Friday, October 13, 2017

Hodgepodge 348/365 - Mann Gulch Fire (for 10/12)

Yesterday while walking through the Sonoma burn areas I was with a former firefighter and a good friend, Steve (also a fellow wilderness ranger). The fire had been described as a "firestorm," and the evidence was certainly compelling: it must have moved very fast and been very hot.

It brought to Steve's mind the infamous Mann Gulch Fire of August 5, 1949, on the upper Missouri River in Montana. A team of fifteen smokejumpers parachuted into the area, where they rendezvoused with a former smokejumper who now worked as a fire guard nearby. As the team approached the fire to begin fighting it, sudden high winds caused the fire to expand, cutting off the men's route and forcing them back uphill. During the next few minutes, a "blow-up" of the fire consumed 3,000 acres in only ten minutes.

That is the moment that is described in a wrenching song by James Keelaghan, "Cold Missouri Waters," which I had the honor of hearing Richard Shindell perform live a number of years ago. I get goosebumps every time I hear it.

The song's narrator, Dodge, tells of his effort to save his fellow firefighters by lighting a stand of tall grass that he urged them all to lie in, as a way of sort of baffling the raging fire around them. The men thought he was crazy and proceeded up the hill. All but three died; they ranged in age from 19 to 28. Dodge was 33; he died five years later from Hodgkin's disease, and the song is told from his perspective as he lies in the hospital about to go.

The fire itself—the whole story—is also described by Norman Maclean in Young Men and Fire, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction in 1992 (and which inspired Keelaghan's song). It's a book I've long intended to read. (Of course I own it.) Maybe now I will.

The U.S. Forest Service drew lessons from the tragedy of the Mann Gulch Fire by designing new training techniques and safety measures around how to approach wildfire suppression. The agency also increased emphasis on fire research and the science of fire behavior. I can't imagine fighting a fire—especially one as complex as the combined event up in Napa and Sonoma Counties right now. My hat is off and my gratitude large for the men and women who actively fight fires. It's a dangerous job.

For more, here's the Wikipedia article on the Mann Guch Fire, which fed this account. 

And here's my favorite version of the song "Cold Missouri Waters," by Cry Cry Cry (with Shindell). The images are low quality, unfortunately, but I suppose they add something. Or—just close your eyes and listen. It's one of the best folk songs ever.

Or listen to Keelaghan himself (I'd not heard his version before: it's lovely).

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