Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 29, 2014

A Young Man and a Fire

From the very beginning of Under Western Skies, HERE, we’ve made a few mentions of — in my opinion — one of the best books ever written in English. You may never have heard of it: Young Men and Fire, by Norman Maclean.

More of you may know at least the title of Mr. Maclean’s other well-known book, A River Runs Through It because it was made into a movie with Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. That one is well worth reading, too. It’s not, in my opinion, so powerful as Young Men, but since there are editions that include both of these relatively short works available, you can have both for the price of one and decide for yourself.

Young Men and Fire tells the story of the Mann Gulch Fire in the Montana wilderness in 1949. Fifteen “smoke jumpers” parachuted in to fight it, but only three survived a catastrophic blow-up, which trapped the team in a holocaust of flame. Maclean’s book, though, is more than just a tale of adventure. It is, in fact, difficult to summarize. It is a kind of wilderness detective story that combines painstaking research, scientific inquiry and heartbreaking storytelling that captures the human drama at the same time that it attempts to recreate the infinitesimal detail of a disaster that happened forty years before Maclean was writing.

My brother, John, introduced me to the book many years ago. “You ought to read this,” he said. It was a gift for which I’m grateful. We’ve all had that experience; it’s how we really learn about books that matter — not in school. I reread it again every few years. Maclean’s storytelling is powerful and one can only wish that he’d written more books.

Today, I got an email from John with a link to a news story reporting that Robert Sallee, the youngest of those smoke jumpers, and the last survivor, died, age 82. He was only 17 on that day in August of 1949. Maclean interviewed Sallee for his book, and walked  with him over the site of the fire on the remote hillside to better understand what happened there.

I hope that Mr. Sallee had a good life, and that the single terrible day receded into perspective for him. CLICK HERE to read his obituary by the Associated Press.

We’ve talked about fire a number of times in these articles. We’ve seen a grassfire first-hand while we were on a hike, and we visited the birthplace of the National Park Service’s iconic emblem of fire control, Smokey Bear. We visited Mesa Verde National Park a year after a massive fire burned tens of thousands of acres — and I returned there ten years later to see the land slowly, slowly recovering.

IMG_9764 Mesa Verde burned trees

Fire is an ever-present danger here in the west, and the danger escalates as the long-running drought continues. The science of controlling and fighting fire has evolved significantly since that day 65 years ago in the wild country above the Missouri River. As Maclean pointed out in his book, the Mann Gulch Fire and its terrible consequences had a lasting impact on modern techniques for combatting fires in the wild. When the flames rise, though, there are always enormous risks for the people who walk into the field to do the work, tragically illuminated by the deaths of 19 firefighters in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, less than a year ago.

Be careful.

Check your library. If they don’t have Young Men and Fire, ask that they add it to their collection. I encourage you to read it. It’s a work of compelling greatness.

Young Men and Fire is still in print (and may it long be so). CLICK HERE for information.

© Copyright 2014 by Brad Nixon

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