The Wit of the Universe

For a firefighter the best fire seasons are often the worst fire seasons.

The muted sunlight, grey skies and the campfire odor that settled over urban areas in the Pacific Northwest recently could be greeted as the smell of overtime by a wildland firefighter.

During my college summers, I worked for the U.S. Forest Service on various fire lookouts, and the fire suppression crews assigned to each ranger district eagerly awaited fires. If there weren’t any on their district, they were happy to be sent to another forest with a working fire.

It wasn’t just that they needed the OT to help pay for college. These young firefighters spent a lot of time training. They wanted to do what they were trained to do. How would they know if they were any good? How would they get better? You can’t call yourself a firefighter (let alone a “hotshot”) if you don’t fight fire. And fighting fire is a lot more glorious and exciting than piling slash, which is what suppression crews used to do when there were no fires.

Back then, the cautionary tale taught to fire suppression crews was the story of Montana’s Mann Gulch fire that killed 13 smokejumpers. Although it occurred in 1949, it was such a singular event that for decades afterwards it continued to be studied and analyzed.

Writer Norman Maclean (“A River Runs Through It”) grew up and fought fire near Mann Gulch. He spent much of his life studying and thinking about what happened to those smokejumpers at Mann Gulch. When he was 74, he started writing his book, “Young Men and Fire.” It was published to great acclaim in 1992 after his death.

Early in the book he explains part of his obsession by recalling his own visit to Mann Gulch a few days after the smokejumpers’ deaths. He saw a deer, burned hairless and purple, standing in a creek drinking. Maclean had heard that two of the smokejumpers hadn’t died immediately, and in their last hours wanted nothing but water and drank so much they got sick. The deer, intent on drinking, didn’t look up at Maclean until a smoldering, nearby tree exploded.

“The deer finally raised its head. … Its eyes were red bulbs that illuminated long hairs around its eyelids… ,” he wrote. “It tottered to the bank, steadied itself and then bounded off euphorically. If it could have, it probably would have said, like (dying smokejumper) Joe Sylvia, ‘I’m feeling just fine.’ Probably its sensory apparatus, like Joe Sylvia’s, had been dumped into its bloodstream.”

Now megafires dominate the news, and dying on a fireline isn’t so unusual.

In 1994, 14 firefighters were killed in Colorado’s South Canyon fire. In 2001, four firefighters were entrapped and killed by the Thirtymile fire north of Winthrop, Wash. In 2013, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighters died in Arizona’s Yarnell Hill wildfire. A week ago near Twisp, Wash., three young firefighters were killed – and a fourth critically burned – when flames overtook their crashed vehicle.

Like Mann Gulch, the deaths are always followed by promises of investigations into what went wrong and hopes that future lives will be saved. There is still dispute about whether the Mann Gulch foreman’s “escape fire” contributed to the firefighters’ deaths. (The foreman survived; had the firefighters obeyed his orders and jumped into the ashes of his back fire, would they have survived, too?)

Forty-five years after Mann Gulch came Colorado’s South Canyon fire. That investigation went into excruciating detail on wind, temperatures, topography and vegetation all leading up to a deadly calculation: “We estimate that the fire moved north up the drainage at about 3 feet per second. Steep slopes and strong west winds triggered frequent upslope (eastward) fire runs toward the top of the ridge. These upslope runs spread at 6 to 9 feet per second. A short time later the fire overran and killed 14 firefighters.”

The South Canyon fire also ended in second-guessing. The forest service was criticized for militaristic thinking, and Eric Hipke – a survivor of the blaze – later went on to work as a video production specialist in wildland safety training.

“We’re trying to instill that (right of refusal) in the crews. It’s tough. It’s a human factor,” said Hipke.

Seven years later came the Thirtymile fire started by an abandoned campfire. That investigation concluded there were significant shortcomings in equipment, personnel and management.

Pete Kampen, one of the bosses on that fire, initially called the 5-acre blaze “a sad little fire.” He was 30, a wildfire veteran, and he had hoped to be dispatched to another, bigger fire when he was sent to the smaller one. He was eager to wrap it up and move on to the “real fire.”

One of his rookie firefighters, only three weeks out of fire school, took time to photograph herself with smoke billowing behind her. She would be one of the four firefighters who would die after deploying their fire tents in an area that had not been deemed a safety zone.

The findings of went wrong at Thirtymile revealed much confusion. Like South Canyon, there were multiple agencies, multiple bosses and multiple conflicting orders.

Twelve years later came Arizona’s lightning-caused Yarnell Hill wildfire, which killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Earlier this year, the Arizona Republic noted: “The Granite Mountain crew’s decision to leave a safe area as winds whipped the blaze into a firestorm confounded wildfire experts and has remained a mystery despite two investigations.”

None of these fire investigations can improve on Maclean’s study of Mann Gulch in “Young Men and Fire.” He wrote that Robert Jansson, a ranger on the Helena National Forest, and Henry Hersey, an alternate ranger, had formulated a plan in anticipation of the smokejumpers’ arrival the day of the fire.

Of that plan, Maclean said: “It was a good plan, except that it did not allow for the wit of the universe and the mental lapses of man.”

The parachute attached to the smokejumpers’ radio failed to open, and the radio crashed into pieces. The firefighters were cut off from communication.

“Little things suddenly and literally can become big as hell, the ordinary can suddenly become monstrous, and the upgulch breeze suddenly can turn to murder,” Maclean wrote.

He described a good smokejumper as someone who has opposite qualities – knowing when to question, but also being “so smart that they know there are times when their lives depend on not asking questions.”

With the most recent deaths outside Twisp, Wash., another fire investigation is under way.

At some point, perhaps investigators, politicians and interested observers could spare a half hour to read Frances Fukayama’s essay, “America in Decay.” Particularly since, unlike the Mann Gulch days, deadly wildland fire now is invoked as a reason to demand that politicians do something about climate change.

Fukuyama, a Senior Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, uses the U.S. Forest Service as an example of the failure in American politics.

The U.S. Forest Service, at the turn of the 20th Century, became “the prototype of a new model of merit-based bureaucracy. It was staffed with university-educated agronomists and foresters chosen on the basis of competence and technical expertise, and its defining struggle was the successful effort … to secure bureaucratic autonomy and escape routine interference by Congress,” wrote Fukuyama.

“At the time, the idea that forestry professionals, rather than politicians, should manage public lands and handle the department’s staffing was revolutionary, but it was vindicated by the service’s impressive performance.”

Today the Forest Service is just another highly dysfunctional bureaucracy. It has lost its autonomy.

“It operates under multiple and often contradictory mandates from Congress and the courts and costs taxpayers a substantial amount of money while achieving questionable aims…,” wrote Fukuyama.

Everyone from homebuyers in fire-prone areas to environmentalists wanting to protect various habitats have had their way with the U. S. Forest Service.

Fukuyama analyzes how the U.S. is trapped by its political institutions, and how the courts are used by individuals and groups to force change on the general public.

“Just because a group proclaims it is acting in the public interest does not mean it is actually doing so,” he said.

American politics is defined by well-organized activists, “whether in the parties and Congress, the media, or in lobbying and interest groups,” wrote Fukuyama.

“The sum of these activist groups does not yield a compromise position, it leads instead to polarization and deadlocked politics.”

Sounds as chaotic and threatening as a megafire.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons


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