|John N. Maclean: Fire on the Mountain Norman Maclean: Young Men and Fire|
John N. Maclean: Fire
on the MountainWilliam
Morrow and Company (Hardcover), ISBN 0-688-14477-2
Young Men and Fire tells the story of the 1949 Mann Gulch incident in which all but three of a 15-man Forest Service crew of smokejumpers -- the elite firefighters who parachute into remote forests to control wildfires -- died. Two young jumpers -- teenagers, really -- successfully raced the fire to a ridge and found a route to safety. Crew leader Wag Dodge knew he couldn't make the ridge and instead established a "safety zone" by creating a small burned area that deprived the larger fire of fuel and gave Dodge some space in which to retreat.
Many years later, Norman Maclean tried to re-enact the race up the hill and piece together the events of the Mann Gulch fire. In Young Men and Fire, he recounted his visits to fire research centers, discussions with the fire's survivors, and exploration of the canyon itself. His poetically written investigation into the events of Mann Gulch sought lessons from the fire while presenting at least one nugget of beautiful writing on every page.
Forty-five years after Mann Gulch, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) badly bungled a number of opportunities to contain a fire on a mountain near Glenwood, Colo. By the time a combined force of 49 BLM and Forest Service firefighters arrived on the scene, the Storm King fire burned out of control. Before the ordeal at Storm King ended, 14 firefighters would leave the site in body bags.
A strong current of outrage underlies Fire on the Mountain, John Maclean's account of the Storm King fire. In terse sentences equally well-suited to a national newspaper or high-stakes thriller, John Maclean reports everything that went wrong at Storm King.
To be fair, the Storm King fire posed greater logistical problems than the incident at Mann Gulch. From the outset, the number of people involved, the geographic spread of the fire and internal BLM turf battles over critical air support all but guaranteed a crisis. But consistently poor communications between agency officials and firefighters on the scene, the lack of a clear chain of command and ignored reports of a fatal cold front made an already bad situation far, far worse.
John Maclean also takes on the loaded issue of whether the use of women firefighters impaired the Storm King firefighters' effectiveness and, ultimately, doomed several women -- and the men working with them. Maclean assesses the evidence as carefully as he does all aspects of the Storm King blaze and reaches conclusions even experts will find hard to dispute.
I highly recommend both books, although readers may find Fire on the Mountain offers more immediacy and contemporary analysis. Unfortunately, the lack of adequate illustrations undermines Fire on the Mountain's many virtues. Since setting plays such a critical role in the story of Storm King, the lack of proper visual reference points is inexcusable. The inadequate graphics continually frustrated me, despite John Maclean's best efforts to compensate in the text.
Young Men and Fire does a far better job in this area. Nonetheless, both books deliver riveting and thought-provoking reads well deserving of attention.
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