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Young Men and Fire: Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition

Young Men and Fire: Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition

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Young Men and Fire: Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition

4.5/5 (13 ratings)
394 pages
6 hours
May 1, 2017


A devastating and lyrical work of nonfiction, Young Men and Fire describes the events of August 5, 1949, when a crew of fifteen of the US Forest Service’s elite airborne firefighters, the Smokejumpers, stepped into the sky above a remote forest fire in the Montana wilderness. Two hours after their jump, all but three of the men were dead or mortally burned. Haunted by these deaths for forty years, Norman Maclean puts together the scattered pieces of the Mann Gulch tragedy in Young Men and Fire, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Alongside Maclean’s now-canonical A River Runs through It and Other Stories, Young Men and Fire is recognized today as a classic of the American West. This twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Maclean’s later triumph—the last book he would writeincludes a powerful new foreword by Timothy Egan, author of The Big Burn and The Worst Hard Time. As moving and profound as when it was first published, Young Men and Fire honors the literary legacy of a man who gave voice to an essential corner of the American soul.
May 1, 2017

About the author

Norman Maclean has been a student of western religious thought for over fifty years and has specialised in the study of life in the Mediterranean region during the first century C.E. He has lectured and written on associated subjects; is a teacher of Classical Studies and has conducted tour groups to Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Turkey, Greece and Italy. Ancient Jewish culture and its clash with both Greek and Roman influences has been his particular interest which has taken him several times to Israel for exploration of archaeological sites and further study of Christianity’s emergence. He lives in Gisborne, New Zealand and is also an artist, public speaker and theatrical director.

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Young Men and Fire - Norman Maclean


Young Men and Fire


Norman Maclean

Foreword by Timothy Egan

The University of Chicago Press

Chicago & London

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637

The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London

© 1992 by The University of Chicago

Foreword © 2017 by Timothy Egan

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews. For more information, contact the University of Chicago Press, 1427 East 60th Street, Chicago, IL 60637.

Published 2017

Printed in the United States of America

26 25 24 23 22 21 20 19 18 17    1 2 3 4 5

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-47545-5 (cloth)

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-45035-3 (paper)

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-45049-0 (e-book)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226450490.001.0001

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Maclean, Norman, 1902–1990, author. | Egan, Timothy, writer of foreword.

Title: Young men and fire / Norman Maclean; foreword by Timothy Egan.

Description: Twenty-fifth anniversary edition. | Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Identifiers: LCCN 2016053338| ISBN 9780226475455 (cloth: alk. paper) | ISBN 9780226450353 (pbk.: alk. paper) | ISBN 9780226450490 (e-book)

Subjects: LCSH: Forest fires—Montana—Mann Gulch—Prevention and control. | Smokejumpers—United States. | United States. Forest Service—Officials and employees. | Dodge, Wag, –1955.

Classification: LCC SD421.32.M9 M33 2017 | DDC 363.37/9—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016053338

This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).


Foreword by Timothy Egan

Publisher’s Note

Black Ghost

Young Men and Fire




Maps of Gates of the Mountains and Western Montana

A gallery of photographs

As I get considerably beyond the biblical

allotment of three score years and ten, I feel

with increasing intensity that I can

express my gratitude for still being around on

the oxygen-side of the earth’s crust only by

not standing pat on what I have hitherto

known and loved. While the oxygen lasts, there

are still new things to love, especially

if compassion is a form of love.


Notes written as a possible epigraph to Young Men and Fire, December 4, 1985


Timothy Egan

For nearly a decade, I traveled about fifty thousand miles a year roaming over the American West as a prospector of stories, on behalf of the New York Times. I’m a native of that oversize land, third generation, so the chance to learn from and explain the great swath of country on the sunset side of the Mississippi was a pinch-me privilege. I loved most of it: the snowstorms and the wildfires, the political squabbling and the oddball life stories, everything but the tragedies. On deadline, with a clock ticking to a pre–Internet age cutoff of 5:00 P.M. mountain time, I sometimes found myself stuck while trying to bang out eight hundred words of serviceable prose. I couldn’t force the right sentences, the rhythm was off, the words felt inauthentic.

In desperation, I would reach for my talisman: a copy of A River Runs through It and Other Stories. This slim volume, yellowed by the sun from trips to the Southwest and frayed from panicky page plucking, was my traveling companion; I never left home without it. I would open the book to a random passage and take in a swath of Norman Maclean’s gin-clear prose. It was beauty and perfection, shorn of artifice. After reading for just a few minutes, I was unstuck. From him, by example, I picked up this admonition: just try to write something clean and well. The lifelong teacher was still helping students of the written word, long after he’d retired from the University of Chicago.

You take the way it comes to you first, with adjectives and adverbs, and cut out all the crap, he told one interviewer.

By the time his second book, Young Men and Fire, was published in 1992, the cult of Maclean had grown well beyond Westerners with a passion for fly-fishing and uncluttered language. He was admired for his personal story, a man who didn’t take up writing until he’d reached his biblical allotment of time—three score years plus ten, as he reminded people. Maclean was seventy-three when River was released in 1976. It is a masterpiece, to use a word he would surely dismiss as hyperbolic. Here was a professor of Shakespeare trying to come to terms with the central tragedy of his family in Montana: the murder of his younger brother, Paul, who had been beaten to death. The title story’s opening sentence (In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing) and its closing lament (I am haunted by waters) are among the best bookends in American fiction.

It is the truest story I ever read, noted Pete Dexter, the National Book Award–winning novelist, in a profile of Maclean in Esquire; it might even be the best. Robert Redford made a film, delicately faithful to the story, starring Brad Pitt.

How could Maclean top that?

I liked this old man for the Western chip on his shoulder and for his Scottish stubbornness. Painted on one side of our Sunday school wall were the words, God Is Love, he writes in River. We always assumed that these three words were spoken directly to the four of us in our family and had no reference to the world outside, which my brother and I soon discovered was full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the farther one gets from Missoula, Montana. He was a man of two worlds, two homes: an academic one in Chicago, and that of the Big Sky over the cabin he had helped his father build on Seeley Lake in Montana. The West of his early life gave him all the material he needed for his later life. But because he was Western (a pejorative in some circles), the New York publishers turned up their collective noses at his first book. Maclean liked to say that one editor objected, These stories have trees in them.

Oh, but he got his revenge. Struggling writers, which is to say most writers, love the story that Maclean told of getting back at one of the publishers, Alfred A. Knopf, that had rejected him earlier. Upon receiving a gushing offer to print his second book, Maclean responded with this note in 1981: If the situation ever arose when Alfred A. Knopf was the only publishing house remaining in the world and I was the sole surviving author, that would mark the end of the world of books.

He was then about five years into trying to put together his second book, the true story of the thirteen Forest Service firefighters, all but one of them Smokejumpers, who had lost their lives in the Mann Gulch fire of August 5, 1949. Maclean would labor on it for the rest of his life. He never saw its publication. When he died in 1990, at the age of eighty-seven, Young Men and Fire was complete in all its parts but unfinished. Maclean had struggled for more than a decade to make sense of what happened on a hot summer afternoon in the Gates of the Mountains wilderness, off the Missouri River in Montana.

In his obituary, the New York Times called Maclean a professor who wrote about fly-fishing. My employer was only partially right. For with Young Men and Fire, published two years after his death, Maclean succeeds in saying something true and lasting about wildfire, something true and lasting about youth, and something true and lasting about death—his own, which fast approached, and those of the boys who fell to flame in Mann Gulch. He was, in fact, a professor who wrote about tragedy and art, and how one shapes the other.

He had been a firefighter himself; he knew his way around a Pulaski—one side of the tool an ax blade, the other a hoe, used for digging fire lines—and he could read the afternoon winds that might fuel a blowup. He thought for a long time that he would have a career in the Forest Service. Maclean was camping with his family on an island in the Bitterroot River when the largest single wildfire in American history, the Big Burn of 1910, swept over western Montana, torching three million acres in two days’ time and killing nearly one hundred people. Maclean was seven. The Forest Service was five years old. The Big Burn became the agency’s creation myth, sanctifying many of the young Yale School of Forestry graduates who filled the Forest Service’s ranks. The fire also became a cautionary tale that would guide rangers for most of the twentieth century.

It was frightening, as what seemed to be great flakes of white snow were swirling to the ground in the heat and darkness of high noon, writes Maclean. Thereafter, he says, the Forest Service had 1910-on-the-brain.

After working summers for the Forest Service in his teens, Maclean went to Dartmouth, where Robert Frost was one of his teachers. Maclean studied literature, though he continued to flirt, well into his twenties, with the idea of working in the woods. He started teaching full-time at the University of Chicago in 1930, acquiring his PhD in 1940. He taught Shakespeare and the British Romantic poets. He was beloved, twice earning the university’s highest teaching award. The school year was spent in Chicago, summers at Seeley Lake.

It was during one of those summers, in 1949, that the Mann Gulch fire broke out. The blaze was nothing special, even in a hot year: a couple of hundred acres burning in nearly inaccessible brush on the eastern side of the Continental Divide, twenty-seven miles north of Helena. The Smokejumpers, the elite corps that was not yet ten years old, were called on to snuff the fire before it could get any bigger. The ranks of the Smokejumpers, as Maclean noted, included many young men who fought fire in the summer and pursued their master’s degrees or doctorates during the rest of the year. As a kid who spent summers in the mountains of northern Idaho and western Montana, I worshipped these guys—tough, smart, brave boys who leaped from airplanes into a vertical slope full of smoke while carrying nearly a hundred pounds of gear. They were a quick-strike force, their mission to get at the kind of gnarly fire that mere earthbound mortals could not.

But on August 5, 1949, the men from Missoula proved all too mortal. Less than two hours after leaping from a C-47 that banked low in the white summer sky, all but three of a crew of fifteen Smokejumpers were dead or fatally burned. Stoked by crosswinds, the fire in Mann Gulch blew up and leaped over onto the other side of the ravine. There, the men were trapped. They raced uphill, seeking the safety of the ridgeline. The fire roared just behind them, until it overwhelmed the crew, suffocating most of them before their bodies burned. The foreman, R. Wagner Dodge, lit an escape fire, premised on the idea that if he could create a little section of burned-over land, the big blaze at their backs would skip over that patch. Dodge ordered his men to take refuge in the burned-over area. Either they didn’t hear him or didn’t listen. Dodge survived, as did two men who made it over the ridge.

A few days after the blowup, which burned 4,500 acres, Maclean himself visited the site. In Black Ghost, a story found after his death, he recalls his first trip to Mann Gulch. The fire was then—and remains to this day—the worst tragedy in the history of the Smokejumpers. What stood out during Maclean’s walk over the blackened hillside was a badly burned deer, hairless and purple, as Maclean writes. Where the skin had broken, the flesh was in patches.

Maclean returned to the university. The Forest Service conducted a hasty review, concluding that the agency itself was not to blame for the deaths. Lawsuits were filed by family members of the dead, asserting the opposite—that Dodge’s escape fire had contributed to and perhaps caused the deaths. Hollywood made a film of the burn, Red Skies of Montana, substituting another fire’s happy ending for the tragic dissonance left over by this one. For the most part, that was that.

But Maclean could never let it go. In retirement, after the success of A River Runs through It, he began an earnest effort to put into print something definitive about the Mann Gulch fire. It consumed the final thirteen years of his life, and perhaps the final forty-one years of his life, going back to 1949. You can imagine him at Seeley Lake, rising for coffee as the mist lifted on the water, producing his three hundred to four hundred words by noon at the little red table in the family cabin. He was alone, having lost his wife, Jessie Burns Maclean, to cancer in 1968. When it’s good, he told Pete Dexter, I see my life coming together in paragraphs.

As a fire book—that is, a nonfiction account of the kind of blaze that haunts western forests—Maclean’s recounting is a model of scrupulous narrative journalism. He never tries to overdramatize or hype the story. It is not told from any one person’s point of view, though Maclean is clearly empathetic to Dodge. He lays it out as a tale of an ordinary day in the life of western firefighting turned extraordinary in all the wrong ways. A lightning strike. A combustible punch. Boom. Boom.

Fire. A lookout calls it in. The Smokejumpers take to the air. At stake is not so much Mann Gulch but the stunning scenery of an area one canyon away, where the Lewis and Clark expedition had spent some time. It has value to tourists and lovers of the outdoors, and therefore must be saved from fire. The mission was to contain the blaze in the gulch.

Maclean is obsessed with getting it right—the details of smoke and wind, the ferocity of the flames, how a wildfire can create its own weather system. He is a man of the mind, an intellectual in his bristly way, who also respects those who work with their hands. His attention to detail was one of the things he was most proud of with his first book. A River Runs through It is fiction—the first original fiction ever published by the University of Chicago Press—informed by the real life of Maclean and his family: the roguish, beautiful brother, a master fisherman, and their father, a Presbyterian minister.

There’s no bastards in the world who like to argue more than fishermen, and not one of them corrected me on anything, Maclean said in Esquire. That is my idea of a good review.

So he spends the first part of Young Men and Fire stating the case, following a timeline. The book is constructed as a triptych. The facts are simple and will lead Maclean to a resolution. But the facts turn out to be muddied, and a conclusion is slow to come. He goes to the Smokejumper base in Missoula, studies the science of wind and fire, pores over all documents. He discovers, somewhat early on, that the Forest Service tried to cover up some of the details—no surprise, given the ways of bureaucratic self-protection. He narrows his inquiry to what happened between 5:00 and 6:00 P.M. on August 5, in hundred-degree heat. The foreman, Dodge, is long dead from cancer a mere five years after the fire. The only two survivors are—where? Nobody knows, Maclean is told. But he tracks them down and talks them into joining him for a return to Mann Gulch in 1978. On that haunted slope, crosses mark where the men fell. From the survivors, Maclean does not get much. They were young and scared, and they ran and hid. They knew little of Dodge’s fire or the fate of the others.

The next year, Maclean returns again to Mann Gulch. Now he’s seventy-six years old, but he can still scramble up a Rocky Mountain incline in ninety-seven degree heat. He ends the first part of his book with several questions unresolved. Could Dodge’s escape fire have saved the Smokejumpers, if they’d listened to him and taken refuge inside the burned area? Or did it burn the men themselves? And by now, the reader is wondering about Maclean himself. What’s driving this old man to find these answers? He’s obsessed. Why? They were young and did not leave much behind them and need someone to remember them. But there is something more than that.

Beginning with the second part, the book becomes less of a traditional fire book (if there is such a thing) and more a forward-moving meditation, propelled by Maclean’s ceaseless questioning. Far back in the impulses to find this story is a storyteller’s belief that at times life takes on the shape of art, he writes.

Helped by a former Smokejumper, Laird Robinson, who becomes his research partner, Maclean eventually arrives at a conclusion. The truth of the fire is one thing, and he feels a certain satisfaction in getting there. If now the dead of this fire should awaken and I should be stopped beside a cross, I would no longer be nervous if asked the first and last question of life, How did it happen?

But the truth of mortality, why and when it strikes, is another question, one that eludes Maclean to the end and drives the literary power of Young Men and Fire. He’s trying to shape, or at least to see, art in tragedy, while acknowledging that tragedy is the most demanding of all literary forms. Maclean wants to give us some answers about the death of twelve men, about the loss of his wife, about his own end, in much the same way that he was trying to make something of his brother Paul’s killing.

I have been trained all my life to start by trying to make sense out of dying, he writes in 1980, in a letter to a friend. I’ve come to a place in my story where it doesn’t make sense anymore and (with a cold) I’m having a hard time thinking of what to write. Here, we see his doubts, which deepen with every passing month. Later on that year, he tells another friend that he won’t be able to live with himself unless he can finish the book. The story is not eluding him. But the larger meaning is, he confesses. It is clear to me now that the universe in its truculence doesn’t permit itself to be that well known.

Maclean would plow on, sifting and sorting, matching some of the new science of fire mechanics with his gut instinct and his experiences in the woods. By 1984, he tells another interviewer, age has finally caught up with him. I’m now getting so old that I can’t write much anymore. With the modesty that was a trademark of his generation, Maclean undersold himself. Yes, his powers to commit words to page were receding, as would those of anyone living through his ninth decade. But a close reading of Young Men and Fire cannot conclude that Maclean failed to grasp what it means to die young and unfulfilled. It’s there in the very pursuit of those answers—the search as the solution.

Since the Mann Gulch fire, there have been other disasters involving flame and young men in the woods of the West. The 1994 South Canyon fire, not far from Glenwood Springs, Colorado, killed fourteen people. All the familiar elements were in place: a hot afternoon, a huff of sudden wind, a dash for safety, confusion. I waited at a base camp in Colorado to hear some news over the radio—maybe a miracle. Instead, all we got were questions—the why, why, why when people are taken at such a young age. The bodies, some of them, were found inside foiled shelter pup tents deployed as a last resort. The firefighting community, as after Mann Gulch, vowed that this kind of sacrifice would never happen again. They would learn from the loss.

And then, almost twenty years later, it happened again. The setting for the 2013 Yarnell Hill fire was different from Colorado or Montana—this fire kindled in the brush and scrub trees of Arizona—but the circumstances were not. Once again, the wildland firefighting elite, the Hotshots in this case, from another federal agency, were trapped by shifting winds and a blowup. Communication was muddled. With no escape route, nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed—the greatest loss of life for a federal crew since the Big Burn of 1910.

Maclean would surely shake his head at these tragedies, the lessons unlearned, the history repeating itself, the postfire motions of grief, exasperation, and denial. No matter how meticulously he detailed the mistakes that led to Mann Gulch, he surely knew that loss of life is always a possibility when human beings are thrown at flame. We are predictable; wildfire is not. You can read this book as a great warning and find much to incorporate into the evolving wisdom of the firefighting canon. In that regard, it will live for many years. But you can also read this book as a meditation on the inevitable fate of us all. And in that regard, Maclean has given us what the best writers offer: the immortality of his words.

Publisher’s Note

Though he had hoped for many years to write about the Mann Gulch fire, Norman Maclean did not start work on this book until his seventy-fourth year, after publication of A River Runs through It and Other Stories. He began Young Men and Fire partly in the spirit of what he liked to call his anti-shuffleboard philosophy of old age, but partly, too, out of a deeper compulsion. In Maclean’s files after his death were found some notes toward a preface, written in 1984. The problem of self-identity, Maclean wrote, is not just a problem for the young. It is a problem all the time. Perhaps the problem. It should haunt old age, and when it no longer does it should tell you that you are dead. Young Men and Fire was where, near the end, all the lives he had lived would merge: the lives of a woodsman, firefighter, scholar, teacher, and storyteller.

When Maclean died in 1990 at the age of eighty-seven, Young Men and Fire was unfinished. The book had resisted completion because the facts of the catastrophe proved so protean and because Maclean’s stamina began finally to wane. But more important, Young Men and Fire had become a story in search of itself as a story, following where Maclean’s compassion led it. As long as the manuscript sustained itself and its author in this process of discovery, it had to remain in some sense unfinished.

After Maclean’s death, it was left for the Press to prepare Young Men and Fire for publication. Our editing has not altered the structure of the book, and we have kept substantive interpolations to a minimum. We have done the kind of stylistic editing that we believe Maclean himself would have done if he had had the time, and we have cut certain repetitions in the manuscript. Facts have been checked for consistency and accuracy and occasionally corrected, but they have not been updated beyond 1987, the year Maclean became too ill to work further on the manuscript. We have added the present chapter divisions, although the breaks within these chapters are Maclean’s, as is the division of the book into three parts. Black Ghost, the story that opens this book, was found in Maclean’s files after his death, his exact intentions for it unclear. We print it here as a fitting prelude.

Norman Maclean talked much of the loneliness of writing, but he also relished what he called its social side, and he planned to acknowledge the help he had received in writing this story. His greatest debts are recorded in the story itself: to Laird Robinson, Bud Moore, Ed Heilman, Richard Rothermel, Frank Albini, and other men of the United States Forest Service; to women of the Forest Service, among them Susan Yonts, Beverly Ayers, and Joyce Haley; and to the survivors of the Mann Gulch fire, Walter Rumsey and Robert Sallee. Maclean would have thanked dozens more.

In editing the manuscript, the Press has benefited from the advice, at various stages, of Wayne C. Booth, Jean Maclean Snyder, and John N. Maclean. Laird Robinson was Norman Maclean’s partner in his quest for the missing parts of the Mann Gulch story, and we thank him for helping the Press in the same spirit. We are grateful, too, for the assistance of Joel Snyder, Dorothy Pesch, William Kittredge, Wayne Williams, and Richard Rothermel. We especially thank Jean Maclean Snyder and John N. Maclean for entrusting Young Men and Fire to the University of Chicago Press and working with us to bring it to publication.


Black Ghost

It was a few days after the tenth of August, 1949, when I first saw the Mann Gulch fire and started to become, even then in part consciously, a small part of its story. I had just arrived from the East to spend several weeks in my cabin at Seeley Lake, Montana. The postmistress in the small town at the lower end of the lake told me about the fire and how thirteen Forest Service Smokejumpers had been burned to death on the fifth of August trying to get to the top of a ridge ahead of a blowup in tall, dead grass. In the small town at Seeley Lake and in the big country around it there are only summer tourists and loggers, and, since the loggers are the only permanent residents, they have all the mailboxes at the post office—the postmistress, of course, has come to know them all, and as a result knows a lot about forests and forest fires in a gossipy way. Since she and I are old friends, I have a box, too, and every day when I came for my mail she passed on to me the latest she had heard about the dead Smokejumpers, most of them college boys, until after about a week I realized I would have to see the Mann Gulch fire myself while some of it was still burning.

I knew, of course, that a fire that big would be burning long after it had been brought under control. I had gone to work for the Forest Service during World War I when there was a shortage of men and I was only fifteen, four years younger than Thol, the youngest of those who had died in Mann Gulch, so by the time I was his age I had been on several big fires. I knew, for instance, that the Mann Gulch fire would be burning for a long time, because one November I had gone back with my father to hunt deer in country close to where I had been on a big fire that summer, and to my surprise I had seen stumps and fallen trees still burning, with smoke coming out of blackened holes in the snow.

But even though I knew smoke would probably be curling out of Mann Gulch till November there came a day in early August when I could not listen to any more post office gossip about the fire. I even had a notion of why I had to go and see the fire right then. I once had seen a ghost, and the ghost again possessed me.

The big fire that had still been burning late into the hunting season had been on Fish Creek, the Fish Creek that is about nine miles by trail, as I remember, from Lolo Hot Springs. Fish Creek was fine deer country, and the few homesteaders who had holed up there made a living by supplementing the emaciated produce from their rocky gardens with the cash they collected from deer hunters in the autumn by turning their cabins into overnight hunting lodges. Deer, then, were a necessary part of their economy and their diet. They had venison on the table twelve months a year, the game wardens never bothering them for shooting deer out of season, just as long as they didn’t go around bragging that they were getting away with beating the law.

Those of us on the fire crew that had been sent from the ranger station at Lolo Hot Springs were pretty sure that the fire had been started by one of these homesteaders. The Forest Service had issued a permit to a big sheep outfit to graze a flock of a thousand or so on a main tributary of Fish Creek, and you probably know—hunters are sure they know—that sheep graze a range so close to the ground that nothing is left for a deer to eat when the sheep have finished. Hunters even say that a grasshopper can’t live on the grass sheep leave behind. The fire had been started near the mouth of the tributary, on the assumption, we assumed, that the fire would burn up the tributary, which was a box canyon, all cliffs, with no way of getting sheep out of it. From a deer hunter’s point of view, it was a good place for sheep to die. The fire, though, burned not only up the tributary but down it to where it entered Fish Creek and could do major damage to the country. We tried first to use Fish Creek as a fire-line, hoping to stop the fire at the water’s edge, but when it reached thick brush on one side of the creek it didn’t even wait to back up and take a run before it jumped into the brush on the other side. Then we were the ones who had to back up fast. At this point, Fish Creek is in such a narrow and twisted canyon that the main trail going down it is on the sidehill, so we backed up to the sidehill trail, which was to be our second line of defense.

I was standing where the fire jumped the trail. At first it was no bigger than a small Indian campfire, looking more like something you could move up close to and warm your hands against than something that in a few minutes could leave your remains lying in prayer with nothing on but a belt. For a moment or two I could have stepped over it and fought it just as well from the upstream side, and when it got a little bigger I still could have walked around it. Instead, I fought it where I stood, for no other reason than that all of us are taught to be the boy who stood on the burning deck. It never occurred to me that I had alternatives. I did not even notice—not until I returned the next day—that if I had stepped across the fire I would have been on a side of it where the fire would soon reach a cedar thicket whose fallen needles had made a thick, moist duff in which fire could only creep and smolder.

The fire coming up at me from the creek in the bunch and cheat grass stopped for only a moment when it reached the trail we were hoping to use as a fire-line. The grass on either side of the trail did not make such instant connections as the brush had on the sides of the creek. Here the fire rocked back and forth like a broadjumper before it started toward the takeoff. Then it jumped. One by one, other like fires reached the line, rocked back and forth, and they all made it.

I broke and started up the hillside. Unlike the boys on the Mann Gulch fire, who did not start running until they were nearly at the top, I started running near the bottom. By the testimony of those who survived, they weren’t scared until the last hundred yards. My testimony is that I was scared until I got near the top, when all feelings—fright, thirst, desire to stop for a moment to pray—became indistinguishable from exhaustion. Unlike the Mann Gulch fire,

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  • (4/5)
    Young Men and Fire is the story of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire in Montana. It killed 13 young smoke jumpers making it a pivotal event in US firefighting history. Much was gained from their sacrifice, the methods and practices of firefighting were forever changed. Maclean atomized the roughly 60-minute event in detail, going over every detail and possible lesson that could be gleaned. His writing is fantastic and it holds up well until about the last 50 pages or so when it becomes too geeky (the mathematics of fire etc). The human drama is unforgettable, when I think of firefighters from now on, this incident from the early heroic days will stand out.I looked up Mann Gulch on Google Maps and incredibly there is a wildfire occurring when the picture was taken from space. I don't know if Google did this on purpose, or sheer "luck", but it adds to the books atmosphere to see the valley in the middle of an actual fire.
  • (3/5)
    Interesting book - but a bit too technical for me. I am interested in forest fires and the history of fire fighting as I live in the forest, but some portions of the book were pretty dry. It was interesting how Maclean would switch from that type of writing into his poetic, emotional, and spiritual style.
  • (5/5)
    Catastrophes are only a part of the story of the crew of fifteen smoke jumpers who, in August 1949, stepped into the sky above the mountains of western Montana. Their story is the focal point of this fine narrative, but there is so much more that I have stopped in my read to share a brief quotation that both tells a tiny part of the story, but also provides a peek into the context that is as vast as the mountains themselves. The beauty of this book is not only in the story of those young men and the fire they leapt into, but also the way it is told by Norman Maclean."Yet we should also go on wondering if there is not some shape, form, design as of artistry in this universe we are entering that is composed of catastrophes and missing parts. Whether we are coming up or down the Gates of the Mountains, catastrophes everywhere enfold us as they do the river, and catastrophes may seem to be only the visible remains of defunct happenings of millions of years ago and the Rocky Mountains only the disintegrated explosions that darkened skies also millions of years ago and left behind the world dusted with gritty silicone. At least I should recognize this as much the same stuff as the little pieces of glass which in 1980 Mount St. Helens in Washington sprinkled over my cabin in Montana six hundred miles away, and anyone coming down the Gates of the Mountains can see that the laminations of ocean beds compressed in the cliffs on one side of the river match the laminations on the opposite cliffs, and, looking up, can see that an arch, now disappeared into sky, originally join both cliffs. There are also missing parts to the story of the lonely crosses ahead of us, almost invisible in deep grass near the top of a mountain. What if, by searching the earth and even the sky for these missing parts, we should find enough of them to see catastrophe change into the shape of remembered tragedy? Unless we are willing to escape into sentimentality or fantasy, often the best we can do with catastrophes, even our own, is to find out exactly what happened and restore some of the missing parts---hopefully, even the arch to the sky." (pp 46-47)
  • (5/5)
    Forest fires are expected to be put out by 10 o'clock in the morning after Smoke Jumpers are dropped on them. Alas, in the Mann Gulch fire of August, 1949, nearly all the 15 Smoke Jumpers (plus one ranger, already on the ground) were dead within two hours of being dropped on site. With superhuman effort, two managed to scramble to safety in the light of rapidly-moving flames and another one, the foreman, was able to build a last-minute escape fire.With his forestry background, the author combined knowledge and ability to write beautifully to create a disaster book masterpiece. He excelled, especially, at telling the story of the fire and also telling the "what changed as a result." The lengthy middle section of the book--his attempt to track down information--seemed unfinished. This is not surprising because his search for answers and his writing were ongoing at the time of his death, before this book was completed.Memorable writing. For instance, from the final portion: "From the elevation of retrospect we can see it all coming together more clearly and sooner than those who were there and running. For us the signs are many that in minutes the blowup would bring a total convergence of sky, young men, and fire, and after that, the dark; on the top of the hill, though there are only occasional partings in the smoke, the flames themselves were blinding and those inside the flames and smoke could no longer see what was happening to them and would happen next."I loved, too, how the author managed to suggest what the dying Smoke Jumpers may have felt. He does so in a beautiful, reassuring way.Due to the fact that the foreman built an escape fire at the last minute, something that hadn't been done before, this fire remains controversial, a mystery. Did the escape fire contribute to the deaths of some of the Smoke Jumpers or could it have saved them? Perhaps if the author could've finished it before he'd died, we might have a better answer.This is a truly fascinating book, in need of some polishing, but unforgettable nonetheless. Very highly recommended!!
  • (5/5)
    Powerful, riveting, and moving account of one man's (Norman Maclean) journey of uncovering the truth behind the death of 13 young smokejumpers on the Mann Gulch fire in Montana in 1949. It's a story of the incredible power of wind, weather, and wildfire, but it's also the story of life. It's the story of survival and remembrance. It's the story of how science and understanding of fire behavior has changed how we fight fires. A tremendous read, even if Maclean does occasionally wonder off the path.
  • (4/5)
    I imagine when most people here someone say, "He died too young," they're imagining someone around 50 or 60, maybe even pushing to 70 with the quality of life improvements and medical leaps being made. I'm going to appropriate that quote for Norman Maclean who died at 82. He was an amazing story-teller (and that's different than a writer I feel, even though he was a great writer as well). Young Men and Fire was an intensive research-laden book about a fire that had killed more than a dozen young smokejumpers nearly five decades before the book was published. Yet, it's still riveting. In reality, it's not just about the tragedy, but it's about a bit of mystery and potential cover-ups and remembering and forgetting and the obsession of one man (Maclean) to deliver a story he wants the world to know about as somewhat of a tribute to the young men who lost their lives. As for "dying too young," Maclean actually died before the book was completed and so it does seem to lose some of his voice towards the end - he started to publish late in life and it still strikes me that the world lost a great talent almost before it was recognized.Back to the book - for the first 250 pages, Maclean's master-storyteller talents are displayed in full. However, the book doesn't hold up as well as the last 50 pages come up. It's too science-heavy and seems to lack Maclean's voice. I could believe he actually wrote what's on those pages, but I feel like he was only assembling his thoughts and had he more time, would have crafted even the science into something poetic (the reader will encounter examples of this earlier in the book).So, by the time of his death Maclean had a book about water and a book about fire. Given more time, one has to wonder if the other classical elements of air and earth would have emerged in literary form from this amazing storyteller.
  • (5/5)
    The tragedy of the Mann Gulch fire of 1949 in Montana cut thirteen lives short. A group of smokejumpers (parachute firefighters) sent out to contain a fire were trapped by the fire themselves and died all within a quarter of an hour. They might have survived if they had followed their leader or if they had had better training or if they worked together.The book is a tribute to a group of young daredevils. One had survived the cold hell of Bastogne to die by fire. Another had braved the seas of WWII to perish in the mountains. At the fringe of civilization, together with the local drunks and never-do-wells, they were sent to battle nature. Nature both splendid and terrible, forceful and dangerous. This book is both a report of the disaster and an analysis of its group and leadership processes. It served as the basis for Karl E. Weick's must read paper). McLean resolves puzzle by puzzle to reconstruct the last minutes of their lives in painstaking detail. This book is also an old man's obsessive search for truth. McLean was 47 years old when the tragedy happened. He was 74 when he started working on this book. He tracked down archival information, interviewed and pestered witnesses and relatives. The US Forest Service both learned from the tragedy (and prevented a reoccurence by changing its training methods) and covered up its mistakes by influencing witnesses, altering their testimonies and tampering with evidence. McLean with all the time of a lonely retiree tracks down every path, climbs Mann Gulch multiple times (together with two survivors). The book becomes his life's work and purpose. Although, for all practical purposes he has uncovered everything, there is to know about the disaster, he soldiers on, investigates, questions himself, chasing the white whale. Young men and fire is also a portrait of an old man, clinging on to life, wanting to know, knowing that soon all his knowledge will disappear forever.Highly recommended. A must read for everybody interested in small-unit interactions and decision-making processes.
  • (4/5)
    Maclean didn't get to finish editing this book, and the last third feels rougher than the rest. Still, this thoughtful, book length essay is amazing. The author spirals three times through the story of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire that claimed the lives of a dozen smokejumpers. Each pass, he brings the reader closer to the unknowable - what it must have felt like to flee from the fire; how each of the smokejumpers must have made his decision to keep running for the ridgeline or hunker down and hope to survive. As the book progresses, it balances on an increasingly fine edge - on the one hand, the reconstructed details function like a zoom lens, taking us ever closer to the critical, fatal moments of the tragedy; while on the other, the truth of what must have happened slides ever further out of reach, lost behind the limits of our ability to know. Though the title refers to 'Young Men', this felt like anything but a young man's book. Reading it a few years ago, I loved the writing and was moved by the story, but felt I was skipping over depths that I'd only really be able to understand with the passage of years and years of time. Perhaps it's time to try reading it again.
  • (3/5)
    Thirteen young smokejumpers were killed during the tragic Mann Gulch fire in Montana in 1949. Maclean researched every detail of the story, compiling multiple accounts to give a broad picture.The book drags in a few parts, but overall it’s a fascinating look at the horrible event. It’s as much a story of Maclean’s research as it is a story about the men. He didn’t begin the book until he was in his 70s, which makes the deaths he writes about especially poignant. When he wrote it he’d already lived a long, full life, something that none of those men were able to do.The book looses its focus in the second half, drifting a bit into personal feelings rather than facts. Overall, I’d say if the topic interests you read it, otherwise, skip it.Side Note: The narrator of the audiobook was awful and I almost stopped reading it because of him. I learned later that it was read by Norman’s son, John Maclean, which explains a lot. It’s very rare to find an author or any other unprofessional reader that can do a good job with an audiobook. There are exceptions, like David Sedaris and Neil Gaiman, who are wonderful, but on average it doesn’t work out well.
  • (5/5)
    I read somewhere that every equation or graph in a book decreases its sales by 10%. Publishers and editors take this maxim to ridiculous extremes; in one “popular economics” book I read the author described graphs (e.g., “A graph of X versus Y would look like an arch”) rather than printing them. It’s good, therefore, that the University of Chicago Press editors are made of sterner stuff, because the most moving feature of Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire is a graph.This is not to say that the text of the book isn’t moving as well. A Great Day to Fight Fire, reviewed earlier, tells the story of the men involved – how they grew up, what their lives were like, how they got to be smokejumpers. Maclean focuses instead on technical aspects – what was known about fires in 1949, how the fire might have moved and spread, and modern (for 1990, when Maclean died with the book unfinished) forest fire science. Yet, somehow, Young Men and Fire manages to be more moving and personal. Maclean made several trips to Mann Gulch – including one while the ashes were still warm, when he worked for the Forest Service himself, then several much later when he had retired from being an English Literature professor at the University of Chicago. He explored the area – which is brutal and steep and hot – even though he knew that a Forest Service fire scientist 20 years younger had died of a heart attack doing the same thing in 1949 – trying to piece together science and survivor’s narratives to make sense of what they saw on the ground.Maclean’s description of the fire basics is essentially the same as Matthews’; started by lightning, burned slowly until it got out of timber, then rapidly as it caught dried grass and moved upslope. Wag Dodge realized things were going poorly and that his crew could never outrun the fire up the slope – so he started an “escape fire” – but nobody realized what the was trying to do and bypassed him. Two of the crew made it out by climbing up a slope; the rest tried to “sidehill” away from the fire, and didn’t. Maclean persuaded the two remaining survivors to return to the scene and explain what they did, why they did it, and where they were when they did it.The survivors – Walter Rumsey and Robert Sallee – had remarkably accurate memories as they approached the rock slide they had used as a refuge. They noted – from hundreds of feet away – that the memorial cross for one of the victims (William Hellman, who survived to die of his burns the day after the fire) was in the wrong place; they remembered moving Hellman to a large flat rock to keep his burns out of the ashes, and giving him the only liquid they had to quench his thirst – the juice from a can of potatoes. They found the rock, poked around in the grass a little, and found a thirty-year-old rusty can. Trying to pick out their escape route was more problematical – although they agreed on where they had crossed the ridge they disagreed on where Dodge had lit his escape fire. Maclean, on a return trip, found the escape fire spot (still marked with a wooden cross, now fallen and covered with weeds, which Dodge had placed there when he returned to the scene) and the ridge crossing, identified by a juniper that Rumsey had tumbled into.Maclean’s prose is remarkable – you might expect a literature professor to get overly eloquent, and there are times when Maclean is eloquent – but not overly. There are some digressions – a description of Albert Abraham Michaelson’s billiard skills and the comments of a veteran Forest Service firefighter on the wartime use of Mennonite smokejumpers, for example – but they all eventually tie together.Near the end of the book, Maclean visits the Forest Service’s Fire Science lab and tries to answer some unsolved questions – why did Dodge’s escape fire burn directly up the slope while the main fire burned at right angles, up the gulch, and why was there disagreement over fire timing (the official report used 5:55 PM as the time the men died, based on the melted watch of Jim Harrison, but other recovered watches showed times from 5:42 to 6:40; a ranger down at the gulch outlet to the Missouri estimated the crew had died sometime between 5:35 and 5:45 but was persuaded to change his story to the “official” time). In 1949, the question of the “escape fire” was pretty important, because the father of one of the victims contended in a lawsuit that it was the escape fire, not the main fire, which killed the crews. Maclean’s explanation of the apparently anomalous behavior of the escape fire is that the main fire was creating its own wind, opposite to the prevailing wind direction, and Dodge was lucky enough to set his fire at a place and time where the two canceled out. In Maclean’s reconstruction the escape fire had nothing to do with the deaths – it burned upslope just enough to allow Dodge to shelter in the ashes, but was quickly surrounded and bypassed by the main fire.The fire science lab had mathematical models of how fast a fire will progress, given fuel type, wind speed, and slope angle, and also how fast men can run on a slope. That’s what the graph I mentioned is all about – time on the X-axis and distance on the Y. There are two curves – a solid one showing the distance traveled by the men, including their head start, and a dashed one showing the distance travelled by the fire. They converge at 5:55 PM.All our lives trace curves, some irregular and some purposeful. Some other curve converges with us – an advancing fire, perhaps; or the growth of a patch of cells; or the blood pressure in an artery; or the route of an automobile driven by a drunk. Sooner or later the curves touch, and our curve ends.Highly recommended.