August 5 marks the sixty-fifth anniversary of the single largest loss of wildfire firefighters’ lives in Montana history. On the late afternoon of August 5, 1949, 13 people were killed by wildfire at Mann Gulch, located along the upper Missouri River near the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness in the Helena National Forest.
This is the first Mann Gulch Fire anniversary for which no eye witness remains alive to relate first-hand the details of what is now recognized as a ‘watershed’ event for the US Forest Service, and the wildfire-fighting community. Sadly, Robert ‘Bob’ Sallee, the last of three firefighters to narrowly survive the Mann Gulch fire, passed away on May 21, 2014 in Spokane, WA, at age 82. (For more information, please see www. nytimes.com/2014/06/01/us/robert-sallee-survivor-of-smoke-jumpers-is-dead-at-82.html?_r=0).
For those who study fire history, Mann Gulch is a remarkable case study involving considerable controversy, as well as significant “lessons learned” 1.
While, at one point, it may have been tempting to attribute the loss of life at Mann Gulch to a less sophisticated and technologically disadvantaged period of time in wildfire-fighting history, the South Canyon Fire (1994), (where 14 firefighters died), and most recently the Yarnell Hill Fire (2013), (where 19 highly trained ‘hot shots’ lost their lives) clearly shows this was wishful thinking.
We remember these losses, not only to honor the memories of those who died, and their families; but also as a stark reminder that fire-fighting is inherently dangerous and difficult work—even with the best equipment and most highly skilled firefighters available. These tragedies are sobering reminders that adherence to safety really does matter but, in some cases, this alone may not be enough to prevent a tragedy from occurring. The late Bob Sallee perhaps said it best at a gathering to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Mann Gulch:
“Wildfires are and always will be dangerous, and we must respect their potential to put a firefighter in harm’s way. And life is precious; and for some very short.” 2.
In remembering the Mann Gulch tragedy, we invite our firefighting partners and friends to please ‘be safe’ this fire season.
1. The most complete description of events occurring at the Mann Gulch Fire is contained in Maclean, Norman (1992) Young Men and Fire, Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press. A fascinating description of Bob Sallee’s recollections when he revisited the scene at Mann Gulch is contained in Maclean, John N. (2003). The Last Survivor. Fire and Ashes, On The Front Lines of American Wildfire (pp. 175-191). New York, New York: Henry Hold and Company, LLC. See also, Rothermel, Richard C., Mann Gulch Fire: A Race That Couldn’t Be Won, (May, 1993) US Department of Agriculture, General Technical Report INT-299 at www.fireleadership.gov/toolbox/staffride/downloads/lsr14/Race_That_Couldnt_Be_Won.pdf.
2. Maclean, John N. (2003). The Last Survivor, Fire and Ashes, On The Front Lines Of American Wildfire, p. 191. New York, New York: Henry Hold and Company, LLC.