It is a truism that life is unpredictable, and it can, from time-to-time, “pitch a mean curve”. When we awaken each morning, we have no idea what might lie ahead. That was certainly true for fifteen fire jumpers from Missoula, Montana on August 5, 1949. At 2:30 p.m. that afternoon they were sent to fight a forest fire that had been started by lightning in Mann Gulch, a one and a half hour plane ride away. The men were not really familiar with each other; they had never worked as a team before. As they boarded the plane under the leadership of Wagner Dodge, they were told to expect a “ten o’clock fire”, meaning that it was expected to be a routine fire and under control by 10:00 the next morning. However, within two hours of dropping into Mann Gulch they had been thrown the “meanest curve” of all. By that time, all but three of the men had perished in the fire. The story of Mann Gulch and the brave fire-fighters sent to battle the blaze there provides a valuable lesson for anyone who faces a crisis.
The day of the fire was extremely hot and windy. The high winds forced the men to parachute from a higher altitude than they had planned, but they all landed safely although a bit off of their mark. They did discover that the supplies that they would need were scattered over a wider area than they expected, but everything was quickly gathered and inventoried. The only “casualty” of the trip was their radio system. The parachute carrying it had failed to open, and the men found it broken into pieces and scattered about on the ground.
A quick break for a bite to eat, and the men would be ready to begin fighting the fire. While the crew ate, the leader Wagner Dodge scouted the fire, and he quickly became concerned. A cursory glance revealed a thick forest surrounding the gulch, and he worried that the terrain could become a “death trap” under the right conditions.
When he returned to the men, Dodge and the team crossed to the north side of the gulch, away from the fire, and marched along its flank toward the river at the bottom of the gulch. From his leadership position, only Dodge could see that the fire had jumped the gulch and that it was spreading very quickly toward him and the men. He screamed for the men to run from the fire while he scrambled to higher ground to get a better view of the situation. Immediately he sensed that the crew was in even more danger than he had anticipated, so he yelled for them to drop their tools, and, to the men’s astonishment, Dodge lit a fire in the area between him and the crew and signaled for them to lie down in the chard area that it had burned.
For some reason, not one man did as he had been ordered. Instead, each man ran toward the ridge where Dodge was stationed for what they hoped would be safety. Tragically, only three men survived the ordeal; two young men that had run through the fire unscathed and Dodge, who survived by laying down in the ashes of the escape fire that he had lit. All of the other young men perished in the fire! At 5:56 p.m., and only an hour and a half after landing in the gulch, a dozen lives were lost. How could this have happened?
Studies of the tragedy have revealed several critical mistakes that were made. At the time each seemed inconsequential, but taken together they became a death sentence for the men. Research into the events of this day has taught that resilience is a must if groups are to survive during times of crisis. To be resilient, the researchers discovered, groups in crisis must be able to do four things that the men at Mann Gulch were unable to do. The four qualities needed to survive in crisis are these:
1. Improvisation. In this context, improvisation means intuitively understanding the danger early enough that action can still make a difference. It allows people to create order out of chaos; it can forestall the confusion that can result from orders such as “drop your tools” and “jump into the fire”.
2. Wisdom allows people to realize that they do not fully understand what is happening in a time of crisis because what is happening is unique to that time and to that event. Wise people avoid extreme confidence when facing danger. The belief that they were fighting a “10:00 fire” set the fire-fighting team up for peril. They needed an emotional edge that was missing in the critical minutes before their death.
3. Respectful interaction is built on trust, honesty, and self-respect, and when it exists between team members, wise behavior is easier to display. Since the group of fire-fighters in Mann Gulch had never worked a fire together, there had been no opportunity to develop mutual respect. In the crisis, each individual felt on his own, and fear swamped each man’s wisdom.
4. Communication. In Mann Gulch, the first casualty of the fire was the communication system. Without it, when the crisis reached its peak, the men were left with crude signals and hand gestures that did not clearly communicate appropriate actions to take. The evidence is overwhelming that nonstop talk is a crucial source of coordination in complex and dangerous times. With no communication system and no strategy to effectively communicate without it, the men were alone and helpless during their time of need.
As you can guess, the loss of the twelve young lives in Mann Gulch has changed forever the way the forest service trains fire-fighters and the strategies the service uses to fight the fires. While the crisis that you might face may not ever equal the one in Mann Gulch, you will, in your professional and personal life, probably face some. When you are faced with a crisis, you do not want to be one of those people who “when in doubt, scream and shout”! Hopefully the story of the disaster faced by the young fire-fighters over sixty-five years ago will give you the tools to successfully survive your own Mann Gulch.
READ ACROSS TEXAS DAY
The Renaissance Learning Read Across Texas Day challenge will be this Friday, November 14th. Every student in a Texas school can participate. To learn how your school may participate in this exciting event, click this link: https://www.renaissance.com/read-across-texas#registerform.
The challenge is designed to accelerate learning and a love for reading on a statewide level. The goal is to set a record for the number of books read in one day. If you would like, you can track statewide progress toward reaching the goal at www.renaissance.com/read-across-texas.
VETERANS' DAY, 2014
To those of you have served our country in the military and those who may still serve in the Reserves or the National Guard, please accept our thanks for your sacrifice and your service. Today is your day!