of the opposite side of the ridge they were climbing.
He took out a match and burned a small circle that continued up to the top of the ridge ahead of him and instructed his crew to join him in the bare spot.
What Happened After the Foreman Cleared a Spot?
The noise of the fire was too great for most of Dodge’s crew to hear his instructions.
Some, who didn’t know him well, simply ignored him, in the mistaken belief that they could run to safety.
They made various, mostly fatal decisions, either to look for a rocky passageway through the top of the ridge or try to run ahead of the fire to the other side of the ridge.
Later analysis indicated that this anticipatory burning approach would not have worked in their normal high-heat forest fires, but was used by North American Indians in grass or prairie fires.
Experts estimated the fire consumed 3,000 acres in ten minutes when it boiled up below the smokejumpers.
The fire covered 4,500 acres in all and took 450 men and five days to control.
Smokejumping had only started on July 12, 1940.
Dodge’s technique changed firefighting training.
Click here to hear a moving musical tribute to the smokejumpers in a song written by James Keelaghan, Cold Missouri Waters, and performed by Richard Shindell, Dar Wiliams and Lucy Kaplansky on their album Cry Cry Cry.
Have There Been Any Other Fires That Claimed So Many Lives?
Though their intensive training keeps smokejumpers’ deaths low, there was another tragic fire with similar conditions in 1994.
The record 13 deaths of Mann Gulch stood until 14 firefighters died on July 6, 1994 in the South Canyon fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
It was another lightning-sparked fire.
With high, dry winds, it jumped the fireline that had been laid down to stop it.
The fire jumped to a ridge below the firefighters who had gone to contain it.
They could not outrace it up the slope.
We are in your dept. Thank you, smokejumpers.
Have you ever parachuted out of a plane?
Do you go hiking in the mountains?
Did you know that fire burns up a hill, not down?
To you and teaching your grandchildren how to protect themselves.
Carol Covin, Granny-Guru
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