Long Look Back After a Fire

By , Brad Knickerbocker covers environmental issues for the Monitor from Ashland, Ore.

SOMETHING about the tragic loss of young people gnaws at the human spirit: A desire to find reasons and rationality in what seems to be inexplicable. Certainly loved ones are affected in such cases, but so too are those who have been in similar circumstances but were spared. Many combat veterans have had to deal with this feeling.

Norman Maclean grew up in the rough and rowdy territory of Montana in the early part of this century. He began working summers for the Forest Service when he was just 15, then went on to spend a long and productive adulthood as a professor of English literature at the University of Chicago.

After he retired in the 1970s, Maclean wrote about those early days in a collection of what have become classic essays called "A River Runs Through It" (1976). The collection is a beautiful and haunting exploration of family relationships and, most poignantly, a search for why the author's younger brother died in a back-alley brawl. A film version produced and directed by Robert Redford is due out this fall.

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That same existential search is at the heart of the posthumously published "Young Men and Fire," which focuses on the death of 13 firefighters - 12 of them smoke jumpers - who perished in the 1949 Mann Gulch fire along the Missouri River not far from Helena, Mont.

Although the men recruited to fight wildfires in those days often were drunks rounded up at local bars, smoke jumpers were an elite crew. Seven of the 15 who parachuted that day were college forestry students; two were just out of high school and enrolled at the University of Montana. Most were military vets. They were also very young. Thirteen were between the ages of 17 and 23.

Within less than an hour of when they had stepped out of the open door of their aircraft into what seemed to be a fairly routine and not particularly large blaze, most had been trapped and died in what remained - until Maclean finished his work nearly 40 years later - the only instance of smoke jumpers being lost to fire.

At the time it was a stunning event, and it remained part of firefighting lore for decades. It also was controversial; some questioned the crew leader's judgment, believing that his last efforts to save the crew and himself (he was one of those who survived) contributed directly to the deaths. There were lawsuits and suspicions of bureaucratic coverup.

Following his retirement from teaching, Maclean spent 14 years trying to piece together what happened at Mann Gulch and why. He was obsessive in his search for details, which included finding the two remaining survivors (the crew chief died five years after the fire) as well as others who were involved in the aftermath. He traveled several times to the site to pace out minute-by-minute individual and group movements, and worked with modern fire experts and their computers to recreate the precise combinat ion of physics and chemistry that ended in holocaust when a patch of hillside virtually blew up.

Maclean is not only an investigative historian, but a storyteller.

"A storyteller, unlike a historian, must follow compassion wherever it leads him," he writes. "He must be able to accompany his characters, even into smoke and fire, and bear witness to what they thought and felt even when they themselves no longer knew. This story of the Mann Gulch fire will not end until it feels able to walk the final distance to the crosses [placed at the site] with those who for the time being are blotted out by smoke. They were young and did not leave much behind them and need some one to remember them."

He returns to this theme later: "A story that honors the dead realistically partly atones for their sufferings, and so instead of leaving us in moral bewilderment, adds dimensions to our acuteness in watching the universe's four elements at work - sky, earth, fire, and young men."

In erecting what he calls his "small memorial of knowledge," Maclean slips and stumbles and grabs for handholds in this world of moral bewilderment.

There are frequent references to "stations of the cross," "grace," "compassion," "Armageddon," "salvation," and "transubstantiation." As the son of a Presbyterian clergyman, he explored this same terrain once before when he sought an answer to a brother's violent death. And again, without full resolution or satisfaction.

He knows he is searching through detailed scientific inquiry and the literary analysis of tragedy for the answer to what at base is a theological question - "Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?," as a popular book puts it. He takes some comfort in knowing that the knowledge gained from the Mann Gulch fire no doubt saved lives later on. In all, he concludes, that's the best he could do - and in that, his is a remarkable study in persistence and perception.

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