Incident Name: Mann Gulch Fire, Helena National Forest
Personnel: 13 lives lost
Age: not known
Agency/Organization: US Forest Service, Missoula Smokejumpers (SJ) and Helena National Forest Fire Guard
Positions: 12 Missoula Smokejumpers and a Fire Guard
Those that died:
Robert J. Bennett
Eldon E. Dietter
James O. Harrison - Helena National Forest Fire Guard
William J. Hellman, died 8/6/1949
Philip R. McVey
David R. Navon
Leonard L. Piper
Stanley J. Reba
Marvin L. Sherman
Joseph B. Sylvia, died 8/6/1949
Henry J. Thol, Jr.
Newton R. Thompson
Silas R. Thompson
Those that Survived:
R. Wagner Dodge - Missoula SJ foreman
Walter B. Rumsey
Robert W. Sallee
On August 4, 1949 lightning struck a ridgetop separating Mann Gulch and Meriweather Gulch in the "Gates of the Mountains" wild area, Helena National Forest, just east of the Missouri River and approximately 20 miles north of Helena MT. On August 5 1949, just after their arrival to fight the fire -- on a SW-facing 75% slope -- a thunder cell passed overhead. The unexpected winds caused the small fire to spot from the south ridge to the mouth of the gulch and the lower north ridge below them. It blew up, cutting off their escape route, entrapped and overran 16 Missoula Smokejumpers and one Fire Guard in Mann Gulch a scant hour and 45 minutes after they arrived. Thirteen firefighters died; three survived.
Until then, the 10 year old smokejumper program had not lost one man to fire. After Mann Gulch changes included:
* SJ training was modified to put more emphasis on crew discipline and control;
* The science of fire behavior prediction began;
* Two new centers in MT and CA were established to research, develop and test firefighting equipment and PPE.
The 10 Standard Firefighting Orders of 1957 also were, in part, the result of this fire.
Diagram of Mann Gulch Fire and locations of events. From The Report. (For consistency, oriented so north is at the top.)
Diagram of Mann Gulch showing the movement of the crew and the position of the fire as it approached the crew at points (pt.) 1, 2, and 3. From The Race that Couldn't Be Won
Possible Mann Gulch Staff Ride
- Mann Gulch Factual Report pp 12-17 of 37 (1,602K pdf)
- Richard Rothermel (May 1993): Mann Gulch Fire: A Race That Couldn't Be Won United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station, General Technical Report INT-GTR-299
- Karl E. Weick (1993): "The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster". Administrative Science Quarterly 38 (4): 628–652.
- Norman Maclean (1993): Young Men and Fire
- Mark Matthews (2007). A Great Day to Fight a Fire: Mann Gulch, 1949
- Dave Turner (Spring 1999) Forest History Today: "The Thirteenth Fire" (1,923 K pdf)
- The Forest History Society, Peeling Back the Bark blog: "August 5, 1949: Mann Gulch Tragedy"
- The Forest History Society: Mann Gulch Fire, 1949, a history of the Mann Gulch Fire
- Mann Gulch Virtual Field Trip
- Campbell on predicting fire behavior: Wind, Slope, Solar Preheat in alignment:
- NASA - System Failure Case Studies: Rocky Mountain Death Trap, July 2007
- Michael Useem, The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All. New York: Random House, 1998. Chapter 2, “Wagner Dodge Retreats in Mann Gulch.”
- New Staff Ride: Mann Gulch
- Enter the search terms Mann Gulch on the WLF.com Search page. This fire has been mentioned and discussed too many times to list all instances here.
- Mann Gulch Memorial: Missoula National Wildland Firefighter Memorial and Jump Center (Photos compliments of Bob Kausen.)
- Leo Keith Brown (1928-1999) who "worked with Wag Dodge on a fire or two": Smokejumper's Pictoral History 1953-54
- Theysaid-it: 3/24/2013 discussion of the type of plane dropping jumpers at Mann Gulch and who was on board beginning with the message from CDF Fire Captain who said that this same Frank Small was the Co-Pilot of the C-47 that dropped the Smokejumpers off in Mann Gulch on August 5th, 1949. That was questioned which led to discussion...
Source of CDF Fire Captain's statement: Both Norman Maclean of Young Men and Fire, and Dave Turner of The Thirteenth Fire ... describe a C-47/DC-3 as the aircraft dropping off the smokejumpers that day on August 5th, 1949.
>From Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, page 81: "a C-47 , could only hold sixteen jumpers...", page 42: " The foreman who lay on the right side of the door of the C-47 was in many ways...", Page 39: "The C-47 circled the fire several times before dropping the crew...."
>From Dave Turners The Thirteenth Fire, Page 15: "Moir is told that the only airplane available for immediate dispatch is a C-47, but that plane only holds 16 jumpers and their gear.", Page 16: "At 2:30 P.M. as the C-47 lifts off from Missoula Field...", Page 16: " On board the east-bound plane on its 40 minute flight to the Helena Forest are the Pilot Ken Huber, co-pilot FRANK SMALL, Forest Service photographer Elmer Bloom, spotter Earl Cooley, assistant spotter Jack Nash, and the 16 jumpers..."
- From GM as the discussion continued, some excerpts from the Mann Gulch Board of Review, September 26-28, 1949, which did not mention Frank Small on board that day.
- Source of Tom J's clarification regarding who was on the Mann Gulch plane: Earl Cooley's book "Trimotor and Trail" includes a Chapter with details about Mann Gulch. Earl Cooley was the spotter on that plane. All 16 of the jumpers are listed, then it says: "Elmer Bloom, Forest Service photographer, went along to shoot some film for a movie he was working on. Kenneth Huber was the C-47/DC-3 pilot and Frank Small was the co-pilot. Jack Nash was the assistant spotter. This made up the full C-47/DC-3 Load."
- The Mann Gulch C-47 is sitting in the Museum of Mountain Flying in Missoula. This is from their website:
“Our main pride and joy is our DC-3/C-47, N24320. this aircraft was ordered by the US Air Force in 1944, declared surplus in 1946, and was purchased by Johnson Flying Service (to whom the museum is actually dedicated, at least in part). She served smokejumper duty for most of her life, but her most famous, infamous, and tragic hour was on August 5, 1949, when she dropped 15 smokejumpers over a routine grass fire in Mann Gulch, near Helena, Montana. The Smoke Spotter, who reported the fire, hiked in to meet the jumpers. Tragically, 13 of these brave men were killed when the fire blew up and chased them up the mountain. Only 3 survived.”
- Hotlist: Robert Sallee Last Surviving Mann Gulch Smokejumper has Passed Away
Remembering Mann Gulch
Nov 26, 2005 Online Article
Robert Sallee seems a forthcoming yet reluctant celebrity of sorts. Forthcoming because he'll tell you about the day he survived the Mann Gulch Fire if you ask him to. Reluctant because as the only survivor left, he has become a symbol of the firestorm that killed 13 firefighters near the Gates of the Mountains in 1949.
He's told his story to National Geographic, to Nova, and to Norman Maclean for his book Young Men and Fire. He's told it to fellow firefighters, to the public and to the media when he shows up at Mann Gulch anniversaries or firefighter gatherings like the one held at Glacier Park International Airport on Friday.
With media and public gathered in the hanger, Sallee, now the sole survivor, was the main event. Former smokejumpers, interested public, family members of those who died or were somehow involved in fighting the fire gathered to look at airplanes, socialize, or watch the 1952 movie based on the fire, The Red Skies of Montana -- but most were there to listen to him. A microphone was passed around the table before the film, and former smokejumpers told stories about looking after "Wag" Dodge, the foreman of the crew who also survived the fire, when he had Hodgkin's disease, or about Earl Cooley, the spotter in the plane that day, who sat quietly at the edge of the table.
Sallee, in his stoical style, retold the tale like he has so many times before. His speech was short, yet he fed listeners the details they wanted to hear -- fire sounding like a freight train crossing, or the silhouette of Dodge lighting a backfire as the flames chased the other firefighters up the hill. When his speech was over he asked if anyone had questions; the room was silent. It's likely many of the people had questions -- like why he survived and others didn't -- but nobody asked them. "Good," he said. People have a somewhat morbid taste for tales of disaster, whether it's the Titanic or the Hindenburg, but the Mann Gulch Fire is Montana lore, and ownership of the story rests in listening to the person who survived it.
"My smokejumper friends tell me that I have to tell the story, whether I like it or not," Sallee said. He said he usually doesn't think about the fire unless someone asks, and he didn't think about it for a long time, not until Norman Maclean tracked him down in Portland more than 25 years ago. If there was anyone to tell the story, it was Maclean, Sallee said. "He was obsessed with Mann Gulch," Sallee said.
Every fire season, when a crew runs from fire, deploys its shelters, or when there's an accident like the one on Storm King Mountain in 1994, the story of the Mann Gulch Fire gets rechurned. It was the first major tragedy for the smokejumpers, and the incident is ingrained into the Forest Service and wildland firefighters alike.
For Robert Sallee, who survived the Mann Gulch Fire on his first jump, the story is one of historical significance, and it is also one that is hard to shake.
- USFS Heroes Memorial page: Mann Gulch Fallen, 1949
- James Cook: Photos of Mann Gulch during the Mann Gulch Walk, 7/19/01
- Forest History Society: Online Pictoral Smokejumping History
- NWCG Training: Mann Gulch Fire Short Video Summary
- US Forest Service: Mann Gulch 60th Anniversary Commemoration Announcement
- James Keelaghan wrote a song about the Mann Gulch Fire entitled "Cold Missouri Waters" -- Here's the Cold Missouri Waters - Cover by Cry, Cry Cry (YouTube). It's a ballad, sung from the perspective of foreman Wag Dodge, lying on his deathbed dying of Hodgkin's disease five years after the fire. It imagines Dodge saying of his decision to set the escape fire...
"I don't know why, I just thought it. I struck a match to waist-high grass, running out of time. Tried to tell them, 'Step into this fire I set. We can't make it, this is the only chance you'll get.' But they cursed me, ran for the rocks above instead. I lay face down and prayed above the cold Missouri waters."
- Robert Sallee Last Surviving Mann Gulch Smokejumper has Passed Away
May 28, 2014 | Online Article
Robert Sallee, the last survivor of Montana’s Mann Gulch fire, died Monday from complications following open heart surgery.
The Spokane Valley resident was a 17-year-old smokejumper during the 1949 fire, which killed 13 of his colleagues. He gave interviews to Norman Maclean for his book, “Young Men and Fire,” and later talked to many firefighting groups about the tragedy.
Hazen & Jaeger Valley Funeral Home is handling arrangements.
- Wag Dodge:
- Forest Service Remembers Early Tragedy -- 50 years later
Contributors to this article: lots of firefighters and others, most recently Gordon in R1, CDF Fire Captain, GM, Tom J, roadrunner, Misery Whip, Captmack
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