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Two Generations of Fire Writers


Norman Maclean, author of the American classic "A River Runs Through It and other stories," wrote only one other book. In 1992-two years after his death-the University of Chicago Press published Maclean's second book. "Young Men and Fire" is the true story of a forest fire in Mann Gulch, Montana that killed 13 Smokejumpers in 1949.

Smokejumping was new in 1949. Most of the young airborne firefighters were recently returned World War II paratroopers. They were an elite group, confident and energetic. They had a perfect record of success with no casualties. On August 5, 1949 a crew of fifteen jumped into the Montana wilderness to extinguish fire in a remote gulch along the Missouri River. Less than two hours later thirteen of them were dead or fatally burned.

The men had been working downhill when the fire jumped across the bottom of the gulch near the river. Only grizzly bears and fires travel uphill faster than down, and it is a cardinal rule of the outdoors to never let either one get below you. At Mann Gulch an unlucky combination of terrain, fuel, and afternoon winds from the river sent a wall of fire 200 feet high storming up the canyon, engulfing all but the few men who won the race to the ridge top. The term "blowup" entered the lexicon of firefighting to describe the phenomenon.

Many of you are thinking, "Gad, what an awful sounding book. Why would I want to read such a thing?" Okay, it may not be your cup of tea. But "Young Men and Fire" is not a gruesome book at all. On the contrary, it is a beautiful and profoundly haunting book. Norman Maclean didn't write his first book until after his 70th birthday, and that perspective gives his writing a level of maturity, emotion, and understanding that imbues "Young Men and Fire" with a tragic beauty. True enough, his book is about a tragic fire. But it is also is about Maclean's struggle to write it. I think Peter Dexter's blurb on the dust jacket captures the essence of "Young Men and Fire": "A book that tears the heart, not only for the young men who died in Mann Gulch but for the old man grabbing at the dried grass on the same slope thirty years later, trying to keep himself upright long enough to get it all down."

Norman Maclean died with "Young Men and Fire" unfinished. His son, John N. Maclean was one who helped the University of Chicago Press edit the manuscript for publication. It is both ironic and fateful therefore, that the younger Maclean has recently published his own book about a remarkably similar wildfire.

Between 1949 and 1994 not a single Smokejumper was killed fighting forest fires. "Fire on the Mountain" is the story of how this record came to a tragic end in another "blowup" that killed fourteen firefighters, including four women, in circumstances strikingly similar to Mann Gulch. The fire was started by a lightning strike on Storm King Mountain in Colorado in July of 1994, and has come to be known as the South Canyon Fire. Both the Mann Gulch Fire and the South Canyon Fire occurred in steep canyons with narrow openings on large rivers. Both "blowups" happened when fire got below the firefighters and was whipped into super-heated firestorms by afternoon winds off the rivers. The South Canyon Fire is the more tragic of the two, because the lessons from Mann Gulch should have prevented it.

John Maclean writes a fine book. "Fire on the Mountain" doesn't have the lyricism and emotion of "Young Men and Fire," but then John is a reporter and a journalist and his dad was a professor of English Literature. "Fire on the Mountain" is the more clearly written book while "Young Men and Fire" is the more beautiful. Both are very good. To simply say that they are about forest fires is like saying "Into Thin Air" was about a mountain climbing accident and "The Perfect Storm" was about a hurricane.

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