Published 22 years ago, "Young Men & Fire" still crackles today. Norman MacLean's account of the Mann Gulch fire, which claimed the lives of 13 firefighters in 1949, is a powerful piece of narrative journalism. But MacLean warps the form--fearlessly. He practically instructs us how to react and think about the tragedy, yanking us up steep canyon walls to ponder the series of easily-made mistakes in the tragedy, where "young men died like squirrels."
The lightning-sparked fire was a "catastrophic collision of fire, clouds and winds" in Mann Gulch, located between Butte and Great Falls along the upper Missouri River. The fire was first spotted by a forest ranger and soon a C-47 was on the way with smokejumpers on board, heading to the remote canyon with winds so rough that one smokejumper got sick and did not jump. Fifteen smokejumpers parachuted into the fire and joined the forest ranger, who had been fighting the fire on his own for hours, on the ground. MacLean parses these first few decisions carefully and highlights the many ways in which it was unlikely this crew might succeed--their youth, lack of training and lack of training together. To make matters worse, their radio was destroyed during the jump (its parachute failed to open).
The tragedy unspools over a few fast hours, flames racing up the steep slopes of the canyon, feeding on knee-high cheatgrass. MacLean does an admirable job of breaking down the series of events, but it gets a bit complicated and hard to picture, no matter how many times MacLean takes us back to various vantage points to consider (and reconsider) how the flames won and the men lost.
The Mann Gulch fire is infamous for the tragedy but also noted for the "escape fire" lit by Wagner Dodge, who figured out in the high-pressure situation that the way to survive was to light his own fire and lay down in the smoking embers in order to hide, essentially, from the bigger onrushing blaze. Dodge urged others to join him, but they didn't heed his pleas--or didn't understand the strategy, given the panic. Dodge was one of three survivors. The controversy over this moment--could others have survived as well?--remains.
MacLean takes on the role of investigator, prosecutor and philosopher. "Young Men & Fire" is compelling reading precisely because MacLean asserts his point of view and takes us inside his thought process, neatly interweaving his personal take with events on the ground and almost insisting that we try and figure out what happened. "We enter now a different time zone, even a different world of time. Suddenly comes the world of slow-time that accompanies grief and moral bewilderment trying to understand the extinction of those whose love and everlasting presence were never questioned. Al there was to time were the fixty-six speeding minutes before the fire picked watches off dead bodies, blew them up a hillside ahead of the bodies, and froze the watch hands together. Ahead now is a world of no explosions no blowups, and, without a storyteller, not many explanations."
Where some writers of narrative non-fiction work hard to keep their distance from their subject, MacLean purposely weaves himself into the story, determined to come to terms with the tragedy in the same way he wrote the novel "A River Runs Through It" as a way to come to terms with the death of his brother.
In the end, MacLean doesn't have all the answers and views the Mann Gulch with a long view. The "truculent universe," he concludes, "prefers to retain the Mann Gulch fire as one of its secrets--left to itself, it fades away, an unsolved violent incident grieved over by the fewer and fewer still living who are old enough to grieve over fatalities of 1949."