Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for us All
Chapter 2 : Wagner Dodge Retreats in Mann Gulch
"What the hell is the boss doing, lighting another fire in front of us?"
AGNER DODGE WAS facing the moment, the decision of a lifetime. A fast-moving forestand-grass fire was about to overrun him and the fifteen firefighters under his command. Less than two hours earlier they had sky-jumped into a fiery gulch in Montana. Now an enormous wall of flame was racing at them up the tinder-dry ravine. They knew they were running for their lives, and Dodge knew their time was running out. Dodge's mind, still remarkably in control, was also concluding that he and his men had almost reached a point of no exit. He estimated that in a mere ninety seconds the conflagration would overtake him and the crew. If he could still discover a way out or invent some way to survive within, it would make the difference between miraculous escape or catastrophic failure, between saving himself and his fifteen men or losing all.
A Fire in Mann Gulch LOCATED IN A rugged area of central Montana, Mann Gulch runs into the Missouri River in a region named Gates of the Mountains in 1805 by the famed northwest explorer Meriwether Lewis. In such inaccessible areas, fire is always a worry, but on August 5, 1949, the danger was greater than usual. By late summer, central Montana was so bone dry that the U.S. Forest Service put the fire potential at 74 on a scale of zoo. Twenty-five miles to the south, Helena was reaching a record temperature for the day of 97 degrees Fahrenheit. A small thundershower moving through the area offered momentary respite. But the storm also meant lightning, and lightning often means fire.
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By 2.30 PM, a crew had loaded onto a C-47 at the smoke-jumper base in Missoula. Thirty-three-year-old R. Wagner Dodge was the crew chief. A man of few words, he had fought many fires during his nine years in the business, and he was deservedly the team boss for the technical expertise he brought to the attack. The fifteen men who checked their parachutes and climbed on board with him were young, eager, conditioned. They had been fighting fires all summer and were ready for this one. Some were college students who had volunteered for the summer; others were career firefighters. Several were World War II veterans. Among those who took their seats for the twenty-minute trip to Mann Gulch were Robert Sallee, underage for the work at seventeen, and Walter Rumsey. The outfit also included David Navon, a former first lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Division who had parachuted into Bastogne, Belgium, during the 1944 German counteroffensive, and William J. Hellman, who only a month earlier had parachuted onto the Ellipse between the White House and the Washington Monument. The men under Dodge's command hailed from Massachusetts and Montana, New York and North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey
As the aircraft circled twice around Mann Gulch, Dodge and spotter Earl Cooley scouted a safe landing zone. The men were. belted down, but the plane was bouncing about in the turbulence, an early hint of what was to come. Many of them felt half sick, and one, too nauseous to jump, opted to return to Missoula. On Dodge's signal, the others leapt out the open door, targeting a landing zone high on the upper left side of the ravine, marked as point I in Figure 2 . 1 . Dodge and his crew hit the ground at 4:10 P . M . and by 5.00 had gathered their chutes, loaded their packs, and shouldered their shovels. Dodge suggested that his men take some food and drink before moving out. In fire jumpers' parlance, it was a "ten o'clock fire" on the other side of the gulch-one they would fight all night and expect to have under control by 10 A . M . the next day. August fires often begin late in the afternoon as lightning rumbles through, and most of...