On August 5, 1949, a crew of 15 of the U.S. Forest Service's elite airborne firefighters, the Smokejumpers, stepped into the sky above a remote forest fire in Montana wilderness. Less than an hour later, all but three were dead or fatally burned in a "blowup," an explosive 2,000 degree firestorm 300 feet deep and 200 feet tall. Winner of a 1992 National Book Critic Award, Young Men & Fire consumed 14 years of Norman Maclean's life. He sifted through grief and controversy in search of the truth about the Mann Gulch tragedy, then wrote about it in excruciating detail. The sobering story of the worst disaster in the history of the Forest Service also embraces the themes of honor, death, compassion, rebirth, and the human spirit.
On August 5, 1949, lightning came crashing down in the vast spruce forest above Seeley Lake, Montana, and touched off a roaring blaze. As every Westerner knows, lightning means fire, but the fire that raged through Mann Gulch that day was huge--the sort that occurs only every few decades. A battery of paratrooper-firefighters, many of them fresh veterans of World War II, had been anticipating it, and even looking forward to the chance to fight a great fire. Before the day ended thirteen of those smokejumpers lay dead, their charred remains evidence that something had gone terribly wrong. Norman Maclean gives a thorough account of the incident in language not meant for the squeamish: "Burning to death on a mountainside is dying at least three times ... first, considerably ahead of the fire, you reach the verge of death in your boots and your legs; next, as you fail, you sink back in the region of strange gases and red and blue darts where there is no oxygen and here you die in your lungs; then you sink in prayer into the main fire that consumes." After August 1949, he notes, the Forest Service came to recognize that not all fires need to be fought and that fire benefits most forest ecosystems.