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Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire Hardcover – September 22, 1999

4.8 out of 5 stars 275 ratings

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Colorado and its neighboring states battle thousands of wildfires every year, scrub and sagebrush blazes often ignited by lightning strikes in the dry, hot days of summer. A vast, intertwined firefighting infrastructure combining local resources with agencies like the Forest Service and the BLM, reacts to these flare-ups as if going to war--and in theory, the coordination and communication ensures that fires are fought in the most efficient and safe manner possible. But while most wildfires in Colorado end up costing just over $60,000 on average with no loss of life, the catastrophic South Canyon fire of 1994 burned for 10 days, at the ultimate cost of $4.5 million and the lives of 14 firefighters. OSHA would later describe the coordinated action flatly as a "management failure," and concurrent investigations would reveal a tangled web of jealous rivalries, bureaucratic bungling, and severe morale problems. (One of the early on-scene supervisors would later tell investigators, "Leadership in this state sucks.")

John Maclean (son of Norman Maclean, who wrote both A River Runs Through It and an award-winning account of Montana's deadly 1949 Mann Gulch fire) skillfully unfolds that summer's foreboding blow-by-blow. Fire on the Mountain weaves together a tense narrative of almost cinematic action, starring ballsy cowboy smokejumpers, frustrated federal middle managers, seasoned "hotshots" flown in like commandos, pissed-off tanker pilots, and well-intentioned but spin-wary politicians. Maclean's well-sketched personalities bring the action on the ground convincingly to life--and knowing up front that many of his main characters won't survive South Canyon makes this tragic tale that much more compelling. --Paul Hughes

From Publishers Weekly

With a reporter's objectivity and brisk prose, Maclean describes a series of small blunders in fire management that led to tragedy in July 1994 in western Colorado when a thunderstorm on Storm King Mountain, mislabeled by a dispatcher as South Canyon, killed 14 firefighters. As rain evaporated in the severe heat and drought, lightning ignited the high desert forest of scrub oak, pinion pine and juniper. Maclean's evenhandedness works against him: the reader longs for more outrage at the series of blunders and misfortunes that first led to a delay in responding to the fire and, later, to fatalities among those who battled the blaze. Maclean does bring the terrain and the fire to life with clarity and economy, and he paints a vivid portrait of the rugged firefighters who supply the most thrilling and saddest moments, men and women who displayed remarkable bravery and sheer physical effort. Among the 49 firefighters assembled on Storm King Mountain by the National Interagency Fire Center were "smoke jumpers," who parachute onto fires; "helitacks," who attack fire from helicopters; and "hot shots," mostly younger ground teams with a mix of skills and experience. Nine of the deaths were hotshots from Prineville, Ore. Maclean handles their deaths respectfully and manages to communicate the lessons to be drawn about fire management in the course of a suspenseful narrative filled with admirable, everyday heroes. 7-city author tour. (Oct.) FYI: The author's father, Norman Maclean, wrote the classic Young Men and Fire about the 1949 smoke jumper disaster in Mann Gulch, Mont..
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Custom House; 1st edition (September 22, 1999)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 288 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0688144772
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0688144777
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 1.25 pounds
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 6.13 x 0.97 x 9.25 inches
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.8 out of 5 stars 275 ratings

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John Norman Maclean, a longtime Washington journalist and now a prize-winning author, has published his fifth book about wildland fire, River of Fire: The Rattlesnake Fire and the Mission Boys. The book updates the story of the 1953 Rattlesnake Fire with extensive photos by Kari Greer, well-known wildland fire photographer, a moving foreword by Don Will, former Mendocino Hotshot Superintendent, and much other original material. In the years since Maclean first wrote about the fire, in 2003, the site has been transformed from a neglected, virtually unmarked sea of chaparral into a fitting memorial, with fire lines restored, markers placed for the fifteen men who lost their lives, and a substantial memorial erected overlooking the terrain. Hundreds of firefighters now walk the lines each year, taking lessons from those long-ago, but now well remembered events.

"It's been a lesson in creativity to open the pages of this book to talented people like Kari Greer, Don Will, and many others, and see the work enhanced and enlarged by their contributions. I've never done it this way before - I tend to be a lone wolf. But the combined energy of these people, who have forged their own deep emotional and intellectual ties to the Rattlesnake Fire, has helped produce a book that, frankly, far surpasses what I could have done in the usual way. As I grow older I take heart from associating with people such as these."

River of Fire and Maclean's other books are available on Amazon, and autographed copies are available on his website, JohnMacleanBooks.com.

"For a quarter century I have walked where firefighters walked, taken fire classes with them, addressed their meetings, and listened to their stories. And I've tried to make their high-adrenalin, high-risk existence familiar to general readers, so they can better appreciate and understand the service these exceptional men and women provide."

Maclean, a reporter, writer and editor for The Chicago Tribune for 30 years, resigned from the newspaper in 1995 to write Fire on the Mountain, a critically acclaimed account of the 1994 fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado that took the lives of 14 firefighters. The book, a national bestseller, received the Mountains and Plains Booksellers award as the best non-fiction of 1999.

Maclean, the son of famed author Norman Maclean (A River Runs through It) helped edit his father's account of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, Young Men and Fire, which was published posthumously.

Maclean was a Washington correspondent for The Tribune for almost two decades. He was one of the "Kissinger 14," the small group of media who regularly traveled with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during the era of "shuttle diplomacy." Maclean went on to serve as the Tribune's foreign editor. He was a Nieman Fellow in Journalism, a mid-career fellowship for journalists at Harvard University, for the academic year 1974-75.

He divides his time between his family cabin at Seeley Lake, Montana, and Washington, D.C. Maclean and his wife, Frances, have two sons: Daniel, a science teacher and author of Paddling the Yukon River and its Tributaries and Paddling Alaska, and John Fitzroy, a public defender for the state of Maryland.

Customer reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
4.8 out of 5
275 global ratings

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Top reviews from other countries

Mark O'Doherty
5.0 out of 5 stars A very insightful and profound narrative of firefighters
Reviewed in Germany on June 18, 2017
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