Aug

10

 On August 5, 1949 the Mann Gulch fire claimed the lives of 13 of the Forest Services' best and bravest from the elite group of fire fighter/parachuters known then as the Smokejumpers. That day turned into a foot race against an apocalyptic fire. Two outran it and one survived by laying down in a smaller escape fire he set himself. The others did not survive. It is told by Norman Maclean, woodsmen, scholar and Montana native in his book Young Men and Fire. It is a fine book by an even finer man. I can do no justice as a reviewer other than to say it is a universal story of the tragedy of young men or woman, facing danger, and who do not return. It is also the story of the old men who are compelled to tell the story of the young, searching for answers to how it all occurred, and maybe even parts of the why it occurred. It is told with dignity and compassion.

 One part that has particular relevance to many on this list is the creation of three Forest Fire Laboratories in the early 60s that was a partial result of the Mann Gulch tragedy. Here scientists and engineers began to research and create models predicting how fires spread.

The research led to new approaches to fighting forest fires which up to then had simple been to "get there early". Using controlled wind tunnels they varied inputs and measured outputs. As inputs they had 12 fuel categories, terrain slope from 0 to 90 degrees (fires burn faster uphill), fuel water content from 0 to 50% (little burns beyond 24% moisture) and lastly wind conditions. This last point is complex as fires create their own wind as rising heat pulls in colder air from below. This wind is in addition to whatever prevailing winds are already in the area. Some of the outputs include fire Btu per foot per second, speed in feet per minute, height of flames, and most likely direction of spreading.

Maclean enlisted the researchers there to help tell the story of Mann Gulch attempting to recreate the past events of that day. Equally important scientists could make predictions to aid the Forest Service on big fires. It is a tragedy none of this was available at Mann Gulch, but a positive consequence that science now complements bravery for those firefighters facing nature in the field.


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