The Mann Gulch Disaster



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The Mann Gulch Disaster
The smokejumpers in the race (excluding foreman "Wag" Wagner Dodge and ranger Jim Harrison) were ages 17-28, unmarried, seven of them were forestry students, and 12 of them had seen military service. They were a highly select group and often described themselves as professional adventurers.
A lightning storm passed over the Mann Gulch area at 4PM on August 4, 1949 and is believed to have set a small fire in a dead tree. The next day, August 5, 1949, the temperature was 97 degrees and the fire danger rating was 74 out of a possible 100, which means "explosive potential". When the fire was spotted by a forest ranger, the smokejumpers were dispatched to fight it. Sixteen of them flew out of Missoula, Montana at 2:30PM in a C-47 transport. Wind conditions that day were turbulent, and one smokejumper got sick on the airplane, didn't jump, returned to the base with the plane, and resigned from the smokejumpers as soon as he landed ("his repressions had caught up with him,").
The smokejumpers and their cargo were dropped on the south side of Mann Gulch at 4:10PM from 2000 feet rather than the normal 1200 feet, due to the turbulence. The parachute that was connected to their radio failed to open, and the radio was pulverized when it hit the ground. The crew met ranger Jim Harrison who had been fighting the fire alone for four hours, collected their supplies, and ate supper. About 5:10 they started to move along the south side of the gulch to surround the fire. Dodge and Harrison, however, having scouted ahead, were worried that the thick forest near which they had landed might be a "death trap". They told the second in command, William Hellman, to take the crew across to the north side of the gulch and march them toward the river along the side of the hill. While Hellman did this, Dodge and Harrison ate a quick meal. Dodge rejoined the crew at 5:40PM and took his position at the head of the line moving toward the river. He could see flames flapping back and forth on the south slope as he looked to his left.
At this point the reader hits the most chilling sentence in the entire book: "Then Dodge saw it!". What he saw was that the fire had crossed the gulch just 200 yards ahead and was moving toward them. Dodge turned the crew around and had them angle up the 76-percent hill toward the ridge at the top. They were soon moving through bunch grass that was two and a half feet tall and were quickly losing ground to the 30-foot-high flames that were soon moving toward them at 610 feet per minute. Dodge yelled at the crew to drop their tools, and then, to everyone's astonishment, he lit a fire in front of them and ordered them to lie down in the area it had burned. No one did, and they all ran for the ridge. Two people, Sallee and Rumsey, made it through a crevice in the ridge unburned, Hellman made it over the ridge burned horribly and died at noon the next day, Dodge lived by lying down in the ashes of his escape fire, and one other person, Joseph Sylvia, lived for a short while and then died. The hands on Harrison's watch melted at 5:56, which has been treated officially as the time the 13 people died.
After the fire passed, Dodge found Sallee and Rumsey, and Rumsey stayed to care for Hellman while Sallee and Dodge hiked out for help. They walked into the Meriwether ranger station at 8:50PM, and rescue parties immediately set out to recover the dead and dying. All the dead were found in an area of 100 yards by 300 yards. It took 450 men, five more days to get the 4,500-acre Mann Gulch fire under control. At the time the crew jumped on the fire, it was classified as a Class C fire, meaning its scope was between 10 and 99 acres. The Forest Service inquiry held after the fire, judged by many to be inadequate, concluded that "there is no evidence of disregard by those responsible for the jumper crew of the elements of risk which they are expected to take into account in placing jumper crews on fires." The board also felt that the men would have been saved had they "heeded Dodge's efforts to get them to go into the escape fire area with him" (quoted in Maclean, p. 151). Several parents brought suit against the Forest Service, claiming that people should not have been jumped in the first place, but these claims were dismissed by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, where Warren E. Burger argued the Forest Service's case. Since Mann Gulch, there have been no deaths by burning among Forest Service firefighters, and people are now equipped with backup radios, better physical conditioning, the tactic of building an escape fire, knowledge that fires in timber west of the Continental Divide burn differently than do fires in grass east of the Divide, and the insistence that crew safety take precedence over fire suppression.

The Mann Gulch Disaster

(From: Karl Weick, 1993)


  1. 4PM on August 4, 1949: Small smoke - No bother

Next day: "explosive potential" (97 degree, danger: 74/100)

It was classified as a Class C fire, meaning its scope was between 10 to 99 acres



  1. Sixteen smokejumpers were dispatched to fight it.

  2. They were dropped on the south side of Mann Gulch at 4:10PM. The crew met ranger Jim Harrison who had been fighting the fire alone for four hours, collected their supplies, and ate supper

  3. About 5:10 they started to move along the south side of the gulch to surround the fire. Dodge and Harrison, however, having scouted ahead, were worried that the thick forest near which they had landed might be a "death trap"

  4. William Hellman, to take the crew across to the north side of the gulch and march them toward the river along the side of the hill. Dodge and Harrison ate a quick meal. Dodge rejoined the crew at 5:40PM and took his position at the head of the line moving toward the river

  5. Then Dodge saw the fire had crossed the gulch just 200 yards ahead and was moving toward them. Dodge turned the crew around and had them angle up the 76-percent hill toward the ridge at the top. They were soon moving through bunch grass that was two and a half feet tall and were quickly losing ground to the 30-foot-high flames that were soon moving toward them at 610 feet per minute.

  6. Dodge yelled at the crew to drop their tools, and then, to everyone's astonishment, he lit a fire in front of them and ordered them to lie down in the area it had burned. No one did, and they all ran for the ridge

  7. Two people: Sallee and Rumsey made it to unburned ridge. Hellman made it terribly and died the day after that. Dodge lived by lying down in the ashes of his escape fire. That was 5:56 pm, the time that 13 people died.

  8. After that, Dodge found Sallee and Rumsey. They walked into the Meriwether ranger station at 8:50PM, and rescue parties immediately set out to recover the dead and dying

  9. It took 450 men, five more days to get the 4,500-acre Mann Gulch fire under control.


The Mann Gulch Disaster

(From: Karl Weick, 1993)


  1. 4PM on August 4, 1949: Small smoke - No bother. Class C fire.

  2. Sixteen smokejumpers were dispatched to fight it.

  3. They were dropped on the south side of Mann Gulch at 4:10PM.

  4. About 5:10 they started to move along the south side of the gulch to surround the fire.

  5. William Hellman, to take the crew. Dodge and Harrison ate a quick meal.

  6. Dodge rejoined the crew at 5:40PM and took his position at the head of the line moving toward the river

  7. Then Dodge saw the fire had crossed the gulch just 200 yards ahead and was moving toward them.

  8. Flames that were soon moving toward them at 610 feet per minute.

  9. Dodge yelled at the crew to "drop their tools", he lit a fire in front of them and ordered them to lie down in the area it had burned.

  10. Two people: Sallee and Rumsey made it. Dodge lived. That was 5:56 pm, the time that 13 people died.

  11. After that, Dodge found Sallee and Rumsey.

  12. It took 450 men, five more days to get the 4,500-acre Mann Gulch fire under control.








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