Mann Gulch Fire: The historic blaze that claimed the lives of 13 smokejumpers
Lessons learned and legacy impact on wildland firefighting
On Aug. 5, 1949, a team of 15 smokejumpers parachuted into Mann Gulch, a remote canyon in Montana, to fight a small wildfire. The smokejumpers soon found themselves in an ominous situation when the fire exploded into a raging inferno, trapping them on a steep ridge with no escape route.
Despite their training and experience, the smokejumpers struggled to survive against the fast-moving flames that consumed the dry grass and timber around them. By the end of the day, 13 smokejumpers had perished in what would become one of the deadliest firefighting disasters in U.S. history.
The Mann Gulch Fire of 1949 became a turning point in the history of wildland firefighting in the United States. The tragic loss of life and the heroic efforts of the smokejumpers who tried to contain the fire galvanized the firefighting community. The incident led to significant changes in wildland firefighting response strategies and training. The incident inspired a renewed commitment to safety and professionalism.
The lessons learned from this tragic event continue to influence modern wildland firefighting practices, emphasizing the importance of situational awareness, communication, and ongoing training to enhance the safety and effectiveness of firefighting operations.
Early smokejumper programs
The use of smokejumpers in wildland firefighting began in the 1930s as a response to the need for specialized firefighters who could quickly access remote wildfire locations.
U.S. Forest Service employees Francis Lufkin and Rufus Robinson recognized the potential of parachutes for rapid deployment into inaccessible areas. In 1939, experimental jumps in the Pacific Northwest proved the effectiveness of quickly responding to wildfires in remote areas, and the USFS founded the first smokejumper bases in the 1940s, starting with the operational headquarters in Winthrop, Washington, in 1940. These bases served as training and organizational centers for smokejumper crews. Recruits underwent rigorous training, developing skills in parachute jumping, fire suppression, survival techniques and wilderness navigation. Smokejumpers were selected based on physical fitness, mental aptitude and ability to perform under high-stress conditions.
During their early operations, smokejumpers focused on suppressing wildfires in remote areas with limited resources. Parachuting into the fire zone with essential firefighting tools, they established firelines, constructed firebreaks, and employed various techniques to control and extinguish the flames. The program rapidly expanded during World War II, with the military supplying training and equipment.
By the time of the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949, the smokejumper program had become an essential part of the nation’s wildland firefighting efforts, with approximately 1,200 smokejumpers nationwide.
About Mann Gulch
Mann Gulch is a rugged and narrow valley located in Montana along the Missouri River, about 20 miles north of Helena. The gulch is surrounded by steep slopes, making it a challenging and treacherous terrain. The area is covered in grasses and scattered trees characterized by rocky cliffs, dense vegetation and uneven ground.
The gulch is located in a remote wilderness area, far from urban centers and infrastructure. Its isolation makes reaching it challenging, and limited accessibility can hinder firefighting efforts and logistical support.
The terrain of Mann Gulch plays a crucial role in shaping the behavior of wildfires in the area. The narrow valley and steep slopes funnel winds, influencing the speed and direction of fire spread. These conditions can lead to erratic fire behavior, including rapid spotting and the creation of fire whirls, further complicating firefighting efforts.
A shift in weather
The Mann Gulch Fire occurred alongside challenging weather conditions that set the stage for the devastating blaze. Understanding both the weather patterns leading up to the event and the factors that caused the fire is crucial in understanding the magnitude of the tragedy.
A prolonged drought marked the summer of 1949 in Montana. The region experienced below-average precipitation, leading to dry vegetation and an increased fire risk. As August approached, temperatures soared and the landscape became increasingly susceptible to ignition. A combination of dry vegetation, elevated temperatures, low humidity and intense winds created a volatile environment conducive to the rapid spread of fire.
On Aug. 4, 1949, a lightning storm swept across the area, igniting the dry grasses and shrubs in the gulch, starting a small but rapidly spreading fire. The steep slopes and narrow valley functioned as a natural funnel, intensifying the airflow and causing the fire to escalate in intensity and speed.
The fire was first reported on Aug. 5 by a forest ranger who spotted smoke rising from the gulch from a lookout approximately 30 miles away. Around the same time, Ranger Robert Jansson could see the fire from a nearby airport.
The fire location and weather conditions prompted the USFS to mobilize a team of smokejumpers. With multiple fires burning throughout the state, the closest available team was located at the Missoula Smokejumper Base about 120 miles away.
The crew of 16 smokejumpers responded to the Mann Gulch Fire, led by their experienced leader, Wagner Dodge. Their mission was clear: Parachute into Mann Gulch and contain the fire before it spread further.
The initial assessment of the fire did not suggest immediate urgency, but as the smokejumpers approached Mann Gulch, they faced unexpected challenges. Fueled by dry vegetation and worsened by windy conditions, the fire rapidly intensified, catching the smokejumpers off guard. As they circled the fire in the air, they now calculated it to be around 60 acres. However, they still felt confident they could control the fire if they could reach it quickly.
After sizing-up the fire from the air and considering the weather, the decision was made to parachute in from an altitude of 2,000 feet instead of the typical 1,200 feet. This decision was meant to save time and allow the crew to reach the fire faster. However, the drop proved problematic, as the intense winds caused the cargo to be scattered and damaged. In an unfortunate turn of events, the communication cargo parachute did not deploy, and the fall destroyed the radio equipment. The loss of the radios severely hampered the crew’s ability to coordinate effectively and share critical information in real time.
Additionally, one of the firefighters became ill while surveying the fire and could not deploy. The remaining 15 smokejumpers descended into Mann Gulch, fully equipped with tools and supplies.
Upon their arrival at the scene, the Mann Gulch crew made a critical error in judgment. They classified the fire as a “10 o’clock fire,” a term used to describe a fire that burns slowly and is expected to be contained by 10 o’clock the following morning. This assumption led the crew to adopt a more relaxed approach, likely dictating the crew’s initial firefighting strategy and severely underestimating the potential danger ahead.
As the crew approached the fire, they encountered fire-spotting. The intense heat and strong winds caused embers to be carried across the gulch, igniting spot fires ahead of the main blaze. The fire rapidly grew in intensity, fueled by the dry vegetation and topography. The flames raced up the slopes within minutes.
Realizing the situation’s urgency, the smokejumpers attempted to deploy their firefighting tools and establish an anchor point to halt the fire’s progression. However, they soon recognized that the steep terrain and narrow valley had funneled the winds, causing erratic fire behavior that defied their expectations. This “chimney effect” created a rapidly advancing wall of flames, trapping the crew and preventing their escape.
The smokejumpers desperately sought a way to escape the advancing flames. They decided to flee toward the Missouri River. However, the fire spotted below the crew, cutting off their escape route and leaving them with limited options. Dodge ordered the crew to move back uphill toward the north ridgeline.
As the crew ran toward the top of the slope, Dodge realized that the fire was spreading alarmingly fast, and their current pace was not going to be enough to outrun the flames. To increase their odds of survival, Dodge made the tough decision to abandon their heavy tools and equipment to help speed their ascent.
Dodge knew they needed to find a safe spot – and fast – so he decided to ignite an escape fire, a technique used to create a burned area where firefighters can find temporary refuge from an approaching fire. Dodge hoped that by reducing the available fuel, a small area devoid of vegetation would provide a safe zone where the crew could regroup and reassess their options.
When they arrived at an open grassy area, Dodge set the fire. Within moments, the escape fire quickly progressed up the slope, burning a 100-square-foot area in the grass. Dodge jumped into the burned area and shouted, “Up this way!” Despite his attempts to guide the crew toward safety, members did not follow his instructions and ran in different directions. Unfortunately, the fire overtook many of them.
Dodge survived in the area he had burned off, and two other smokejumpers, Robert Sallee and Wait Rumsey, made it to the ridgeline and found refuge in a rockslide. Regrettably, Bill Hellman and Joe Sylvia initially survived after being overrun by the fire but later succumbed to their injuries.
While three smokejumpers managed to reach safety, the fire’s path consumed the remaining firefighters, including one firefighter who was already on the ground.
Remembering the men who perished in the Mann Gulch Fire:
- Robert J. Bennett, 22, from Paris, Tennessee
- Eldon E. Diettert, 19, from Moscow, Idaho
- James O. Harrison, Helena National Forest Fire Guard, 20, from Missoula, Montana
- William J. Hellman, 24, from Kalispell, Montana
- Philip R. McVey, 22, from Babb, Montana
- David R. Navon, 28, from Modesto, California
- Leonard L. Piper, 23, from Blairsville, Pennsylvania
- Stanley J. Reba, from Brooklyn, New York
- Marvin L. Sherman, 21, from Missoula, Montana
- Joseph B. Sylvia, 24, from Plymouth, Massachusetts
- Henry J. Thol, Jr., 19, from Kalispell, Montana
- Newton R. Thompson, 23, from Alhambra, California
- Silas R. Thompson, 21, from Charlotte, North Carolina
Mann Gulch Fire lessons learned and legacy
The Mann Gulch Fire affected the entire firefighting community and forever changed the fire service’s approach to combating wildfires.
The tragedy revealed critical shortcomings in firefighting strategies and underscored the need for enhanced training, communication and situational awareness. In the aftermath of the tragedy, an investigative analysis of the events was performed to comprehend the sequence of decisions and actions that led to the devastating outcome.
One key lesson was the importance of crew cohesion and communication. The smokejumpers’ efforts were hindered by a lack of effective communication among members, which led to disjointed actions and missed opportunities to escape the advancing fire. This realization prompted a shift in firefighting tactics, emphasizing the significance of teamwork, coordination and clear communication lines.
The events of Mann Gulch also highlighted the importance of situational awareness and adapting to rapidly changing fire behavior. Firefighters began to receive specialized training in reading fire patterns, understanding wind dynamics, and predicting fire spread, enabling them to make more informed decisions on the fireground.
The USFS and other firefighting agencies introduced significant reforms in response to the Mann Gulch Fire. The “10 Standard Firefighting Orders” were developed to provide firefighters with a set of guidelines to follow during wildfire operations, emphasizing safety protocols, effective communication and decision-making. The “18 Watch Out Situations” list was also established to alert firefighters to potential dangers and prevent complacency in hazardous situations.
The tragedy also prompted advancements in firefighting equipment. Fire-resistant clothing, improved firefighting tools, and enhanced communication devices were introduced to protect firefighters and increase their effectiveness on the fire line. Fire shelters, supplying a last resort of protection in case of entrapment, were developed and became standard issue for wildland firefighters.
Emphasizing firefighter safety became a top priority after the Mann Gulch fire. Agencies focused on minimizing risks and ensuring that all fire operations were conducted with safety as the primary consideration. Furthermore, the event highlighted the need for rapid and reliable air support for firefighting efforts, leading to increased aircraft use for reconnaissance, communication, and aerial firefighting.
The Mann Gulch fire tragedy prompted the implementation of after-action reviews following significant fire incidents. These reviews involve thorough assessments of firefighting operations, identifying lessons learned, and implementing improvements for future responses.
- National Wildfire Coordinating Group: Collection of Historical Photographs, Mann Gulch Fire
- National Wildfire Coordinating Group: Report of Board of Review (PDF)
- Maclean, J. “Young Men and Fire” (1993)
- Forest History Society: Mann Gulch Fire, 1949
- Wildfire Today: An Analysis of Dodge’s Escape Fire on the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Terms of a Survival Zone for Wildland Firefighters
- FireRescue1, Hensler, B. Mann Gulch revisited: A world turned upside-down
- USFS: Mann Gulch Fire: A Race That Couldn’t Be Won (1993)
- Forest History Society: The Thirteenth Fire