Mann Gulch Tragedy Gives Birth To Modern Fire Science

Aug 5, 2019

Seventy years ago today, an 18-man smokejumper crew jumped out of a plane into the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness northeast of Helena. Within hours of the jump the crew was overrun by the fire they were sent to stop, and most of the men died.

MTPR's Corin Cates-Carney looks back at the Mann Gulch tragedy, which lead the U.S. Forest Service — for the first time — to approach wildfire as a science.

The path to Mann Gulch is steep. It starts one mile up the Missouri River from where, on an afternoon in 1949, it was 97 degrees and strong winds blew through the drainage of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir.

Soon after the smokejumpers landed, the fire spotted. Wind picked up embers from the main fire and carried them into the drainage, putting fire between the crew and the river.

"And it’s beginning to build up and make a run," says Bill Avey, forest supervisor for the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest.

It’s a sunny day with only a slight breeze as Avey stands on the ridge above the gulch and tells the story of what happened here seven decades ago. He’s next to a memorial that shows a diagram of where the men jumped in, where they walked and when they realized the fire was growing out of control.

Bill Avey, a Helena National Forest supervisor, points toward Mann Gulch, the site of the 1949 fire that burned over a team of smokejumpers and helped usher-in the age of modern fire science.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney / Montana Public Radio

Avey points down below where foreman Wagner Dodge told his crew to retreat, and soon after, to drop their tools and run.

"Which they begin to do. They start to basically run up to try to get into the next gulch over, Rescue Gulch, up the hill. The fire is running probably over 30 miles an hour at this point. And again, that hillside is incredibly steep. You can start to see these little trails. So that’s actually trails between the markers.”

Markers of the 13 dead — four further up the slope than the others. White concrete crosses were placed on the slope the year after the fire. However years in the elements crumbled several of the casts and rebar. Nearly 50 years later, rectangular columns of granite mark where individual firefighters fell.

According to an account of the fire written years later by a U.S. Forest Service researcher, Mann Gulch was the first time the agency’s elite firefighters died during the first decade of smokejumping, which remains a method of initial attack on wildfires in remote areas.

A memorial to the firefighters killed at Mann Gulch in 1949.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney / Montana Public Radio

Avey says Mann Gulch gave birth to modern fire science, moving the Forest Service from the days when fire bosses wore blue jeans and cotton shirts, to more fire resistant Nomex clothing.

“Nomex came in in the mid-to-late 60s, probably started wearing nomex pants. Fire shelters about the same time," Avey explains. "Even when I started in '81 we still had the first fire shelters and the green canvas packs. Basically the same packs that they were using in the '20s and '30s.”

Today, some of the Forest Service’s fire science work is done at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, which was built in 1960.*

Here, Forest Service researchers at the lab are working on a mobile app to help guide firefighters to safety if, like at Mann Gulch, the fire they’re sent to blows up, growing fast and out of control, upsetting firefighters plans.

Bret Butler is a researcher at the fire lab. He’s sitting at his desk and pulls up an image on his computer that looks like a calculator phone app. Although instead of numbers, there are symbols for each variable he lists off.

Dr. Bret Butler is a researcher at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, Rocky Mountain Research Station.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney / Montana Public Radio

In the 1990s, Butler created the first equation used by firefighters to figure how they could find a safe spot to wait out a fire while it burned around them — a place known as a "safety zone."

"So for those factors: 10 miles per hour, 10 percent slope, 20 foot tall vegetation, 55 people and two vehicles, you need 160 feet. You need about two acres, right.”

He says he’s kept working to improve the equation for more than 20 years. He’s calling his app the Wildfire Safety Evaluator, or WISE. He says the plan is for the app to come out before the next fire season.

He says the goal is for the app to scan an existing database of vegetation, and based on that information and the firefighters’ current location, show where a good safety zone for the crew is located. It’ll show that safety area in a circle on the app screen overlaying an area map — like Google maps but for wildland firefighters trying to escape the flames.

Butler says it will also incorporate research on human travel rates and how fast a crew could move with the gear they’re carrying.

"I mean just think how if, Mann Gulch, right, if that crew had had something like this and it showed their location, it showed where the fire was, it showed where they needed to go to get to a safety zone. Maybe they would have turned around sooner, or maybe not even gone down there."

It’s taken decades after Mann Gulch for people to build technology like the WISE app. Some fire safety advances have been more basic, like making sure crews carry more than one radio. The Mann Gulch crew only had one when they made their jump, and it broke during the landing.

Mann Gulch was one of the first times a fire blow-up had been documented. At the time, researchers weren’t sure how that happened.

Software and apps with names like WindNinja, FlamMap, and FireStem now compute how conditions change, or predict how a fire will move.

Butler says he loves understanding the physics of fire, but that’s not enough to keep firefighters safe.

"What it really comes down to is that you can only get so much, so far, with what I call the hard data. Weather, vegetation, understanding how those impact fire. It seems like about 25-30 percent of the problem you can't answer. And it's gotta be human factors. How do people make decisions and why do they do what they do?"

The smokejumper center near the fire sciences lab in Missoula, MT. The smokejumper center is part of the Aerial Fire Depot, which is managed by the U.S. Forest Service Northern Region.
Credit Josh Burnham / Montana Public Radio

On the day of the Mann Gulch fire, Wagner Dodge, the crew’s foreman, stopped running and knelt down and lit a match. He started his own fire. And as the grass around him burned he told the men to jump into the new fire he had just created. No one did.

One of the crew reportedly said, “to hell with that,” and kept running.

Wagner Dodge was one of only three who survived. Before the term "safety zone" was created, Dodge had made one himself by burning a patch of earth just big enough that when the Mann Gulch fire came around him there was nothing left to burn.

Overlooking the site of the fire 70 years later, Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest's Bill Avey says the first thing the agency learned from Mann Gulch was the importance of communication among firefighters.

"One of the legacies of Mann Gulch is we’ve been really focused in the last 20 years in particular, on really focusing on crew cohesion and leadership on fire. And understanding what the people you work with are gonna do and what they’re saying to you and how they’re leading you and how you’re working with folks.”

He says it would be arrogant to think the Forest Service has nothing left to learn about fighting fire. And the agency is still working on how to teach teams work better together, which he says needs to develop with the science.

Over the last 25 year the numbers, firefighter deaths are slowly declining. However, as recently as 2013 there was a tragedy more deadly than Mann Gulch, when 19 died in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona.

Learn more about the Mann Gulch tragedy

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*CORRECTION: The original text of this story referred to the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory as the Intermountain Fires Sciences Laboratory. That was inaccurate. The Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory is part of the Rocky Mountain Research Station headquartered in Fort Collins, Colorado. MTPR regrets the error.