Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Honor Through Learning: Mann Gulch

Mann Gulch fire
(Source: Mann Gulch Staff Ride)
On August 5, 1949, 15 U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers and a Helena National Forest fire guard were entrapped by a spot from a wildfire about 20 miles north of Helena, Montana. The fire eventually burned almost 4,500 acres.

A lightning storm started numerous fires on the Helena District of the Helena National Forest on the afternoon of August 4. The Mann Gulch fire was detected at about 12:00 PM on August 5th on a day with record-breaking temperatures. At about 3:00 PM when the smokejumpers from the Missoula Smokejumper Base were circling the fire in a C-47 airplane the fire was estimated to be between 50 and 60 acres. The fire behavior at that time appeared fairly minimal and the jumpers expected to easily have the fire lined and under control by 10:00 AM the next morning.

The jumpers parachuted into a spot up canyon and at a lower elevation than the fire. During the time the jumpers gathered their gear and had a quick bite to eat the fire became more active. This inspired the foreman to get his crew down gulch so that they could attack the fire from the heel. Their approach was mid-slope on the opposite aspect from the fire, allowing the firefighters to keep an eye on the fire across the way. During their movement down canyon, a spot fire that was previously unseen on their side of the gulch made a rapid upslope and up-canyon run, cutting off their access to the anchor point. The fire overran and killed most of the firefighters. Two firefighters escaped by slipping through a small notch in the rimrock at the top of the ridge. The foreman lit an escape fire, an emergency survival technique the smokejumpers had not been trained in, in an effort to consume the fuels ahead of the approaching blaze. After trying unsuccessfully to convince his crew to enter the burned area with him, he then lay down in the blackened area as the flame front passed over. He survived.

Much controversy surrounded the incident with investigation into training, standard procedures, and safety practices. It received attention in the national media at the time and has continued to be of interest into current times:
  • The incident created interest in scientific study of extreme fire behavior and better methods of predicting potential blow-up fire situations. This interest resulted in the development of the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory.
  • It was one of the fires studied in the development of the Ten Standard Firefighting Orders.
  • There was speculation by some that the escape fire the foreman lit was the cause of the fatalities.
  • The incident received national attention and inspired a feature-length movie released in 1952 – Red Skies of Montana as well as an article in Life Magazine.
  • The story was researched and written about by Norman Maclean in Young Men and Fire.
Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge - Digging a Little Deeper
The Mann Gulch fire scenario is woven into the L-580 Gettysburg Staff Ride. Reflect upon how leadership can be applied across cultures.

Reflection 1 – Wag Dodge’s Escape Fire during the Mann Gulch Fire:
You are the incident commander on a wildfire located to the east side of the Continental Divide in western Montana on August 5, 1949. You and 15 smokejumpers attack the fire. During the course of suppression, the wind picks up and causes the fire to cross a gulch and cut off your access to the Missouri River and a safe anchor point. You and the crew attempt a retreat up Mann Gulch; however, your route to the ridge top is hampered by rockslides, outcroppings, and steep terrain. The fire is burning above and below you and the crew. You order the crew to break their training and drop their gear—some do not hear or abide your command. You decide to do an unconventional tactic and light an “escape” fire and appeal to your men to follow you through the flames to the blackened area. Your men refuse to follow and retreat on at their own will. Thirteen men perish as a result of a burnover; two follow your fire’s edge to the ridge top and escape the flames.
Pickett's charge map
(Source: CivilWar.org)
Reflection 2 – General Robert E. Lee’s Decision for Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg:
You are the general in command of Confederate troops near Gettysburg, PA, on July 3, 1863. You and your men have been engaged in combat for months, and are hungry, injured, and fighting friends and kinfolk. After days of fighting, Union troops have secured the high ground. You order 12,000 troops to open attack on the high ground contrary to military strategy and with great opposition from General Longstreet whose men have engaged in many battles, traveled a great distance and are tired. Longstreet does not believe in engaging the Union troops on the high ground, instead battling south towards making a direct attack on Washington, D.C. You believe you have more troops than the Union and can outlast them. Your artillery opens fire and the battle ensues, including an assault by Longstreet’s men. Nearly 7,500 Confederate and 1,500 Union troops lose their life in the campaign where you eventually retreat. You are heard to say, “It’s all my fault, boys. It’s all my fault.”

Things to Ponder:
Wag Dodge, a veteran fire leader, makes a decision to try an unproven tactic. His men question his model and fail to follow. He survives while most of his crew perishes. The model is adopted as standard operating procedure in wildland firefighting.

General Robert E. Lee, a battle-wise leader, fails to question his model. He survives, while Confederate forces take significant losses. The decision is deemed a mistake and forever analyzed by historians and future leaders.

  • Why did Lee’s men follow him?
  • Did either Lee’s or Dodge’s men understand their leader’s intentions?
  • How does fatigue, stress, and physical well-being affect decision making?

Other References for Digging Deeper

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