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Interview with John McLean

by Steve Smith (NSA Historian) |

In the following interview with John Maclean, NSA Historian, Steve Smith talked with Maclean about the October 28th History Channel special, which is not to be missed.

John Maclean's five-year project to research and write the book "Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire," is now the subject of a new television documentary. The History Channel program, "Fire on the Mountain" will be broadcast on October 28th. This two-hour television-special follows Maclean's journey to understand how and why fourteen fire fighters were trapped and killed when the South Canyon Fire blew-up on July 6, 1994.

The Maclean family name is familiar to most smokejumpers. The 59 year-old author's father, Norman Maclean, wrote, "A River Runs Through It" and "Young Men and Fire." "Young Men and Fire" was published a year after his death and was a powerfully written examination of why twelve smokejumpers and a fireguard were trapped and killed when a 1949 wildfire blew-up at Mann Gulch.

John Maclean's critically acclaimed book, "Fire on the Mountain" was published in 1999 and is highly regarded in the fire fighting community as a clear and honest look at the events surrounding the South Canyon Fire. The fire (incorrectly named) took place high on the slopes of Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The fire, believed started by lightening, burned for three days as a small ground fire. Then on July 6, 1994 the fire blew-up trapping and killing fourteen fire fighters.

John Maclean was working as a reporter for The Chicago Tribune at the time of the South Canyon Fire. He resigned the next year and began a challenging and emotional five-year exploration of how this tragedy could happen again with all that's been learned about fire safety since the Mann Gulch Fire.

Now Maclean's book has been produced as a powerful new television documentary, "Fire on the Mountain". Produced by Lone Wolf Pictures for the History Channel, the two-hour special will be broadcast on October 28th. Plans are in the works for a premier screening on October 11th at the Wilma Theater in Missoula, Montana. The program producers plan to attend and the show narrator Scott Glenn hopes to attend.

"Fire on the Mountain" was produced, directed and written by Lisa Quijano Wolfinger and co-produced and edited by Tony Bacon. Actor Scott Glenn was the program narrator.

John was interviewed on June 17, 2002. Smokejumper names in bold.

Q - John tell me about your five year journey working on, "Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire".

When you do something like that you spend a lot of time alone. The highs are very high and the lows are very low. On one trip - and there were many - I spent six weeks in Colorado where I intended to spend two weeks. Each time I figured I'd get out of there a plane would come in and Sarah Doehring or Dale Longanecker or someone else would pop up. That went on for weeks.

The first time I went to Storm King Mountain, the Mackeys (Bob and Nadine Mackey parents of Don Mackey) were up on the hill and people were coming up to see them. I'd sit out of the way as smokejumpers and fire fighters were telling the Mackeys what they knew about the fire. Afterwards I'd go up and say, "I'd like to interview you separately" and I sorta had em.

I couldn't go home (to Washington DC) because the house was undergoing renovation, so I lived in the cabin in Montana. At the time I didn't know whether this book project would be a success or not. I didn't know if I could carry it off, whether I could make a living at it, so I lived in very primitive conditions. I hunted and fished for most of my food. I'm a grouse hunter and I have a dog, so I hunted when it got too cold to fish. I didn't have any running water and damn near froze to death.

Staying the winter in the cabin was something I dreamed about all my life, but I was glad to get out of there. I discovered my limits. But in some ways this quixotic journey was the best part of my life.

Q - How do you feel about the results?

I feel I did it. I put everything in my life at risk, I put my family at risk, I put my money at risk, I put my career at risk, I put my relationship with my dead father at risk. It scared the hell out of me at times. It's hard to live like that, but you have to get up each day and go out and just do it and trust that you're capable.

About half way through I could feel the story start to really churn. It was a wonderful feeling. When I came back from the West I couldn't wait to get to a computer and start to put it together.

It has been everything I wanted it to be. It has not sold a million copies, but it won the respect of the professional community and continues to do that. I wanted the reader to see these people, the fire fighters, for what they were and to sympathize with them deeply and to walk with them on that mountain and to remember what happened there for the rest of their lives.

Q - Is your book and the new documentary to a certain extent, an alternative to the South Canyon Fire Investigation report that came out forty-five days after the fire?

Absolutely. The report made me mad. It made me mad as hell. Some of what I did was fueled by that anger. I'm not mad at the authors of the report, but I think the South Canyon Fire Investigation, the written report was mistaken when it attacked the "can do" attitude. I think today that it would be said a lot better.

Q- Who should be doing forest fire death investigations?

There was an effort in Congress, it failed, to have OSHA (the Occupational Health and Safety Administration) play a more prominent role in fire investigations. I don't know if that's the answer. But the Forest Service should certainly expand the membership of the boards of investigation.

I've gone back and read a lot of old Board of Review reports recently and they are all the same. They are technically proficient. They pretty well describe what happened on the fire, but they are totally deficient in judgment about such basic matters as negligence. Totally deficient! I've never found a good one where they set up a judicial body and dispensed justice. These are good men they don't lie. I haven't caught em in a lie yet and believe me, I've looked for one. But they are incapable of taking that next hard objective step to come to judgment. So that part of the job is most often left hanging. .

On the Thirty Mile Fire you had a multi-step process where the Board of Review issued its report, then revised it's report, then another body much later decided to discipline eleven people who had worked the fire. Not exactly a great moment in the history of cleaning up after yourself.

The institution of the Board of Review is a hunk of lead hanging around the whole fire fighting community. The basic facts are as far as they want to go. Now if they put a couple of fire fighters on the board so you have the technical side covered and a couple of academics and maybe a retired guy or two and some real outsiders that would be much preferable. Then take your time, do it right and come to judgment.

Q- What do you mean when you say academics?

There are people in fire science that can do this; there are people in criminal science investigation that could handle this. But to pack it with a bunch of state fire management officers just guarantees that the investigation will not get off the ground. The National Transportation Safety Board in an example of what's needed. Maybe NTSB shouldn't be doing it, but they are an example of how it should be done.

The argument of the Forest Service and the BLM is that they don't have enough of these events to justify a special board. But they just have to do a better job. Otherwise we have the fox looking after the chicken coop.

Q - Do you see a need for any new training to deal with blow-ups like South Canyon and Thirty Mile?

Unfortunately South Canyon has faded into something that happened on somebody else's watch. Too many young fire fighters don't know anything about it. So I support the idea of teaching the Ten Standard Orders and the Eighteen Watch out Situations and citing examples to make the lessons immediate. Go back to the basics.

Q - Any other changes?

The new fire shelter is being developed. That's an important change that needed to be done before Thirty Mile - pity it wasn't. I think we are now looking at the Century of Accountability. The Forest Service belatedly has done something about Thirty Mile, but in a way that is guaranteed to offend everyone. The families are unhappy because they didn't name the eleven, and it came late. The eleven are unhappy because their careers are screwed up. The press is frustrated because they don't have the names of the eleven and what happened to them so there can be accountability. I think the whole fire community is struggling with this and doesn't have a clear idea of how to handle these things.

Q - In the History Channel show, "Fire on the Mountain" there is a quote from a rescue team leader who said, "the system ground to a halt." Is that what we are seeing?

I think that is absolutely right. At South Canyon, when you lose fourteen people in a situation that is not combat, where you are not expecting to have loses, the system did not respond as it should have. At a minimum you can say that.

Q - In your book and the documentary you take a tough look at the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, how are you finding doors there, open or closed?

Open, very open. I have no axe to grind with the BLM, rumors to the contrary. Reports of a hate affair between the BLM and me are wrong on both counts. The BLM in California gave a mounted fire badge and commendation for service to the fire community. I think Bruce Babbitt (Former Secretary of the Interior) should have done something about accountability after Storm King other than to say, "we're all to blame." Sounds a bit mushy to me. I think he should have stepped in and done something, but that's his call and he's gone.

Q- The interview (in the show) with Jack Ward Thomas (former Chief of the US Forest Service) was remarkable.

He is a remarkable man. He just opened up the Forest Service to me, without knowing who I was. He was very open and he was courageous. He's got a heart as big as his chest, a wonderful man.

Q - In the show there was a fire fighter who said, "nobody made it happen," talking about the failure to provide resources to the fire fighters on the ground...

The Grand Junction District of the BLM was in over its head, those folks were badly distracted and they never caught up with the curve. On July 6th the fire was over 100 acres, there should have been a Type Two incident command in there at 10am. But it isn't a matter of nobody making it happen, it's that nobody said, "this isn't an initial attack fire, we need more overhead now." They were just trying to get away with it, hoping the smokejumpers would take care of it. It was not an initial attack fire, it was too big, it had lasted too long and there were too many people in there.

Q - What do you want the viewer to take away from the documentary?

I want the mistakes from the South Canyon Fire to be indelible in the memory of every firefighter on the line and every member of the fire community. It won't happen, but you asked what I want. You get killed fighting fire if you don't do it right. Your sons and daughters die when it isn't done right. What happened on Storm King was not an act of nature; it was a human fuck up, at many levels. Get mad, get alert and never let it happen again.

Q- When I hear you say that it sounds like you've gotten close to the families (of those who died).

That's a terrific compliment; I hope you're right. I'm close to the Mackeys. I talk to them a couple of times a year and see them at least once a year. I saw Ralph Holtby and Jeanie Holtby this last fall. That was one of the most wonderful things about doing this documentary. I got to go back and see everybody again. It was a little scary because I wondered whether they would tell the same story on TV that they told me - and they did. To catch up with people like the Holtbys, they are really marvelous people and they have weathered this as well as anyone can.

Q - What would you like to say about the show?

It turned out differently than I thought it would. I thought it would be just about South Canyon, but the people at Lone Wolf got interested in the story and they expanded it to include my dad and Mann Gulch. I deliberately tried to stay away from that in the book, because I didn't want the Maclean story detracting from what happened on Storm King.

I think the producers of the documentary did a good job. I'm just glad it wasn't me who did it.

Q- What's next for you?

I'm finishing a book of stories about fires around the theme of the history of wildland fire. It will start with a short history of wildland fire. At the beginning of the 20th Century was the Big Blowup of 1910, the grandpappy of all wildland fires. With it came a commitment to put out all future fires. Then in the middle of the century the war with fire was killing too many fire fighters. Now At the end of the century we forgot the safety lessons taught decades before and experienced South Canyon.

There are two long stories in the book; one is about the Rattlesnake Fire in 1953 in Northern California, which killed fifteen firefighters - a Forest Service ranger and a fourteen-member crew from a missionary camp. An arsonist started it. The guy was the son of a Forest Service engineer, a very well regarded man. I located the arsonist after almost fifty years and interviewed him several times. He was captured, confessed and did time in prison.

The second story is about the Sadler Fire in 1999 near Elko, Nevada, which fortunately killed no one. It was an echo of Storm King. Six people were burned over on a division where Tom Shepard, who was superintendent of the Prineville Hotshots on Storm King, was the division superintendent. The burn-over led to the only time I've been able to find that a Type One Team was disbanded for the way they handled the fire. This was a landmark.

It was a landmark in other ways too because the fire, a grass fire, was just about to kill six people. It had em on the ground and was burning two of them and suddenly there was a change in the wind and either it died, or it shifted or it paused. But the flames stood up and the people who were on the ground about to be incinerated were able to walk out of it. So what you have are personal accounts from inside the flames of people who were seconds from death.

I look forward to reading the book, you did a masterful job on "Fire on the Mountain," and I highly recommend the new documentary. Thank you, John.