MANN GULCH, Mont. — We walked with ghosts.
Just above the Gates is a small, sharp cleft in the mountains called Mann Gulch. It is accessible from nearby Helena, the state capital, by about a half-hour in the car and a short ride on a fast boat. Yet the gulch feels a world away, silent but for the breeze moving through pines.
One afternoon a lifetime ago — strike that; if lifetimes shared one length we would never have come here. The afternoon was 73 years ago, something like the Bible’s allotted span of three score and ten. On a hot August day in 1949, lightning struck a Mann Gulch hillside. By suppertime the next day, 11 firefighters were dead and two were dying of their burns. A lifetime, to them, was as brief as 19 years, and no more than 28.
My friends and I had read and discussed a book together, “Young Men and Fire,” in which the author, Norman Maclean, struggled, with his celebrated eloquence, to understand the how and the why. By going there and walking with the ghosts, we found an initial set of answers without much trouble. That breeze I mentioned, in the pines? It was highly variable, in both direction and speed. On the fateful day, a shift in the wind blew flames from one side of the gulch to the other, effectively closing the firefighters’ path to the river. Then the wind pushed the fire up the gulch toward them.
The why of the tragedy was told in the steep grade and loose rock at the gulch’s upper end. Where the trees gave way to long, dry grass, we felt the near-futility of escape in a chaos of blinding smoke, failing muscles, gasping lungs and sliding feet. Two of the 16 made a lucky decision to break straight uphill to the looming ridge, where they narrowly escaped into the next gulch. One man somehow had the presence of mind to set another fire and lie down in its ashes; deprived of fuel when it reached that spot, the main fire passed on either side of his hellish lifeboat, then raced forward to tackle and consume the others, one by one.
By looking very closely, we could find in the waving grass the markers placed where each man fell. A teenager, Henry Thol, made it the farthest, and from the spot of his death we saw the head of the gulch perhaps another quarter-mile away. Had it beckoned to him, or had it seemed hopelessly far off? Distance is deceptive in wide-open spaces.
A simpler how and a deeper why haunt Mann Gulch and remain relevant to this day. Those lives were lost because the men were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the reason they were there is that we fight too many wildfires. Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem, essential to the health of wilderness. To walk with the ghosts is to see the pointlessness of fighting a fire in that remote place, and to be revulsed by the hubris of those who believe that humans can and should control nature.
Where the gulch meets the river, a sign proclaims: “The lessons learned from this tragic event continue to influence wildland fire fighting.” But all these years later, with lives lost under similar circumstances again, and again, and again, state and federal authorities continue to spend billions on fighting wildfires while paying lip service, by comparison, to enlightened fire management.
Fire is nature’s way of renewing wilderness by clearing excess growth and dead fuels. Humans can manage wildfire in one of two ways: by doing the cleanup ourselves, employing work crews and controlled burns; or by allowing remote wildfires to do their work unimpeded. Artificially thwarting the necessary work of wildfire only makes future fires worse by giving them more fuel.
Climate change is widely blamed for the record wildfires of recent decades, and no doubt it is a factor. But for more than a century, we’ve pursued the idea that the only good fire is an extinguished fire, and along the way our wilderness has filled with flammable fuels. Fires get bigger, and move faster, when there is more to burn.
Enlightened managers of the Forest Service and other agencies are coming around to a new approach, but they have a steep hill to climb in public opinion. Perhaps it’s time to update Smokey Bear: Only you can prevent firefighter deaths.