August 5, 1949, the date of the infamous Mann Gulch Fire, in the Gates of the Mountains Wildness Area.

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What is the Mann Gulch Fire?

From Wikipedia:

The Mann Gulch Fire was started by a lightening strike on August 5, 1949.  The lightening strike was along the south of Mann Gulch about 5 miles from the Gates of the Mountains.

Forest ranger James Harrison was the first to see it at about noon that day.  Harrison, a former smoke jumper, fought the fire alone for 4 hours before help arrived.

What Went So Wrong?

The odds were against everyone that day.  The temperature was 97 degrees and the day had a fire rating of 74.

The team of 15 smokejumpers jumped into the area and began fighting the fire.  All of a sudden winds kicked in and the fire expanded incredibly quickly.  The fire's expansion cut off the route the men were going to take and forced them to try and take refuge uphill.  The fire blew up to 3,000 acres in just 10 minutes and trapped the smokejumpers in the flames.

Thirteen of the firefighters died in those few minutes.  Only 3 men lived to tell the tale.  It would be another 5 days before the fire was under control.


Firefighters who lost their lives that day:

  • Robert J. Bennett, age 22
  • Eldon E. Diettert, age 19, died on his 19th birthday
  • James O. Harrison, Helena National Forest Fire Guard, age 20
  • William J. Hellman, age 24
  • Philip R. McVey, age 22
  • David R. Navon, age 28
  • Leonard L. Piper, age 23
  • Stanley J. Reba, age 25
  • Marvin L. Sherman, age 21
  • Joseph B. Sylvia, age 24
  • Henry J. Thol Jr., age 19
  • Newton R. Thompson, age 23
  • Silas R. Thompson, age 21

The Men Who Lived:

  • R. Wagner (Wag) Dodge, Missoula SJ foreman, age 33
  • Walter B. Rumsey, age 21
  • Robert W. Sallee, age 17, the youngest of all the men

Lessons of the Mann Gulch Fire

Two Forest Service firefighter training protocols came from the fire:  Ten Standard Firefighting Orders and Eighteen Situations That Shout Watch Out.  Both of these became mandatory training to be certified to work on a fire line.

Memorials for the Tragedy

There are 13 crosses marking the locations where the 13 firefighters who died fell.

Miss Montana, the C-47/DC-3 that carried the smokejumpers to the fire was exhibited in the Missoula Museum of Mountain Flying.  To mark the 70th anniversary of the tragedy, Miss Montana flew over Mann Gulch and dropped 13 wreaths for the men who lost their lives in the fire.

A thank you to Wikipedia for the information and some pictures featured in this article.

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