Staff Ride to the Mann Gulch Fire

 

On August 5, 1949 fifteen USDA Forest Service Smokejumpers and a Helena National Forest fire guard were entrapped by a spot from a wildfire about 20 miles north of Helena, Montana. The fire eventually burned almost 4,500 acres.

A lightning storm started numerous fires on the Helena District of the Helena National Forest on the afternoon of August 4. The Mann Gulch Fire was detected at about 12:00 PM on August 5th on a day with record-breaking temperatures. At about 3:00 PM when the smokejumpers from the Missoula Smokejumper Base were circling the fire in a C-47 airplane the fire was estimated to be between 50 and 60 acres. The fire behavior at that time appeared fairly minimal and the jumpers expected to easily have the fire lined and under control by 10:00 AM the next morning.

The jumpers parachuted into a spot up canyon and at a lower elevation than the fire. During the time the jumpers gathered their gear and had a quick bite to eat the fire became more active. This inspired the foreman to get his crew down gulch so that they could attack the fire from the heel. Their approach was mid-slope on the opposite aspect from the fire, allowing the firefighters to keep an eye on the fire across the way. During their movement down canyon, a spot fire that was previously unseen on their side of the gulch made a rapid upslope and up-canyon run, cutting off their access to the anchor point. The fire overran and killed most of the firefighters. Two firefighters escaped by slipping through a small notch in the rimrock at the top of the ridge. The foreman lit an escape fire, an emergency survival technique the smokejumpers had not been trained in, in an effort to consume the fuels ahead of the approaching blaze. After trying unsuccessfully to convince his crew to enter the burned area with him, he then lay down in the blackened area as the flame front passed over. He survived.

Much controversy surrounded the incident with investigation into training, standard procedures, and safety practices. It received attention in the national media at the time and has continued to be of interest into current times:

  • The incident created interest in scientific study of extreme fire behavior and better methods of predicting potential blow-up fire situations. This interest resulted in the development of the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory.
  • It was one of the fires studied in the development of the Ten Standard Firefighting Orders.
  • There was speculation by some that the escape fire the foreman lit was the cause of the fatalities.
  • The incident received national attention and inspired a feature-length movie released in 1952 – Red Skies of Montana as well as an article in Life Magazine.
  • The story was researched and written about by Norman Maclean in Young Men and Fire.

The Mann Gulch Staff Ride resource is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:

  • David Bihr – U.S. Forest Service, Missoula Smokejumpers
  • Marvin Carpenter – U.S. Forest Service, Helena National Forest
  • Jim Cook – U.S. Forest Service, National Interagency Fire Center
  • Dan Cottrell – U.S. Forest Service, Missoula Smokejumpers
  • Sue Curd – Bureau of Land Management, National Interagency Fire Center
  • Paul Fieldhouse – U.S. Forest Service, Northern Rockies Training Center
  • Angela Harvieux – U.S. Forest Service, Great Northern Fire Crew R1
  • Kelli Hochmuht - U.S. Forest Service, Great Northern Fire Crew R1
  • Colby Jackson – U.S. Forest Service, Missoula Smokejumpers
  • Bob Kambitsch – Bureau of Land Management, National Interagency Fire Center 
  • Giselle Koehn – U.S. Forest Service, Great Northern Fire Crew R1
  • Lori Messenger – U.S. Forest Service, Missoula Smokejumpers
  • Bill Miller – U.S. Forest Service, Great Northern Fire Crew R1
  • Morgan Pence – U.S. Forest Service, Great Northern Fire Crew R1
  • Justin Underwood – U.S. Forest Service, Great Northern Fire Crew R1
  • Nina Walker – Bureau of Land Management, National Wildfire Coordinating Group

A special thanks to the following individuals who were instrumental in their support of the development of the Mann Gulch Staff Ride:

  • Paul Chamberlin – Fish and Wildlife Service (retired)
  • Jeff Scussel – U.S. Forest Service, Northern Region Office (retired)
  • Dave Turner – U.S. Forest Service, Helena National Forest (retired)
  • Edmund Ward – U.S. Forest Service, Missoula Smokejumpers (retired)

Click the image to open a larger image.

*These documents are historical and are not currently accessible; please contact NWCG if you need assistance having the documents read.

Travel map

Travel map

Local access map

Local access map

 
Topo map with WGS 84 GPS locations for stands

Topo map with WGS 84 GPS locations for stands

Topo map with fire progression

Topo map with fire progression

 

Historical Maps

1952 Helena National Forest

1952 Helena National Forest

Race That Couldn’t Be Won Page 5

Race That Couldn’t Be Won Page 5

 
Race That Couldn’t Be Won Page 11

Race That Couldn’t Be Won Page 11

 

Audio/Visual references:


Google Earth fly-around animation for the Mann Gulch area.


Mann Gulch: The Wrath of Nature (USFS)


Fiddlin' Foresters, Cold Missouri Water

*These documents are historical and are not currently accessible; please contact NWCG if you need assistance having the documents read.

Primary Sources of Information (Suggested Pre-Work Sources):

Other helpful documents and publications:​

Local Contact Information

Gates of the Mountains Boat Operators
P.O. Box 478
Helena, Montana 59624
Phone (406) 458-5241
www.gatesofthemountains.com

Helena National Forest
2880 Skyway Drive
Helena, Montana 59601
Phone (406) 449-5201

Northern Rockies Training Center
5765 West Broadway Street
Missoula, Montana 59808-9361
Phone (406) 329-4920

Stand 1 gives an overview of agency, firefighter/smokejumper training, policy, culture and values, as well as fuels and weather in August of 1949. How did the culture, attitudes, training and environmental conditions set the stage for the events of Mann Gulch on August 5, 1949?

At the time of the Mann Gulch Fire, the U.S. Forest Service was 44 years into its existence, and the smokejumper program was a 10 year old project with a strong reputation for performance and ability. The culture regarding fire suppression was one of aggressive initial attack and protection of valuable natural resources. The 10 am Policy, established in 1936, stated that upon the report of a fire, containment and/or control should be accomplished by 10 am the following day. Long duration fires on the land could often reflect poorly on the record of a District Ranger.

On a broader scope, the work ethic in the U.S. Forest Service and the firefighting community, stressed unquestioning compliance with a supervisors orders. Many of the firefighters were veterans of WWII and brought much in the way of attitudes and culture toward authority from their military experiences. Official training on areas such as Fire Behavior and Risk Management (LCES, 10 & 18, etc…) did not yet exist.

On August 4th a lightning storm moved through western Montana and on to the east side of the continental divide, starting numerous fires. August brought with it record high temperatures in an area of abundant light fuel build up. The Mann Gulch Fire was reported by the Colorado Mountain Lookout at 12:25 PM, August 5th. District Ranger Robert Jansson also spotted the fire from a patrol airplane, and when he got back to Helena at 1:30 PM he and his supervisor decided to order smokejumpers from Missoula due to the difficulty of getting ground forces to the fire rapidly. They also ordered 50 local firefighters to be sent to the fire. Because only one airplane (a C47) was available, 16 jumpers flew to Mann Gulch. The best overhead available was selected for the mission due to the extremely rough topography of the general area and the seriousness of the fire weather. The airplane departed Missoula at 2:30 PM.

This background discussion is best held at the mouth of Mann Gulch after getting off the boat. Logistically, the mouth of Mann Gulch offers a good place to stash contingency medical supplies, break into groups and provide a visual overview of the area being discussed.

Sign currently located at the mouth of Mann Gulch

Sign currently located at the mouth of Mann Gulch

Men at the mouth of Mann Gulch just after the fire.

Men at the mouth of Mann Gulch just after the fire.

 

About 1 mile from the mouth of Mann Gulch, this open bench where Dodge and Harrison rejoined the crew provides a view which includes most of Mann Gulch, the jump spot, the cargo spot, and the main fire. It is also a good location to discuss fuel type and arrangement on this terrain in 1949, as compared to today.

The jump ship arrived over the fire at 3:10 PM. Spotter Cooley and Foreman Dodge estimated the fire to be 60 acres and noted that it had burned to the top of the ridge between Mann and Meriwether Gulches, with considerable backing down slope into Mann Gulch. They picked a jump spot across the gulch and streamers indicated the wind was about 10 mph straight up canyon, from the northeast. The air was so turbulent that several jumpers got sick, most landed hard (Dodge actually injured his elbow on landing), the cargo got scattered, and the crew's only radio was broken on impact.

Around 5:00 PM, while the crew got a bite to eat, Dodge went across the gulch for a meeting with Meriwether Guard Harrison, who had yelled down to them. James Harrison, a smokejumper the previous season, was the first to attack the Mann Gulch fire, having hiked back and forth between the guard station to the ridge top twice during the day. Dodge instructed Hellman to follow him with the men after they had collected their cargo.

When Hellman brought the crew across, Dodge and Harrison came down and met them at a point about 100 yards up from the gulch bottom. Dodge decided that this flank was not safe. Around 5:20 PM he told Hellman to take the crew back across the drainage to this stand’s north side location, and on towards the Missouri River. Dodge and Harrison hiked back to the cargo spot to get food and water.

Route Hellman leads smokejumpers on between Stand 2 (Briefing and Overlook) and Stand 3 (Crew Turnaround Point).

Route Hellman leads smokejumpers on between Stand 2 (Briefing and Overlook) and Stand 3 (Crew Turnaround Point).

Highly detailed photo from smokejumper cargo spot Aug. 16, 1949 Notice the difference between fuels then and now.

Highly detailed photo from smokejumper cargo spot Aug. 16, 1949 Notice the difference between fuels then and now.

 

From mid-slope and contouring on this spur ridge, a half mile southwest from Stand 2, people can note the main fire’s progress, the development of a spot fire below and the steepness of this northern canyon side.

While at the cargo spot Dodge and Harrison saw the fire “boil up,” and determined to get the crew out of the canyon as soon as possible. They caught up to the crew - which had strung into smaller groups - around 5:40 PM; Dodge took over the lead, pushing the pace towards the river.

Within five minutes Dodge noticed that the wind had picked up. The fire had crossed the gulch, cutting off access to the Missouri River and a safe anchor point, and was burning up the ridge towards them through light grass and brush. He turned the men around and told them to head back up Mann Gulch at approximately this stand’s location. Flames were still not visible from the crew’s rear, but the smoke and noise had become significant. It is at around this time that Ranger Jansson got turned back by flames below them and retreated back to the river.

Even after turning around and heading away from the flames below, the fire blowing up across the canyon still preoccupied some of the firefighters’ attention. Navon and another jumper took pictures of the main fire from here.

Turnaround point with facilitator pointing out location where Dodge first sees spots in the bottom of Mann Gulch, cutting off the crew's access to the river.

Turnaround point with facilitator pointing out location where Dodge first sees spots in the bottom of Mann Gulch, cutting off the crew's access to the river.

View toward the bottom of Mann Gulch with historic terrain and fuels.

View toward the bottom of Mann Gulch with historic terrain and fuels.

 

300-500 yards back to the northeast from Stand 3, on this slight bench on the upper third of the slope, people can notice how fire was likely to have behaved as well as how difficult it is to negotiate this top part of the ridge, where there are rockslides and where several outcroppings block escape.

At this point the fire was about 100 yards behind the crew, and seemed to be getting ahead of them both above and below on the slope. Flames are estimated to have been spreading at just less than 100 yards per minute. The men seemed to have finally become nervous about their situation. Rumsey recalled Dodge saying something about "getting out of this firetrap".

At this location, about 5:53 PM, Dodge ordered the men to drop their gear. Whether or not they all heard their foreman, they did not all respond. As the timber thinned, the fuels became flashier, and the winds pushed the fire to spread even faster, up to an estimated 600 feet per minute.

Location near tool drop looking upslope from rock slide area. Notice footing and steepness of slope encountered during crew’s retreat.

Location near tool drop looking upslope from rock slide area. Notice footing and steepness of slope encountered during crew’s retreat.

Investigators find dropped tools following the Mann Gulch Fire

Investigators find dropped tools following the Mann Gulch Fire

 

Approximately 400 feet higher and .4 miles northeast of Stand 3 is where Dodge lit his escape fire at 5:55 PM. At this time no fewer than eight members of the crew were close to him. Dodge thought he tried to explain to the crew that he intended to wait a few seconds to let his fire burn down before entering the blackened area, and that he wanted them to follow. About 100 square feet had burned when a crewmember said: “To hell with this, I am getting out of here,” and everyone except Dodge continued up the gulch. Dodge kept trying to convince the men as they passed him to get into the ashes with him, but nobody did. These events took seconds to occur.

The rookie smokejumpers had gone through weeks of intensive conditioning and had been working in the field ever since. They reached speeds estimated at 4 to 6 mph on these steep slopes.

Staff Ride facilitator near the Dodge escape fire marker, utilizing a photo in conducting a strategic discussion regarding Dodge's actions.

Staff Ride facilitator near the Dodge escape fire marker, utilizing a photo in conducting a strategic discussion regarding Dodge's actions.

Marker near the location where Dodge ignites his escape fire.

Marker near the location where Dodge ignites his escape fire.

 

Here at the top of the ridge separating Mann Gulch from Rescue Gulch is a flat area large enough to gather a group for discussion. People can see much of Rumsey and Sallee’s escape route, some of Rescue Gulch, and many of the monuments placed where bodies were found.

Jumpers Sallee and Rumsey followed the north edge of Dodge’s fire to the ridge top where they escaped the flames. After the blowup had subsided, they found Hellman, who had followed the south edge of Dodge’s escape fire toward the ridge, badly burned but alive. Foreman Dodge, who had survived inside the fire he lit, joined Sallee and Rumsey and reported that he had found Sylvia alive, but badly burned. Dodge and Sallee proceeded down Rescue Gulch to the Missouri River to find help while Rumsey stayed with Hellman.

A rescue crew arrived on the scene at 12:30 AM on August 6th, and began to assist Dodge in the search and recovery of the men. At 1:30 AM, they came upon and tended Sylvia and Hellman. The two injured men were evacuated at 5:00 AM, but both died in a Helena hospital later in the morning. Before the day was over the other 11 bodies of those who died were found within 300 yards of each other.

During the blow up stage, the Mann Gulch fire covered an estimated 3,000 acres in 10 minutes and eventually burned 4,300 acres. 611 firefighters helped bring the fire under control.

Largely as a result of the Mann Gulch Fire’s tragic ending, a program was developed to study fire behavior, and the Fire Laboratory in Missoula was finally built in 1960. Today firefighters nationwide analyze fire behavior from investigative conclusions and follow the Ten Standard Fire Orders that were influenced in part by the events that occurred in Mann Gulch in 1949.

Looking down into Rescue Gulch from ridge top. Notice Hellman’s cross has been relocated to the rock slide, well below the ridge top (lower right of photo)

Looking down into Rescue Gulch from ridge top. Notice Hellman’s cross has been relocated to the rock slide, well below the ridge top (lower right of photo)

Looking down into Rescue Gulch from ridge top. Notice initial placement of Hellman's cross.

Looking down into Rescue Gulch from ridge top. Notice initial placement of Hellman's cross.

 

This optional stand is located .5 miles up from the mouth of Mann Gulch, near Gisborne’s Memorial Plaque. This stand is particularly pertinent if the Staff Ride is for fire managers, since that was Jansson’s job. From here you can note the fire origin and the spot fires that Jansson could see in the bottom and on the north side of Mann Gulch.

Ranger Jansson preformed multiple fire duties during August 4th and 5th, including making patrol flights, mobilizing and supporting firefighters, and dispatching.

At 5:02 PM on August 5th Jansson started hiking up Mann Gulch to scout the fire and ascertain if the jumpers had made it into Mann Gulch. He estimated the wind to be between 20 and 30 mph. After traveling about 40 chains he noticed the fire had crossed the bottom of the gulch in two places. He thought he heard voices and proceeded another 100 yards to investigate. Somewhere between 5:18 and 5:20 PM he turned around, ran back through flames, and passed out. When he revived the fire was only a few feet away and backing towards him. At 5:45 PM he headed back to Meriwether in the boat.

At 9:20 PM Smokejumper Foreman Dodge made contact with Jansson in the Meriwether camp and confirmed the jump and location. This was the first time Jansson learned that an accident had occurred, and from then he lead the rescue effort through Sunday afternoon the 7th.

Staff ride participants at optional Stand 6 near the Harry T. Gisborne memorial marker. He became the 14th victim of the Mann Gulch Fire, when in September of 1949, he suffered a heart attack while studying the fire behavior and effects of the Mann Gulch Fire.

Staff ride participants at optional Stand 6 near the Harry T. Gisborne memorial marker. He became the 14th victim of the Mann Gulch Fire, when in September of 1949, he suffered a heart attack while studying the fire behavior and effects of the Mann Gulch Fire.

Historic photo of Canyon Ferry District Ranger, Robert Jansson. Stand 6 focuses heavily on the aftermath of the Mann Gulch Fire and it's impacts on the survivors and our culture.

Historic photo of Canyon Ferry District Ranger, Robert Jansson. Stand 6 focuses heavily on the aftermath of the Mann Gulch Fire and it's impacts on the survivors and our culture.

 
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
2019-11-27