Saturday, March 30, 2013

Rising From the Ashes - 30 of 31

August 1949 in the Helena National Forest lightning struck the south side of Mann Gulch.  It was 97 degrees that day and the wind was described as turbulent.  Fire danger was 74 out of 100.  The trees were tinder dry.

20 year old James O Harrison was working nearby at the Meriwether Campground.  He had been trained as a smoke jumper but his mother had convinced him to find a less dangerous profession.  15 smoke jumpers parachuted in at 4:10.  By 5:56 13 men would be dead.  The fire spread to about 4500 acres.  It would take 5 days and 450 more men to control the fire.

R. Wagner Dodge was the Crew Chief - while climbing to the ridge he realized they would not make it and he set a fire behind him and tried to get his men to step through the fire into the burned out area.  This was an unheard of practice in 1949.  Several men close by cursed him and ran for the ridge. It is believed that many did not even hear him.  The fire was 3 stories high and the noise of the fire was likened to a freight train or a jet.

After the fire passed Wagner and two other smoke jumpers survived - Walter Rumsey, 21 and Robert W. Sallee,  17.  

This horrendous fire would change how smoke jumpers were trained to fight fires.  Unfortunately the lessons learned would be forgotten and tragedy would be repeated in the South Canyon Fire of 1994. (14 firefighters died)

Each spring smoke jumpers come to Mann Gulch before the area is open to the public. Originally 13 crosses marked where the bodies were found. in 2001 David Navon's marker would be replaced with a Star of David Marker.

Songs and books have been written about the Mann Gulch Fire.

  • Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean
  • A Great Day to Fight Fire: Mann Gulch, 1949 by Mark Matthews
  • James Keelaghan wrote "Cold Missouri Waters"
  • Ross Brown, a Townsend, Montana Native wrote "Mann Gulch"
  • Patrick Michael Karnahan wrote Underneath Montana Skies


  1. Margaret OuelletteMarch 30, 2013 at 10:46 AM

    Thank you for sharing this tragedy. I have never heard of smoke jumper. It is important to be reminded of others who have given up their lives to help others as part of their daily work. It takes courage to be a smoke jumper.

  2. Wow. Such tragedy and loss. The land looks as if it has recovered. Grateful to those that serve.

  3. I hope this summer is not as bad as last with the fires, Ruth. I loved each song, and am amazed they have such footage of the jumpers preparing. They are all so young, and I wonder if some had survived the war, only to die in the fire? Thanks for the history. It's good to remember.


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