HELENA — Friday marks the 73rd anniversary of the Mann Gulch Fire which burned around 5,000 acres near the Gates of the Mountains and claimed the lives of 13 firefighters.
Started by a lightning strike, the fire was spotted Aug. 5, 1949, by U.S. Forest Ranger James Harrison. Harrison was a former smokejumper who had given it up due to the danger the work posed. That summer was working as a recreation and fire prevention guard for the Meriwether Canyon Campground.
For four hours Harrison fought the fire on his own before smokejumpers from Missoula arrived.
The C-47/DC-3 "Miss Montana," registration number NC24320, left Hale Field in Missoula with 16 smokejumpers onboard. The initial call asked for 25 smokejumpers, but the Miss Montana could only hold sixteen with their gear and leadership decided to send what they could to get crews on the ground as soon as possible.
The flight over was rough according to the plane's crew. One of the smokejumpers got sick and did not jump. The remaining 15 parachuted into an open area at the top of the gulch.
The conditions were difficult for the men working to fight the fire. The temperature was 97 °F and the fire was burning in steep, rugged terrain. The foreman, Wagner Dodge, met up with Harrison and then instructed the firefighters to move from the front of the fire to the side to help guide it into an area with fewer fuels.
Already hot temperatures and wind off the river caused the fire to “blow up,” pushing the flames up the gulch into the dry grass of the north slope. Seeing the danger the situation posed, Dodge ordered his men to drop their packs and heavy equipment so they could move faster away from the oncoming fire.
At this time the fire was moving extremely fast with the fireless than 100 yards away from the firefighters. Realizing that they would not reach the ridge in front of the fire, Dodge took a match and set fire to the grass just before them. The goal was to create an escape fire so the men could lie in the burn scar as the main fire burned around them. While it had been a method used by plains Indian to escape grassland fires, it was not a method the U.S. Forest Service considered or taught at the time.
Dodge told the three men beside him – Robert Sallee, Walter Rumsey and Eldon Diettert – to go "Up this way", but there was a misunderstanding. The three ran straight up for the ridge crest along the edge of the fire Dodge set. As the rest of the men came up, Dodge tried to direct them to go to the center of the burned-out area of the fire he had set. None of the remaining men followed that order and attempted to race up the slope and get through the rock ridge line to safer ground.
Four of the men that day reached the ridge crest, but only two, Bob Sallee and Walter Rumsey, managed to escape. They were able to find a fissure in the rock ridge to reach the other side. Diettert had been just to the right, but he did not drop back to the fissure and continued on up the right side of the hogback. He was overtaken by the fire. Sallee and Rumsey managed to find a rock slide with little to no vegetation where they waited for the fire to overtake them.
Dodge survived by entering the center of the burned-out area his escape fire created.
Eleven firefighters died that day with two others sustaining fatal burns. Only three of the 16 – Sallee, Rumsey and Dodge – survived.
Twelve crosses and one Star of David stand where the thirteen firefighters who died fighting the Mann Gulch fire fell.
The Mann Gulch fire had a significant effect on firefighter training. Safety training was made mandatory to achieve certification to work on a fire line and new training protocols were incorporated into U.S. Forest Service firefighter training.