Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 5, 2014

65 years ago today: the Mann Gulch Fire

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on August 5, 2014

A man named Robert Sallee died on May 26th of this year. He was the last survivor of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire. 

Today is the 65th anniversary of the Montana wildfire that killed 13 firefighters.

Here’s the story of what happened, based on Karl Weick’s summary of Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire.  You can find Weick’s analysis of the fire in his Administrative Science Quarterly article titled “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster.”

… at its heart, the Mann Gulch disaster is a story of a race. The smokejumpers in the race (excluding foreman “Wag” Wagner Dodge and ranger Jim Harrison) were ages 17-28, unmarried, seven of them were forestry students, and 12 of them had seen military service. They were a highly select group and often described themselves as professional adventurers.

A lightning storm passed over the Mann Gulch area at 4 p.m. on August 4, 1949 and is believed to have set a small fire in a dead tree. The next day, August 5, 1949, the temperature was 97 degrees and the fire danger rating was 74 out of a possible 100, which means “explosive potential”.

When the fire was spotted by a forest ranger, the smokejumpers were dispatched to fight it. Sixteen of them flew out of Missoula, Montana at 2:30 p.m. in a C-47 transport. Wind conditions that day were turbulent, and one smokejumper got sick on the airplane, didn’t jump, returned to the base with the plane, and resigned from the smokejumpers as soon as he landed.

The smokejumpers and their cargo were dropped on the south side of Mann Gulch at 4:10 p.m. from 2000 feet rather than the normal 1200 feet, due to the turbulence. The parachute that was connected to their radio failed to open, and the radio was pulverized when it hit the ground.

The crew met ranger Jim Harrison who had been fighting the fire alone for four hours, collected their supplies, and ate supper. About 5:10 p.m. they started to move along the south side of the gulch to surround the fire. Dodge and Harrison, however, having scouted ahead, were worried that the thick forest near which they had landed might be a “death trap”. They told the second in command, William Hellman, to take the crew across to the north side of the gulch and march them toward the river along the side of the hill. While Hellman did this, Dodge and Harrison ate a quick meal.

Dodge rejoined the crew at 5:40 p.m. and took his position at the head of the line moving toward the river. He could see flames flapping back and forth on the south slope as he looked to his left. At this point the reader [of Young Men and Fire] hits the most chilling sentence in the entire book: “Then Dodge saw it!”.

What he saw was that the fire had crossed the gulch just 200 yards ahead and was moving toward them. Dodge turned the crew around and had them angle up the 76-percent hill toward the ridge at the top. They were soon moving through bunch grass that was two and a half feet tall and were quickly losing ground to the 30- foot-high flames that were soon moving toward them at 610 feet per minute.

Dodge yelled at the crew to drop their tools, and then, to everyone’s astonishment, he lit a fire in front of them and ordered them to lie down in the area it had burned. No one did, and they all ran for the ridge.

Two people, Sallee and Rumsey, made it through a crevice in the ridge unburned, Hellman made it over the ridge burned horribly and died at noon the next day, Dodge lived by lying down in the ashes of his escape fire, and one other person, Joseph Sylvia, lived for a short while and then died.

The hands on Harrison’s watch melted at 5:56, which has been treated officially as the time the 13 people died.

After the fire passed, Dodge found Sallee and Rumsey, and Rumsey stayed to care for Hellman while Sallee and Dodge hiked out for help. They walked into the Meriwether ranger station at 8:50 p.m., and rescue parties immediately set out to recover the dead and dying. All the dead were found in an area of 100 yards by 300 yards.

It took 450 men five more days to get the 4,500-acre Mann Gulch fire under control. At the time the crew jumped on the fire, it was classified as a Class C fire, meaning its scope was between 10 and 99 acres.

The Forest Service inquiry held after the fire, judged by many to be inadequate, concluded that “there is no evidence of disregard by those responsible for the jumper crew of the elements of risk which they are expected to take into account in placing jumper crews on fires.” The board also felt that the men would have been saved had they “heeded Dodge’s efforts to get them to go into the escape fire area with him”.

Dodge apparently invented the escape option on the spot. As Weick notes, the crew refused “to escape one fire by walking into another one that was intentionally set.”  It simply went against all their training and all their commonsense. They died, by following their training and by doing what their commonsense told them to do.

The Weick article about Mann Gulch introduced me to the idea of sensemaking, the notion that reality is not always something that exists outside the observer.  Reality can be constructed — i.e, made sense of — in ways that help and hinder effective action.

Weick notes two lessons learned from Mann Gulch I believe retain their usefulness for homeland security leaders trying to make sense of what they are asked to do every day.

1. Improvisation and bricolage — Creativity is “figuring out how to use what you already know in order to go beyond what you currently think.” Dodge was able to improvise a way to survive the fire because “he was what we now would call a bricoleur, someone able to create order out of whatever materials were at hand.”

2. The attitude of wisdom – “To be wise is not to know particular facts but to know without excessive confidence or excessive cautiousness. … Wisdom is an attitude taken by persons toward the beliefs, values, knowledge, information, abilities, and skills that are held, a tendency to doubt that these are necessarily true or valid and to doubt that they are an exhaustive set of those things that could be known. In a fluid world, wise people know that they don’t fully understand what is happening right now, because they have never seen precisely this event before.”


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Comment by Bruce Martin

August 5, 2014 @ 1:16 pm

How do organizations respond?

The Mann Gulch Fire, followed by the Rattlesnake Fire in 1953 in the Mendocino National Forest, and informed by the after action inquiries led the USFS to implement the Standard Firefighting Orders and “Watchout situations.” Both tools have been refined over the years and both have been criticized by operators and supervisors for being unrealistic in a firefighting environment. Many times I have heard “you cannot fight a fire without breaking the rules.” The rules are technical and operator level actions, some would argue that they are “commonsense.” Simultaneously there are organizational imperatives to keep suppression costs and/or fire losses low. The rules and the imperatives can counter each other.

In 1994 the South Canyon fire resulted in the death of 14 firefighters in Colorado. The collapse of the leadership process was described here by Ted Putnam. The federal wildland agencies realized there were more dimensions to firefighter safety, survival and mission accomplishment and implemented a range of activities, including leadership training and education. They seem to have embraced the notion that “training is for certainty and education is for uncertainty.” Their leadership series, from recruits to executives, does not proscribe only one way to do leadership, or to analyze problems.

While still a work in progress; it’s better than many organizational endeavors I have witnessed. Last year’s tragedy at the Yarnell Fire in AZ involved a crew from a municipal department. While the efforts promulgated by the federal wildland agencies post South Canyon are freely available, local agencies aren’t necessarily aware or able to take advantage of them. Another challenge of of the homeland security environment is making change within the federalist construct of our country.

Bob Sallee made presentations to firefighters as recently as a few years ago on his Mann Gulch experience. The Nova Episode “Fire Wars” has him telling his story in a portion.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 6, 2014 @ 7:00 am

Thanks Bruce!

In his FEMA Directorship James Lee Witt, ever the hands on activist with complete support of the political operatives in the WH, got to Long Island, NY, and was personally directing C-130s in firefighting, only to discover it was not a FEMA role under an existing FEMA, Interior, and Ag MOU! FEMA does pay states and their local governments for some response to fires on federal lands [see 44 CFR Part 150] and for Presidential declarations for fire disasters and emergencies.

GAO did a major study and concluded federal efforts needed better coordination and updated agreements. On my retirement on October 1st 1999 this had yet to be done.

Always remember that the destruction of San Francisco in 1906 was largely due to fire.

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