On August 5, 1949, fifteen USDA Forest Service smokejumpers and a Helena National Forest fire guard were entrapped by a spot from a wildfire about 20 miles north of Helena, Montana. The fire eventually burned almost 4,500 acres.
A lightning storm started numerous fires on the Helena District of the Helena National Forest on the afternoon of August 4. The Mann Gulch Fire was detected at about 12:00 PM on August 5th on a day with record-breaking temperatures. At about 3:00 PM when the smokejumpers from the Missoula Smokejumper Base were circling the fire in a C-47 airplane the fire was estimated to be between 50 and 60 acres. The fire behavior at that time appeared fairly minimal and the jumpers expected to easily have the fire lined and under control by 10:00 AM the next morning.
The jumpers parachuted into a spot up canyon and at a lower elevation than the fire. During the time the jumpers gathered their gear and had a quick bite to eat the fire became more active. This inspired the foreman to get his crew down gulch so that they could attack the fire from the heel. Their approach was mid-slope on the opposite aspect from the fire, allowing the firefighters to keep an eye on the fire across the way. During their movement down canyon, a spot fire that was previously unseen on their side of the gulch made a rapid upslope and up-canyon run, cutting off their access to the anchor point. The fire overran and killed most of the firefighters. Two firefighters escaped by slipping through a small notch in the rimrock at the top of the ridge. The foreman lit an escape fire, an emergency survival technique the smokejumpers had not been trained in, in an effort to consume the fuels ahead of the approaching blaze. After trying unsuccessfully to convince his crew to enter the burned area with him, he then lay down in the blackened area as the flame front passed over. He survived.
Much controversy surrounded the incident with investigation into training, standard procedures, and safety practices. It received attention in the national media at the time and has continued to be of interest into current times:
- The incident created interest in scientific study of extreme fire behavior and better methods of predicting potential blow-up fire situations. This interest resulted in the development of the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory.
- It was one of the fires studied in the development of the Ten Standard Firefighting Orders.
- There was speculation by some that the escape fire the foreman lit was the cause of the fatalities.
- The incident received national attention and inspired a feature-length movie released in 1952 – Red Skies of Montana as well as an article in Life Magazine.
- The story was researched and written about by Norman Maclean in Young Men and Fire.
David Bihr – U.S. Forest Service, Missoula Smokejumpers
Marvin Carpenter – U.S. Forest Service, Helena National Forest
Jim Cook – U.S. Forest Service, National Interagency Fire Center
Dan Cottrell – U.S. Forest Service, Missoula Smokejumpers
Sue Curd – Bureau of Land Management, National Interagency Fire Center
Paul Fieldhouse – U.S. Forest Service, Northern Rockies Training Center
Angela Harvieux – U.S. Forest Service, Great Northern Fire Crew R1
Kelli Hochmuht - U.S. Forest Service, Great Northern Fire Crew R1
Colby Jackson – U.S. Forest Service, Missoula Smokejumpers
Bob Kambitsch – Bureau of Land Management, National Interagency Fire Center
Giselle Koehn – U.S. Forest Service, Great Northern Fire Crew R1
Lori Messenger – U.S. Forest Service, Missoula Smokejumpers
Bill Miller – U.S. Forest Service, Great Northern Fire Crew R1
Morgan Pence – U.S. Forest Service, Great Northern Fire Crew R1
Justin Underwood – U.S. Forest Service, Great Northern Fire Crew R1
Nina Walker – Bureau of Land Management, National Interagency Fire Center
A special thanks to the following individuals who were instrumental in their support of the development of the Mann Gulch Staff Ride:
Paul Chamberlin – Fish and Wildlife Service (retired)
Jeff Scussel – U.S. Forest Service, Northern Region Office (retired)
Dave Turner – U.S. Forest Service, Helena National Forest (retired)
Edmund Ward – U.S. Forest Service, Missoula Smokejumpers (retired)