This week we look back and remember a tragedy that significantly impacted wildland firefighter training nationwide. On the afternoon of August 5, 1949 fifteen smokejumpers and a national forest ranger were trapped while fighting a wildfire in the Helena National Forest in Montana. Only three of the smokejumpers survived.
Pictured here: The thirteen men who lost their lives during the Mann Gulch Fire on August 5, 1949
From the NFPA Journal vol. 108, no.105, 2014:
Shortly after 5 p.m., after gathering their gear, the crew was on its way from the head of the canyon, where it had landed, toward the Missouri River at the other end of the gulch. Before the crew reached its destination, however, the jumper foreman, Wagner Dodge, realized the fire had crossed the canyon to the side they were on, and he told his crew to go back the way it had come. It was 5:45 p.m.
After running about 300 yards, Dodge told his men to drop their gear so they could move faster. The fire was moving rapidly, with flames about 50 feet high, and the men made it another 200 yards before Dodge realized they were about to be overtaken. He lit an escape fire, hoping it would clear the area of brush, allowing he and his men to take refuge in the burned space. The rest of his crew, skeptical of Dodge’s unorthodox plan, kept running. Only two crew members (Walter Rumsey and Robert Sallee) made it up the rock face at the top of the canyon. Looking back at the fire from the top of the ridge, Sallee later told another smoke jumper, he could see flames “jumping above the trees, and the men…falling before the fire got to them.” Dodge survived unscathed in his burned area. It was later estimated that the fire covered about 3,000 acres in 10 minutes during this blow-up period.
The Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program has set up a Staff Ride website where participants are put in the shoes of the men who were at The Mann Gulch Fire, as it is known. It serves as a Case Study and an opportunity for people to learn what happened and ask questions about decision-making.
For more information regarding this and other moments in fire history, please feel free to reach out to the NFPA Research Library & Archives.
The NFPA Archives houses all of NFPA's publications, both current and historic.
Library staff are available to answer research questions from members and the general public.