“Although young men died like squirrels in Mann Gulch, the Mann Gulch fire (August 1949) should not end there. . . Probably most catastrophes end this way without an ending, the dead not even knowing how they died but ‘still alertly erect in fear and wonder,’ those who loved them forever questioning ‘this unnecessary death,’ and the rest of us tiring of this inconsolable catastrophe and turning to the next one.”
Now, in the autumn of 2020, in the midst of another wildfire rampage in Washington State, I re-read parts of Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire. Published in 1992, two years after Maclean’s death at the age of eighty-seven, I’m reminded he did most of his research and wrote his heart-wrenching story in his 70’s. I am now 70, a woman who has lived much of her life in the middle of late summer’s high fire danger. Young Men and Fire has been a kind of bible for me. As a result, I’m no longer omnipotent, unreachable by Maclean’s words of warning.
The Mann Gulch fire of Helena, Montana, eventually went out only to re-invent itself in other places and into a list too long to fully appreciate. The Rattlesnake Fire of 1953, Yellowstone Fires of 1988, The Manitoba Fires of 1989, Las Conchas Fire of 2011, Carlton Complex Fire of 2014, and Camp Fire of 2018 burned over nine million acres cumulatively. The Rattlesnake fire killed fifteen firefighters and is a textbook case for crew training, while the Camp Fire of California was the deadliest and most destructive in that state prior to this year. Without a doubt, fires continued after Mann Gulch, and there is cause for believing they’re getting uglier. I’m witnessing it from here.
When I look back at the history of recorded wildfires in North American history, I’m stunned by the number of acres that have been swallowed by flames long before Mann Gulch. The Miramichi Fire of New Brunswick in 1825 consumed three million acres, two fires that occurred on the same day as The Great Chicago Fire in October 1871 burned almost four million acres, and The Great Fire of 1910 burned three million acres rather near where I live. All of this has caused me to wonder what exactly is the nature of fire, how does it mature and drive remorselessly, voraciously through whatever it can find? Maclean’s explanation toward the end of his book involves a man named Frank Albini, a scientist and maker of mathematical models, a ‘surrogate for reality,’ as Albini defined his work with fire. He wrote an explanation of the process for Maclean.
“As the fuel burns at a point just ignited, it releases the energy that the plant has gathered from the sun and stored up as plant tissue. The tissue decomposes as it is heated by the fire (called ‘pyrolyzing’), releasing combustible gases that burn as a free flame. This in turn heats the remaining solid matter to drive off more combustible gas. . . Much of the heat is carried away as hot gas, up into the smoky buoyant plume above the fire. But much, too, escapes as radiant energy from the bright flame, returning to the form in which it was released from the sun and captured by the living plant. In the form of radiation, the energy flees with the speed of light and travels in straight rays until absorbed by matter. When it is absorbed, this energy raises the temperature of the matter which has captured it. Fine, dry plant components very near the flame are thus heated very quickly to the temperature at which they must decompose, giving off combustible gases that are in turn ignited by the nearby flame. In this way fresh fuel is added to the fire, to replace that just consumed in the flame. So the fire spreads.”
There is a persistent tone in Norman Maclean’s words about growing fire, and that tone is haunting. He delivers an excellent explanation of what happened in a matter of minutes between men climbing out of a gulch’s sneaky fire, then suddenly being consumed by it.
“No matter who you are it is hard to adjust yourself to the fact that a forest fire is not all a big roar behind you getting closer — a dangerous part of it is very sneaky and may actually have sneaked ahead of you or is trying to and doesn’t roar until it is about to close in on you.”
This is something I’ve thought about often, maybe as often as Maclean when he was writing his story. Out here in Eastern Washington there is a rural, cult-like devotion to leaving things as they are. A road borders the front of our 5.6 acres, trees and brush push between there and the house. A perimeter around the house has been cleared with fire in mind and is kept watered. A back field filled with unchecked cheatgrass undulates to the 35 to 65 mph winds that sometimes come through, especially on hot summer days when wind fronts are changing. There is no other way out of here, other than the road out front or escape through the back field. Sneaky fire can approach from multiple directions, and if it does I know what is likely to happen. Once again, I look to Maclean for advice.
“His (Albini’s) comment at the end (of a project) was that ‘it’s a lot easier to predict the speed of a missile than that of a wildfire.’ Generally, he said, ‘it’s easier to predict the behavior of objects made by man than natural objects.’ Having lived long enough to absorb a considerable number of lumps and bumps from whatever hovers around outside under the name of ‘nature,’ I said to him, “That shouldn’t have surprised you.”
‘No,’ he said, ‘it didn’t. Long ago a science teacher told me, ‘The universe, she is a bitch.’ Several times since, I have thought about this sentence. It’s probably right.”
There is an entire generation re-learning the complicated nature of fire through stories of their own, through losses perhaps much worse than the thirteen men who were killed in the Mann Gulch Fire. Yet, it is with them, as it is with me. We who live in high fire danger are called upon to learn as we go, to consider the mistakes of others who went before us, to calculate risk, especially the risk of an impending tragedy. We who live in high fire danger might have time on our side when it comes to years spent without invasion by fire. But when and if the time comes when we’re facing an inferno, especially alone, suddenly, at night, and without aid, we might want to have Maclean’s words in our heads, his humility in our hearts.
“Unless we are willing to escape into sentimentality or fantasy, often the best we can do with catastrophes, even our own, is to find out exactly what happened and restore some of the missing parts.”
I know as a resident living among pines and wind, heat and stars, pitch black night and the steely sun of dozens of hot August afternoons, I have Maclean to thank for knowing what little I do about fire. And staying here, mostly because I know and accept the risk.
Quotes and Data:
Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992)
Wikipedia: List of Wildfires