FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN
The True Story of the South Canyon Fire
By John N. Maclean
Morrow. 273 pp. $24
Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle
In the inside-out world of firefighting, roasted terrain can be desirable -- "good black," in the lingo -- while untouched ground is fraught with danger. The reason is that burnt land has been stripped of fuel, and if the tract is large enough the fire will have to go around it to feed itself, whereas virgin brush and timber are ripe for combustion.
Anyone who has read Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, an investigation of the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949 -- and a modern American masterpiece -- will have already encountered this reversal of the mundane. The question that became Maclean's literary obsession was this: As a wind-propelled wildfire roared up a steep gulch in a Montana wilderness, did the crew chief act irresponsibly or with prescient brilliance when he lit a grass fire partway up the gulch, signaled his fellow smokejumpers to stop and join him inside the charred zone, then hunkered down and saved himself when all the others wagered their lives on trying to outrun danger instead? Two of them did beat the fire, flinging themselves over the ridgetop; the others, 13 in all, lost the race.
Comparisons of Young Men and Fire with Fire on the Mountain, which covers the 1994 South Canyon Fire in western Colorado, are inevitable. After all, John N. Maclean is Norman's son, and in his Notes and Acknowledgments he mentions his role in preparing the former book for publication after his father died leaving it not quite finished. I gave Young Men and Fire a rave review in these pages when it came out in 1992, and over the years my admiration for it has only increased. The material that the younger Maclean had to work with lacks the classic shapeliness of the Mann Gulch story, and where the father's mind was meditative, almost Melvillian in its passion for searching out the inner nature of a basic natural force, the son's seems more quotidian (he was for many years a reporter for the Chicago Tribune). But John Maclean is a fine storyteller, Fire on the Mountain (the title comes from an old-time fiddle tune) is riveting to read, and no one who enjoyed the first Maclean fire book will want to miss this sequel.
The South Canyon Fire never should have had that name. It actually took place on and about Storm King Mountain, property managed by the Bureau of Land Management (a federal agency within the Interior Department) near the town of Glenwood Springs. It was one of roughly 40 fires reported burning in the vicinity at the same time, during one of the driest summers on record, and like most of those other fires, it was started by lightning during a thunderstorm. It was easily suppressible in its first day or so -- an airplane dropping retardant could have done the job; had this happened, 14 lives would have been spared, and about $3.5 million in assorted costs would have been saved. Failing that, the firefighters who died would almost surely not have been deployed as they were if a weather forecast of strong winds had reached their superiors.
The fire grew and ran wild due, in large part, to those commonplace features of the way we live now, miscommunication and lack of coordination. Early on, an official remarked that the fire was situated in "rugged and inaccessible" terrain, and this became a kind of mantra for neglecting it. Rugged the land certainly was; inaccessible, hardly. I-70 was nearby, as was the Colorado River, and some local residents shot videos of the fire from their yards. At the same time, as Maclean writes, "Cooperation, the touchstone of modern firefighting, was virtually nonexistent. Instead, [you had] competition, jealousies, and outdated policies and thinking." So many levels of government were involved -- federal agencies, a federal inter-agency fire center, state agencies, the county sheriff, local fire departments -- that in many cases fixing the blame for a particular screwup is impossible.
Maclean's investigation turned up an issue that is new to the world of firefighting since Mann Gulch: how the presence of women firefighters might have affected the outcome. He has found evidence that some male firefighters at Storm King tended to coddle their female colleagues -- a form of gallantry that may not be appropriate in such a dangerous profession. And it is possible that the laggardly getaway pace of a group of firefighters who perished when the fire overtook them may have stemmed from an unspoken group decision to accommodate its slower female members.
This is speculation. What seems certain, however, is that the firefighters wouldn't have died if they had adhered to well-known rules about laying fire lines. A fire line ("fire swathe" might be a better term) is "good black" without the black -- a fuel-free zone made by cutting down trees and tearing up brush instead of resorting to fire. To cut a line from the top of a hill down while a fire burns below is dangerous because of the likelihood of exactly what happened at Mann Gulch (and Storm King). To head off such catastrophes, the line's architect should make sure that there are always escape routes. This did not happen at Storm King.
Maclean's training as a reporter has enabled him to make as much sense out of this welter of conflicts and mishaps as perhaps anyone could. He writes a chiseled prose that does justice to the action. Here, for example, is his account of the fire's climactic flare-up: "Behind them an enormous wave of flame rose up from the western drainage and began to sweep the ridgetop, driving the firefighters before it. It swelled to a height of 50, 100 and then 150 feet. It moved faster than any human could run; everything was happening too fast. The flame wave began to break over the ridgetop, transforming the people into surfers riding the curl of a scarlet-orange wave of fire." And he ably evokes the macho ethos of the elite federal firefighters, male and female alike. Most of them were young and in tiptop shape (the men liked to doff their shirts and strut around showing off their chests), and they openly courted danger. When a supervisor warned them that the terrain was steep, they shouted at him, "Steep? We want it steep!" When he added that power lines might complicate the work, they shouted, "We want power lines! Give us power lines!" This
suckled-by-wolves bravado would be a kick to read about, if it weren't for the fatal outcome.
If Fire on the Mountain ultimately lacks its predecessor's epic depth and meticulously arrived-at certitude, that is probably as much a reflection of how things have changed since 1949 as it is a comment on the respective gifts of Norman and John N. Maclean. It's not just that we know so much more about fires and how to fight them now; it's also that the whole enterprise of seeking and arriving at the truth about an incident seems to have become so much more shaky.
Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer and editor.