Death in Montana

Young Men and Fire

by Norman Maclean
University of Chicago Press, 301 pp., $19.95

A River Runs Through It

by Norman Maclean, engravings by Barry Moser
University of Chicago Press, 162 pp., $24.95

A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

by Norman Maclean
University of Chicago Press, 281 pp., $9.95 (paper)

A River Runs Through It

a film directed by Robert Redford

Norman MacLean
Norman MacLean; drawing by David Levine

The crucial event of Norman Maclean’s last book (he died in 1990) was a forest fire in the rugged western mountains of Montana. The fire took place in August of 1949; Maclean, who was then and had been for years a member of the department of English at the University of Chicago, was not actually present at the blaze, but he had ample reason to be concerned with it. Many years earlier, between other jobs and intervals of an academic career, he had spent a couple of summers with the Forest Service; he knew the district well, and still maintained a summer cabin at Sealey Lake some miles away. He had a technical interest in the form of forest fires and their often erratic behavior. He was of course in no condition to man a fire line, but his impulse to understand this major tragedy of the deep woods was insatiable.

In some respects the fire at Mann Gulch was not particularly remarkable. It was started by a lightning strike at the top of a ridge, and burned down the hollow box of Mann Gulch, where at different points it might have been stopped by a shift in the winds, or simply by running into the Missouri River. But why for some fifteen minutes of that furiously hot summer afternoon did it suddenly switch direction, pull itself together as it were, and explode up the steep hillside, leaving behind it the bodies of thirteen fire fighters?

The fatal fifteen minutes that made this fire special both historically and humanly involved a work gang of only fifteen volunteers, semimilitary in organization but under civilian control. They called themselves, and were known as, the smokejumpers, and they had very little training for their jobs, which required in fact not much technical skill but a high measure of personal bravery. They were asked simply to jump from an airplane by parachute as close as possible to the center of a forest fire and there try to put it out. They had a foreman or leader, whom for the most part they obeyed, but they knew they might face situations where all they could do was drop their tools and run like hell. From the superannuated C-47 they crammed themselves into to their specially adapted ground axes (Pulaskis), their equipment was mostly secondhand or improvised. Some of the smokejumpers were years short of meeting the age requirement, and these boys were by no means the least daring and effective of them. Since they usually jumped in the late afternoon, the average fire, which they counted on having under control by next morning, was known as a “ten-o-clocker.” In their first foolish overconfidence, they were sure that Mann Gulch was just another ten-o-clocker.

The flight from Missoula to the boiling clouds of Mann Gulch was uncomfortable but not particularly dangerous. The pilot, a skilled and experienced…

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