National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Mann Gulch (Montana) – August 5, 1949


This Day in History is a brief summary of a powerful learning opportunity and is not intended to second guess or be judgmental of decisions and actions. Put yourself in the following situation as if you do not know the outcome. What are the conditions? What are you thinking? What are YOU doing?

Today’s 6MFS is dedicated to all those at Mann Gulch.

Incident Summary:

Lightning started many fires on the Helena National Forest including one near the top of a ridge between Meriwether and Mann Gulches. At 1255 August 5th, the fire was observed at six acres. At 1330 the call went out for smokejumpers from the Missoula jump base. By the time the jump plane flew over at 1500, the fire was 60 acres. The crew jumped and were scattered by a nearby thunder cell.

The crew gathered at the bottom of the gulch, up-canyon of the fire. The jumper foreman went to scout the fire and met up with a fire guard working alone near the head of the fire. Observing increased fire activity, the decision was made to start from the toe. While hiking to the toe, the foreman noted that there was fire below them in the gulch and that it had crossed to the other side of the canyon, blocking their ability to escape to the river. They reversed direction, heading up toward the northwestern ridge. The fire was 500 feet behind them crowning in timber and doghair thickets.

The foreman knew that they would not outrun the fire and started to burn off some grass for a “refuge.” He gave the order for his crew to come into the black with him. The foreman stayed in his black and survived the fire passing over. It is not clear how many of the crew heard the orders over the roar of the fire or understood what the foreman was trying to do (burning out was neither taught nor common practice at this time). The crew continued running up the steep slope for the ridge. Two made it to safety in rocks at the top. The time marked on one firefighter’s watch was 1756. It stopped when the 15 Missoula Smokejumpers and one Meriwether Fire Guard were burned over. Only five would survive the blow-up. Two would die from their burns the next day.

Discussion Points:

Predicted Fire Danger was “low” but weather readings from a nearby ranger station were relative humidity (RH) - 22%, fuel sticks - 5%, and wind - 16 mph, indicating more severe fire danger. No weather was recorded at the fire, but steady SW winds were observed at the time of the jump. The Gulch runs SW down to the Missouri River. Also note that a thunder cell was in the area.      

  • Open your Incident Response Pocket Guide( IRPG), PMS 461 Operational Engagement section (green), and review Risk Management. Based on the above information coupled with the increase in fire size, use the Risk Management Process and the map (right) to discuss some of the actions you will take to ensure crew safety as the FFT2, squad boss, crew boss, etc.

Based on initial aerial size-up, the strategy was to hold the fire on the ridge by anchoring the head of the fire and flanking down both sides to the toe. The fire was noted as “appearing relatively quiet.” 

  • Discuss other tactics that your crew could use if presented with a similar situation. Look at the different options available at different steps of the initial attack.

Though his ability as a firefighter was well respected by his peers, the foreman was not known by this young group of smokejumpers.

  • When we find ourselves is this position (such as a Crew Boss assignment) what can we do to create and encourage crew cohesion?

image map of the routes and location of firefighters on the Mann Gulch fire.


This Day in History
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Aug 2023

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