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Where memories still smoulder

by webmaster |

From the Helena Independent Record - 05/27/07

MANN GULCH — When Bob Whaley began his stint with the smokejumpers out of Missoula in 1956, the tragic deaths of 12 young firefighters and a forest ranger in Mann Gulch in 1949 was fresh in everyone’s mind.

"Everybody thought about it a lot," Whaley said. "We knew some of the people who had died. (Eldon) Diettert was a classmate of my brother."

That didn't dissuade Whaley, who wanted to be a smokejumper ever since seeing them train at Hale Field in Missoula when he was a first grader. By the time he was 12, he was training himself by jumping off the roof of his parents’ house n until his mother saw him drop past the dining room window and put a stop to that.

Eventually, though, Whaley joined the elite crew that parachutes from airplanes into remote sites to fight wildfires. So did Jon McBride in 1954, Chuck Fricke in 1961, and hundreds of daring souls in the ensuing decades. To these men, Mann Gulch is sacred ground, where lives were lost but lessons learned that spared others.

This week, Whaley, McBride, Fricke and 11 other former smokejumpers made the trek to the site of the disaster to not only pay homage to the 13 men who died and the three who survived in Mann Gulch, but to help create a lasting tribute to them.

The 14 former smokejumpers — now in their 60s and 70s, many retired from white-collar professions — reached Mann Gulch by boat in pouring rain Monday, and set up their tents at the Meriweather Guard Station.

On Tuesday, heads lowered against the steady downpour mixed with snow, about ten men hiked to the ridge that overlooks the deadly terrain to erect an interpretative sign

"Guys put their lives down to save the forest and we can't forget them," Fricke said, as blustery winds threatened to blow him and the other former smokejumpers off the ridgetop. "It's just like the armed forces n we can't forget those guys either."

"You can only imagine the terror they felt," McBride added.

THE MANN GULCH TRAGEDY

The interpretive sign faces the mountainside where 15 smokejumpers were dropped off about 3 p.m. on a hot afternoon on Aug. 5, 1949. Dotted lines trace their progress to the base of Mann Gulch, where the smokejumpers and one ranger headed to safer ground near the Missouri River. They thought the fire was dying down.

Within an hour, they realized not only that the fire had blown up and was less than 200 yards away — another blaze had ignited, blocking their way to the river.

The crew turned and began a retreat along the steep side of the gulch. In just minutes, as the size and speed of the fires exploded, the smokejumpers were running for their lives. Only two young men cleared the ridge of the gulch and survived. A third survivor n the crew boss — lit a backfire, which at the time was a relatively new fire survival technique.

The interpretive sign shows those events, as well as the points where each man was overrun by flames. It also carries pictures of the survivors, and the names of the deceased.

Today, headstones mark those sites, but on the vast mountainside, they’re sometimes difficult to make out and their conditions are deteriorating. As part of this week’s effort, Roy Williams, a smokejumper from 1960 to 1965, and Roger Savage, a smokejumper from 1957 to 1966, hiked up Mann Gulch to take GPS readings and photographs of significant sites.

"We want to make sure there's a permanent record of what happened up there," Savage said.

While devastating in its time, the story of the catastrophic Mann Gulch blaze gained international fame with Norman Maclean’s 1992 best-seller "Young Men and Fire." Since the book's publication, hundreds of people each year take the boat ride up the Missouri River to stop at either the guard station or the gulch and hike to the site where the fire outran the firefighters.

"I've talked to people who hike in here, and hike around, but they don’t find anything," McBride said. "People say they don’t know what to look for."

A PLAN FOR THE FUTURE

The Helena National Forest supplied the sign that was erected by the former smokejumpers, who are volunteers from the National Smokejumpers Association. McBride, NSA trail coordinator, notes that about 200 of the non-profit group’s members travel around the West and Alaska to do around 20 projects each year that the Forest Service wants done but often can't afford.

"They come from all walks of life, from bus drivers to bankers, to work on projects for seven or eight days, eight to 120 hours a day,” McBride said. “They’re 60 or 70 now, but work just as hard as they did 50 years ago."

"And we don't take breaks," Fricke added, smiling.

Their love for the forest is displayed at almost every turn as they take switchbacks down from the blustery ridgetop back to the Meriweather Guard Station. They stop to use their pulaskis to improve the trail where it's washed away. They pause briefly to topple a tree leaning menacingly over the hiking path. They joke about whether they’re working for food or beer, but clearly it's camaraderie that has drawn these men together, along with a chance to be out in the woods.

They hope to continue to work with the Helena National Forest to ensure the story of Mann Gulch, and the lessons learned, are not forgotten. McBride said while it’s a historic place, no plan currently exists to preserve its integrity and they want to change that.

"We have volunteered to help with a historic preservation plan," McBride says in the early afternoon, as the men sip coffee and warm up back at the Meriweather Guard Station. "We didn't choose the Mann Gulch work n it chose us. There's no other place, if you're a smokejumper, that you would consider.

"And this is a real treat for us, to get back into the woods to do the jobs we did when we were young. Guys get a taste of this and want to do it every year."