I consider myself reasonably fit. I know I can run a mile in seven minutes, or a kilometer in four and a half. On even ground. In cool climate. When I’m feeling fresh and relaxed.
But upwards on a 75% incline? On a rocky hillside? In 40°C or more? With lungs full of smoke, the roar of a wildfire in my ears, and under threat of a sudden and violent death?
And if I’m lucky, I’ll never have to find out.
On August 5, 1949, sixteen firefighters of the U.S. Forest Service, most of them Smokejumpers, were not lucky at all. Quite the opposite: To them it must have felt as if, in a matter of minutes, the universe had decided to swiftly kill them.
A few hours earlier, the team had parachuted into an area called Mann Gulch, a ravine to the side of the Missouri river valley. When they landed, strong winds scattered them and their gear over a wide section of inaccessible woodland, so it took longer than they expected to collect themselves and get their bearings. After that, it was pretty much business as usual: Using shovels and Pulaskis they would dig trenches to stop the advance of the slowly expanding fire. At that point, it covered the opposite side of the gulch and was moving at about a mile an hour, or roughly 1.6km/h. Walking pace at best. If all went well, they’d be home by lunchtime the following day.
What happened next would puzzle fire researchers for years to come: The flames suddenly leapt across the divide, igniting the dry grass at the bottom of the ridge. Within seconds, what had been a slow-moving forest fire had turned into a deadly blaze racing uphill towards the men at more than seven miles an hour.
When their foreman, a fairly experienced firefighter named Wagner Dodge, saw what was coming he ordered his crew to drop their heavy gear and to head back up the hill. Some of the group complied. Others did not, and arguably that insubordination would cost them their lives. Within minutes however, the hopelessness of outrunning the flames even began to dawn on Dodge: With at least 200 more meters between the men and the relative safety of the top of the ridge, running seemed increasingly pointless.
Dodge halted. Then he pulled a box of matches out of this pocket, and started lighting small fires directly ahead of them. One of the few survivors would later testify that he thought the foreman had gone properly mad. However, what Dodge did would make it into the annals of firefighting history: By starting what would become known as an “escape fire”, he managed to starve the oncoming flames of further fuel and thereby clear a patch of ground where he could wait in safety for the main fire to pass.
The dry grass burned down swiftly. Within seconds, an area large enough for Dodge to lay down had been cleared. He threw himself into the ashes and urged his men to do likewise. However, for reasons that would be debated for decades, none of them did. All the while, the main fire advanced uphill, roaring over Dodge and his patch of burnt grass. He survived relatively unharmed. Almost all of those who attempted to outrun the flames perished.
Of the sixteen firefighters deployed in Mann Gulch on that day, thirteen died. Only Wagner Dodge and three others made it out alive, one of them succumbed to his heavy injuries a few days later.
To me, the famous tale of the Mann Gulch fire is instructive on many different levels. First and foremost, of course, it’s a human tragedy worth mourning. And superficially, one could just read it as an adventurous tale of brave, young men going out into the wilderness to continue mankind’s eternal battle with the forces of nature. But beyond the curtain of heroinism and bravery, there exists a story of overwhelming mental biases, of innovative thinking in a life-or-death situation, and finally of skewed perceptions of purpose and priorities.
Let me explain.
The fact that some of these men refused to drop their tools and instead attempted to outrun the flames clinging to useless gear is a sobering example of an inbred flaw of the human mind: When making decisions, we’re often biased towards avoiding loss much more than by the potential of future gains. Giving something up, even an artifact as trivial as an axe or a shovel, and even in the face of death, doesn’t come as easy as it should. And if we’ve allowed that thing to become part of your mental self-image, that tendency is further exacerbated. After all, what’s a firefighter without their axe? What’s a smoker without their cigarettes?
Thinking on one’s feet, as Wagner Dodge did when lighting his “escape fire”, is certainly an ability we’d all like to possess more of. But it doesn’t come for free. Even though it seemed to him that the idea appeared in his mind spontaneously and unprompted, the only way Dodge could have had it was by subconsciously tapping into a deep understanding of the dynamics of wildfires, which he hard fostered for years. Of the mechanics of how these things spread, on what they feed, and how they advance in different settings. Without that foundation of knowledge and experience, his action just seems lunatic, as it did to some of the others watching him.
The most unsettling point however, is that with hindsight we have to acknowledge that none of these men had any business to be out there in the first place. The policy that the U.S. Forst Service had set for itself, namely that all wildfires would have to be under control by 10:00am the morning after they were reported, was as arbitrary as it sounds. Later, ecologists even came to the conclusion that it was partly counterproductive: Since time immortal, forest sometimes just burned, and more often than not that’s a good thing. Small, occasional fires help to eradicate what otherwise turns into fuel for much larger and much more devastating outbursts. Ancient woods need cataclysmic events like fires at regular intervals in order to rejuvenate, stay healthy, and grow. Had they just let Mann Gulch burn, most likely nothing disastrous would have happened as a result, and those thirteen men would have lived to see another day.