On August 5, 1949, in Mann Gulch, Montana, thirteen, young smoke jumpers died in a tragic fire. Norman Maclean saw the fire as “it still burned in mid-August 1949,” and years later he determined to find out what happened on the remote side of a hill in the wilderness.
Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean combines a little of Lewis and Clark, eye witness accounts, photographs, scientific research, and wildfire study in an attempt to uncover the specifics of how the United States Forest Service's airborne firefighters found themselves trapped in a “blow up.”
In the last fourteen years of his life and almost thirty years after the fire, Maclean visited the site of the fire numerous times, interviewed the sole living witnesses, dug through countless documents, and learned the ways of wildfires and the type of men who fight them in order to record a tragedy largely forgotten and covered up somewhat in controversy.
This non-fiction work, which was unfinished by Malean and published in 1992, two years after his death, reads like a man talking to himself as he works his way through the intricacies of a difficult problem. Part report, part conjecture, and part obsession, Malean worked tirelessly and with his whole heart to understand what happened that day and to memorialize the men who died.
Full of graphs, redundancies, ruminations, mathematics, and topography, this book is not for everyone. Perhaps if Maclean had lived long enough to edit, this might have been an easier read. In spite of that, I admired his doggedness and the fact that as a man in his seventies, he climbed the rugged and steep terrain of Mann Gulch many times in search of answers.