Thursday, July 04, 2013

Reflections on Young Men and Fire

In the tiny town near the Idaho ranch where I was born and spent my early years, National Forest Rangers were an inspiration to go to college.  The incentive when I was around the age of my youngest grandson now was that you got to wear a uniform.

Those memories returned a year ago as I arose before dawn in a motel in Stanley, Idaho (pop. 62 – altitude 6,260 ft) where three scenic byways converge in the Sawtooth Mountains about four hours west of my native Tetons.  (Click here for a live webcam or slide show of images during the last few hours.)

As my daughter and grandsons slept, I ventured out for a cup of coffee.

The motel and the half mile drive along Stanley’s main drag to the small airfield were already abuzz with firefighters during a shift change as they were ferried back and forth by a fleet of helicopters to the huge, 182,000-acre Halstead Fire aglow behind the ridges to the north.

Two current events have renewed those memories.  One is the tragic deaths of 19 elite firefighters near Prescott, Arizona at the southern end of the Rockies.  The late Dr. Norman Maclean is best known for his lyrical A River Runs Through It but one of his non-fiction books deals with unwrapping tragedies such as the one on Yarnell Hill earlier this week.

I read his posthumous Young Men and Fire a few years after relocating to Durham, North Carolina.  It chronicles how all but three members of an elite team of 15 smokejumpers died fighting Montana’s Mann Gulch Fire in 1949, the year after I was born.  His son, John Norman Maclean wrote another entitled Fire on the Mountain, about a fire in Colorado where 14 firefighters lost their lives.

Dr. Mclean taught English literature at the University of Chicago.  It wasn’t until after he retired 40 years ago that he began writing stories that made him famous such as the somewhat autobiographical A River Runs Through It.  As a young man he worked for the Forest Service in the Bitterroots, not far from our ancestral ranch or the Halstead.

His son was named after the fly-fishing Presbyterian Minister at the center of the book which is set one gulch down from Mann Gulch near Helena.  I’m sure the Yarnell tragedy will also become a impetus for change in firefighting techniques as the other two fires were.

Smokejumping such as the elder Mclean had written about in Young Men and Fire had begun as experiments in Utah and Washington State in the 1930s before being formally established in 1940.  The Mann Gulch fire chronicled by Mclean claimed 13 firefighters, 12 of them elite smokejumpers.  A lot was learned from the fire in 1949 but not nearly enough.

No doubt, one of the routes taken this year with my grandsons to our Pacific Northwest lake rendezvous with family will skirt the Montana smokejumper base as we did last year after leaving Stanley and traveling up the Bitterroot Valley.  The base is about 20 clicks from where it all started up in the Lolo at Ninemile Camp.

It was in this area a little more than a hundred years ago that The Great Fire of 1910 (aka the Big Blowup) burned 3 million acres of Montana and Idaho (about the same area as Connecticut) in a two-day firestorm, killing 78 firefighters including an entire 28-member crew near Avery, Idaho and entirely destroying seven towns and severely damaging many others across the two state area.

It is was the largest fire in recorded U.S. history.  Just two years after the Targhee was established near our ancestral ranch, the Big Blow greatly influenced the approach to fires by the young National Forest Service, established two decades earlier.

Ironically, The Forest History Society, established a couple of years before I was born relocated to Durham a few years before I did to affiliate here with the Duke University and the soon-to-be-created Nicholas School for the Environment.  It is headquartered less than two miles from my house.

The second reason these memories have flooded back this week is that a friend of mine is going to visit Bandon, Oregon in a few weeks.  Developers have overtaken the small southern Oregon coastal town now.  During my only visit there, it was still quaint and the motel room was on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

There too I arose before dawn to make coffee and walk a few feet to the bluff’s edge to watch the fog roll out.  As I returned to the room for a refill, the images of the World Trade Towers in New York City filled the screen.  They had just been struck by planes flown by terrorists.

The drive north that morning through Coos Bay to Florence where I stopped at a pay phone to call the office was eerily quiet.  Sounds funny now to stop at a pay phone.  In 2001, I was among the 45% of the U.S. population who used a cell phone but among the 43% of those who did so primarily for work and this was a pleasure trip up the coastal route.

The fog had burned off to a brilliant fall day and the views outside were spectacular while the car radio was filled with shocking details including the loss of 343 firefighters and paramedics and 60 police officers among the 2,753 fatalities.

When I saw my dad at the end of the road portion of that trip, the hugs were especially tight and the conversation gentle.  It would be the last time I would see him alive.

God bless America and the families of lost firefighters on this Independence Day.

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