Friday, October 26, 2007


(The fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado at the point of blow-up, July 1994)

Since the California fires began this year, I have been thinking, as I do with every Western fire, about Mann Gulch and Storm King.

Norman Maclean, best known as the author of A River Runs Through It, at the end of his life began writing Young Men and Fire which was published posthumously with the help of his journalist son, John N. Maclean. Young Men and Fire tells the story of the Mann Gulch Fire near Missoula, Montana on August 6, 1949. Prior to 1994, Mann Gulch meant the worst disaster in forestry's firefighting history. Thirteen young smokejumpers, some of them still in their teens, were overrun by a blow-up fire that day.

But in July 1994, on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, another group of 50 smokejumpers, hotshots and helicopter pilots were overrun by a blow-up, in terrain and circumstances eerily similar to Mann Gulch. Fifteen of them, including young women this time, lost their lives. With what seems like inevitability, John N. Maclean wrote the definitive book about the Storm King Fire, Fire on the Mountain.

I've read both books, more than once. Norman's, of course, is by far the superior. It's a work of art, not just an accounting, and I prefer it to A River Runs Through It. Ideas and imagery from that story have worked their way into my poetry. And when I watch the news broadcasts now, I'm thinking not of the people fleeing their homes or the tragedy of lost possessions but of the folks heading toward the fire, armed with only helmets, masks and pulaskis, to try stopping a living, roaring monster in its tracks.

The events of Mann Gulch changed, for the better, how fires were fought in the West. The most compelling outcome was re-learning the lesson of escape fires, which had been used for millenia by Native people of the American plains as a means of surviving prairie fire. I'm going to use the excellent synopsis created by book reviewer Tony Dalmyn in Review of Young Men and Fire to tell the story:

"The Forest Service dropped 15 Smokejumpers under the command of Wag Dodge to contain the fire. They were caught when the fire suddenly exploded into a racing wall of fire that crossed the gulch. Dodge set an escape fire and threw himself into the ashes of his own fire. The main fire, deprived of fuel, passed around him. 13 of the 15 men who tried to outrun the fire died.

"The families of some of the dead men sued the Forest Service and they blamed Dodge for their sons's deaths. They said his escape fire had caught and burned the other men. The lawsuit was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. The families never accepted the findings of a Forest Service Board of Inquiry. Dodge died of cancer in 1954 and the story of the fire was left untold until Norman Maclean decided to tell it.

"Wag Dodge was the foreman of a crew of 15 (including himself) Smokejumpers. Dodge had not worked or trained with this crew. He was skilled with his hands and during the training season, he had been assigned to repair and maintain gear, instead of training with the men.

"The Smokejumpers' objective was to parachute onto fires while they were small, and put them out. Typically, they jumped in small teams on small fires. They were also a summer service - made up of University students or local men. The men worked in a rotation and the same men seldom worked with the same foremen or the same crew. The men did not know one another, or their leaders. They tended to work in small units, and they were arrogant and independent.

"The crew jumped and landed between 3:10 and 4:10 PM. They landed on the north side of the gulch, about a mile east of the fire. The winds were fierce, buffeting the plane and scattering the jumpers. It took nearly an hour to gather the men and gear.

"When the men landed, the fire was on the south side of Mann Gulch, burning on the ridge, above 4400 feet. It was about a half mile wide. It seemd to have been growing along the top of the ridge, upgulch, from west to east, although it was also moving downhill, to the north. By the time the crew had gathered, the fire had grown. The gulch was filled with smoke, and the exact location of the front of the fire was difficult to determine. The radio was smashed in the jump, and they had no communication with the spotter in the plane.

"Dodge and his men started to move west, to the river, along the north side of the Gulch. They started at an elevation of about 4250 feet, and maintained that elevation (sidehilled) for about a half mile as they approached the river. Dodge had decided that it was not safe to attack the fire from the front. He wanted to get below and behind it, attacking it from the west - with the river behind him for a retreat. His thinking was sound, except that it was nearly two hours after they had jumped and the fire was now growing rapidly.

(Photo by Rob Benson taken from the opposite end of Mann Gulch, looking toward the southwest where the fire was roaring down on them. The barren slope on the right is where the Mann Gulch Fire ended the lives of the 13 men. At the bottom of the gulch the Missouri River winds its way through the "Gates of the Mountains Wilderness")

"A couple of chapters near the end of the book imagine the last 10 minutes of the mission as a deadly race with fire.

(Photo by Rob Benson, taken from the place where Wag Dodge first saw the oncoming fire and ordered his men to turn around. This is the view the men had as they turned away from the fire and began to move up the slope.)

"At 5:45 PM Dodge ordered them to stop and turn around. At first they tried to climb gently, at an angle, upgulch to east, and slightly to the north. At 5:53 after they had made about 250 feet of elevation and about 300 yards (they had climbed to about about 4480 feet) Dodge ordered them to drop tools and get to safety. They were moving away from the fire, which was now coming straight up the gulch. The fire had blown up, fed by the winds. It had turned into a solid wall of fire. First it blew down the south slope of the gulch, and then it blew upgulch, swirling and roaring and gaining speed.

"The smashed watches of some of the men pinpoint the time the men were caught by the rushing fire at around 5:55 to 6:00 PM. Maclean tried to reconstruct the progress of the fire on a time line and suggests some times for some key events. The fire reached the point where they had turned around at about 5:49. It reached the point where they dropped tools at 5:54. It caught the slowest men at 5:56 and the swiftest at 5:57. They had travelled between 800 and 1100 yards from where they turned around.

"Dodge survived by setting an escape fire. Maclean suggests he set it at about 5:55. The escape fire was unknown to the Forest Service, although it had been known to the First Nations of the Great Plains. It came to Dodge almost instinctively in a crisis. An escape fire is a fire set to run in the same direction as the main fire. The idea is to let it burn, and then run into its ashes. The main fire, deprived of fuel, will not burn there.

"The other men did not understand, and they did not trust Dodge. They ran. Two jumpers [teenagers Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey] went straight for the ridge, across the advancing fire. They made it, barely. There were many opening in the rock, but the main fire was ahead of them, burning in the larger openings, which were as grassy as the main slope. They found refuge in a narrow crevice. The others continued upgulch and uphill, racing the fire. The blast of the fire blew watches, keys and other articles several feet uphill.

"There was a controversy about the escape fire. Some suggested the escape fire had caught and killed the fleeing men. Maclean and the survivors rebut this. It was the racing main fire that caught them. After the fire blew up, around 5:30, it began to gain speed. By the time it caught the men, it was likely travelling at 100 yards per minute. It sounds slow compared to a competitive sprinter - but the men were running in workboots in waist high grass on a 45 degree slope, in terrible heat, choked by smoke and tired after earlier exertions. Maclean carefully assesses the suggestion that Wag Dodge's escape fire caught the dead men, or raced ahead of them and prevented them from gaining the safety of the ridge, and he absolves Dodge."

Three years before I read Young Men and Fire, I left California for Texas. My partner and I moved from Oakland at the end of August 1989. A month before our move, a number of logistical difficulties had arisen, and my partner had been offered a renewal of her job contract for another year. We sat down after dinner to discuss the possibility of delaying our move for a year or even half a year. The reasons for delay outweighed the reasons for moving by September. I was tabulating them on a sheet of paper, and I have a long habit of weighing columns to make my decisions based on concrete factors rather than impulse. Still, that evening, I turned to her and said "My gut is telling me we have to go. Just go. Get out of here."

She was surprised and wanted to argue, but I had no "facts" to give her, just my gut. Finally she said "All right, we'll move."

I now believe some part of me knew about the impending Loma Prieta earthquake.

She worked in the Sunset area of San Francisco. Most days, I drove into the city around 4:00 to drop off my work and then give her a ride home so she didn't have to contend with buses, BART and a very long commute. Despite the traffic jams of the freeway, it was quicker for me to drive us, and we'd spend that hour talking over our day. By around 5:00 each day, we were on 580 about to take the Cypress Street exit to my apartment.

We'd have been in that freeway collapse, at that point and time. I'm convinced of it.

I lived through a number of earthquakes during my dozen years in the Bay Area, two of them seriously frightening me. I checked out fault lines and made sure I didn't live in the worst areas for the various risks (subsidence, liquefaction, jolt, mudslide, toxic aftermath). Every single time I crossed one of the bridges, drove through the Caldecott or the long tunnel out to the Marin Headlands, I prayed steadily -- out loud if I was alone -- despite the fact that I did not believe in g*d at that time. And I was disturbed by the level of denial I felt from the people I knew there, a sense of fatalism that, when I prodded them to talk about it, they said was necessary and a fair exchange for the benefits of getting to live in that region.

Once I was back in Texas, I had only begun to notice the sense of personal safety I felt walking terra firma when Loma Prieta happened. I was watching television when it hit. I was in the break room at my evening job, with a group of coworkers who stopped to eat and watch Roseanne together at 7:00 on Tuesday nights. We had the TV on, waiting for coverage of the World Series at Candlestick to switch over to regular programming, when there was a jerk of the camera, the beginning of shouting, and then the screen went black.

I immediately stood up and said "It's an earthquake!" My coworkers laughed at me. I'd already entertained them with my panicked reaction to the sway of our office building during a high wind. They told me to sit down, it was just a signal problem. Instead, I went to the phone and tried to call my best friend in Oakland. All the lines were busy. I kept trying to call everyone I knew. Finally, a few minutes later, one of my coworkers called to me "You're right, there's a bulletin coming on about a quake."

Nobody I knew directly was injured or killed, but the close friend of one of my close friends, a young Lesbian named Robin, was killed in a building collapse in Santa Cruz. I was glued to the TV for days, recognizing every single shot and feeling an agonizing mixture of relief and survivor's guilt.

A year later, Whole Earth Review's Fall 1990 issue had two sterling articles about the quake. They are long and life-changing, and I can't recommend enough that you read them. But -- there are graphic details, so consider this this a PTSD alert.

(Cypress Street freeway collapse in Oakland, October 1989, Chronicle photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice)

In the first article, Epistemology of a disaster: a physicians's lessons from the Bay Area's October 1989 quake - in Oakland by Mark Renneker, a physician who was on the collapsed freeway in Oakland recounts his experience and what he learned from it. Intermittently in his account, he stops to insert what he calls a "metalogue", and I'm going to copy these in here for you.

"Metalogue: Why do some people freeze up at a disaster? I was senseless in the first moments after the quake, in active denial of what my eyes were seeing. It was my knowledge of CPR that brought me back to reality. In fact, simply knowing that one knows CPR empowers one to act in such a situation. CPR is the ultimate tool, far more powerful than any other medical tool. It is something that all citizens can and should learn.

"Metalogue: What do doctors know about disaster medicine? Practically nothing - it's not taught in medical schools. Apart from mock-disaster drills at our hospital (which were only infrequently scheduled, and then usually canceled), I'd only had advanced CPR courses and spent time in trauma rooms during residency - inadequate rehearsals for what I was facing now. And I couldn't imagine that it would be different for most other physicians. The irony is that, as physicians, we are always 'on call' to our communities in the event of a disaster, but, in truth, we emperors have no clothes.

"Metalogue: Why is there chaos after a disaster? There is an analogy in the field of cardiology. If you expose a heart to a strong electrical shock, it will momentarily stop - called asystole (the disaster equivalent of 'bottoming out'), and then usually restart itself (the 'self-jump-start' process). When it restarts, though, it may have an abnormal rate and rhythm - or what is called an arrhythmia 'chaos,' in disaster terms), The nature of heart cells is that if separated or disrupted, each cell begins beating at a different rate - a rate inherent to each individual cell. Remove the disrupting element and allow the cells to touch each other again (i.e, re-establishing communication), and the cells will return to beating at the same rate.

"Metalogue: Why don't disaster plans work very well? I think the explanation lies in the domain of what psychiatrists refer to as denial - to deny the existence of something despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. While denial can be regarded as a protective mechanism, it is also considered abnormal behavior, and can be destructive. An alcoholic, for instance, may deny having a drinking problem, despite having lost job and family. In children, on the other hand, denial is often a healthy, normal behavior. For example, a child may have fantasies about being able to fly, which is understandable given the reality of being small and helpless.

"When it comes to disasters, however, a carry-over from childhood is not healthy. The big, bad wolf may blow your house down, and you may end up in Oz from a tornado, but somehow you'll survive. Even though we may hear about disasters in the news on a daily basis, we feel immune because they so rarely happen to us. It is from that mind-set, I believe, that most disaster plans are generated; accordingly, disaster plans - whether personal or governmental - consistently misapproximate what can actually happen.

"Metalogue: What is a disaster? In terms of systems theory, a disaster is an event or a series of events that halts or severely reduces the output of a system. A disaster leads to system disintegration and dissolution, a stripping away of structure and of what one has learned or knows. Rebuilding after a disaster is a lengthy and painful process.

The quake has left me feeling as if, for a brief time, I was a part of the Holocaust - yet I survived. (And, similar to Holocaust survivors, I don't want to let people forget what happened. I've even thought it would have been a good idea to have left a crumpled part of the Cypress as a monument, so we would be less likely to forget.)

"I've developed a deeper mistrust of the capabilities and responsiveness of governmental agencies (a mistrust which, as an inner-city family practitioner who sees homeless and HIV-infected individuals, was already quite high). I've come to see more clearly how the editorial policies (and fears) of the media direct their reporting and consequently distort information. And I've come to realize that this little perch of land we're on up here, San Francisco, is to be appreciated one day at a time."

When I read this article, however, the part that struck me the most was this:

"Perhaps fifteen minutes had elapsed since the freeway's collapse. By now, there was frantic activity all along the overpass: men from the neighborhood, of the sort to project an image of street brigands, were dragging ropes and rickety ladders from their garages and were scaling the face of the fallen freeway, climbing up hand-overhand - like pirates boarding an enemy ship, but they were on an errand of mercy. When firemen and other rescue personnel finally arrived, victims were already being helped down, some on the backs of their ghetto rescuers, for whom my respect was and is enormous. (I've since pondered why the neighborhood people seemed so clear-minded and capable in the quake's aftermath, but it makes sense: disasters are a fact of life in West Oakland - with crack wars and daily shootings on the streets, you learn not to wait for civil assistance; you take matters into your own hands.)"

The truth is, despite the news coverage emphasis on later rescue efforts cutting people from crumpled vehicles, the bulk of human life recovered from the freeway collapse was done by people who lived in the projects around Cypress Street. They climbed up the concrete pillars by any means possible, without waiting for "professional" help, and did what needed to be done without hesitation or chains of command. And the writer is correct in attributing this to their poverty: Poor people know how to cope in an emergency. If they are not prevented from acting by "authority" or overwhelming circumstances, they will get themselves out of harm's way and assist those around them as they do so.

I want you to remember that as, in the weeks to come, comparisons are made between the poor of Katrina who were forcibly herded into the Superdome and abandoned vs. those from higher class levels who were able to drive themselves to a well-stocked evacuation center, with their pets, plenty of food, and even acupuncturist and masseuses on hand. Do not allow victims to be blamed. Speak out every way you can against hopelessess in thought regarding class.

In the second article from Fall 1990 Whole Earth Review, Learning from the earthquake: volunteers crucial in disasters - in San Francisco, Stewart Brand recounts his experiences in the Marina District of San Francisco during rescue and firefighting efforts there. This story will break your heart. But I consider it a necessary read, especially if you live in earthquake country. At the end, the author states his intention in writing this piece: "To do good is noble. To teach others to do good is nobler, and no trouble." He follows this with an extremely useful compilation:

* Right after an earthquake, nobody's in charge. You self-start, or nothing happens.
* Collect tools!
* If you can smell gas, turn it off
* After an earthquake, further building collapse is not the main danger. Fire is.
* When you see a fire starting, do ANYTHING to stop it, right now,
* In any collapsed building, assume there are people trapped alive. Locate them, let them know everything will be done to get them out.
* Searching a building, call out, "Anybody in here? Anybody need help? Shout or bang on something if you can hear me."
* Give people who are trapped all the information you've got, and enlist their help. Treat them not as helpless victims but as an exceptionally motivated part of the rescue team.
* Join a team or start a team. Divide up the tasks. Encourage leadership to emerge.
* Most action in a disaster is imitative.
* Most effective leadership is by example.
* Bystanders make the convenient assumption that everything is being taken care of by the people already helping. That's seldom accurate.
* If you want to help, ask! If you want to be helped, ask!
* Volunteers are always uncertain whether they're doing the right thing. They need encouragement - from professionals, from other volunteers, from passers-by.

These are some of the tools that have proven useful for earthquake search and rescue and for fighting fires while they're still small:
Gas-powered saws
Crow bars and pry bars
Bolt cutters
Wrenches for gas valves
Flashlights, miner's lights, lanterns, extra batteries
Portable generator and power tools and work lights
Jacks, blocks, and shoring material such as 4x4 lumber
Work gloves, boots
Loud hailers
A lot of people don't know it, but the best fire extinguisher in the world is a garden hose with a hand shut-off nozzle and enough hose to reach any part of your building. If you don't have a hose, use a bucket."

(Marina District, San Francisco, 17 October 1989 -- the fire that took the life of Janet Ray)

Almost two years to the day after the Loma Prieta quake, a firestorm swept through the Oakland and Berkeley hills, coming within blocks of where I had lived. According to Wikipedia, "The fire ultimately killed 25 people and injured 150 others. The 1,520 acres (6.2 km²) destroyed included 2,843 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units. The economic loss has been estimated at $1.5 billion."

(Oakland hills on fire, 20 October 1991)

I went back to Oakland that winter for the holidays and stayed with former neighbors whose friendship circle extended deeply into the destroyed neighborhoods. Lisa spent a day driving me around the rubble and ash in their old Honda, and we wept over and over. It was the missing pet notices that especially hurt: A scale of loss that we could comprehend.

(Oakland, California after firestorm of 1991)

That night, over dinner, she and her husband Deon told me how their friends were coping, how they had survived, or not. One woman jumped into her swimming pool with a towel that she soaked and kept over her face, the rest of her submerged, as the water grew hot around her and the towel began to singe.

Another family had a series of frantic messages on their phone machine from their teenage daughter, trapped at someone else's house, until finally the messages stopped.

How did those parents bear it?

When Katrina approached, I had an amazingly accurate idea of what was about to occur with regard to natural consequences because of reading John McPhee's The Control of Nature and its focus on the madness of the Army Corps of Engineers with regard to the Atchafalaya. This same book devotes a third of its content to the San Gabriel Mountains, the environment and human folly which has created mudslides and fires of the magnitude we're seeing now. (Be forewarned: The loss of brush combined with the peculiar qualities of chaparral means the next rainy season's earthslides will destroy a great deal of what is not consumed by fire.) Read it for the lessons it contains.

(Robert Sallee in 2005, now sole survivor of the Mann Gulch Fire which he outran at age 17)

I often think about Wag Dodge, a man who thought in terms of tools and character rather than ideas, a working-class guy who was put into an extraordinary situation and invented a way out. When the fire blew over him, the winds it created lifted him off the ground more than once, but he dug his fingers into the ashes and held on, his eyes closed, trying not to bring in air which would melt his lungs. I wish he'd had the time with his crew in advance to create enough trust so they followed him into his escape fire. But sometimes, as Mary Oliver says, it has to be enough that:
you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save

Mann Gulch Tribute, a YouTube video set to the music of Cold Missouri Waters (written about the fire) and containing a wealth of photos from the incident

Mann Gulch Virtual Field Trip, a photo essay created by Rob Benson of the Helena, MT High School Science Department

The Thirteenth Fire, a short but excellent summary article on the Mann Gulch Fire's 50th anniversary by Dave Turner, Helena National Forest, which appeared in Forest History Today Spring 1999

Forest Service Remembers 1949 Blaze, An AP article on the 50th anniversary of the Mann Gulch Fire and its consequences

Mann Gulch Board of Review, a PDF file transcription of the Forest Service's inquiry into the fire

Mann Gulch Fire: A Race That Couldn't Be Won, Richard C. Rothermel's technical article for the Forest Service which examines the probable behavior of the fire and the movements of the crew during the last 20 min of the tragedy

A Walk in Mann Gulch, Learning Leadership from the Fire of August 5, 1949, mostly useful for contemporary photos of the site

Lessons on the line - How the Storm King fire helped reshape the way we fight wildfires, from The Missoulian online, a good overview

Wildfire Tragedy on Storm King Mountain - The South Canyon Fire Explained, a long article by Steve Nix rich in photographs and minute-by-minute description

Wikipedia's entry on the Oakland Firestorm of 1991, with some excellent links


Anonymous said...

Maggie, your brain is an infinite expanse of knowledge and I'm rather in awe of it.

I don't know the thoughts of the CA folks you spoke with, but I don't think we're in denial, necessarily. Deep down, those of us who grew up here are terrified of "the big one."
There's nothing an individual can do, really, though, so stressing too much will not accomplish much. So, I suppose we are a bit fatalist, then.

Statistically, our chances of being shaken out of house and home are probably less than the chances of losing everything if you live in hurricane country...

those are my elipses for the morning...

Maggie Jochild said...

Kat, I didn't mean denial in the sense of "it won't happen here", you're right. Even before I left, before Loma Prieta, folks seemed to know the Big One was inevitable, likely sooner. Now, my friends still there all know the stat of 90% likely in the next 30 years.

Rather, I meant denial in the sense of what you articulated, i.e., there's nothing to be done about it. Well, no, you can't stop an earthquake (or hurricane or tornado). But you can plan for it.

I was the only person I knew who had an earthquake preparedness kit -- water, canned food, battery or crank-powered radio plus batteries, a pipe wrench to turn off gas, tied-down water heater -- plus a contingency plan. I was able to do this even while low income. I still have the same set-up here, despite the much lessened risk of disaster.

The emotional block which keeps us from being able to face certain aspects of reality contributes to building in inappropriate geographies. And in the latter respect, California does not lead the way, I think. Texas, for instance, has more floods annually than any other state in the union -- we have a lot more waterways here than people realize. And while our yearly floods come and go quickly, the loss of property and life adds up. Plus, like high temperatures, the floods are accelerating.

Politicians play hob with statistics for campaign donations when it comes to flood zones here, just like they do with hurricane, mudslide and wildfire zones elsewhere.

Back to the denial picture for second: The first good-sized quake I lived through was in 1980, maybe. I was driving delivery routes to natural food stores, and I had just parked on 24th Street in Noe Valley, just turned off my ignition, when the quake hit. My Honda began jerking and rattling, and I thought something was wrong with my engine, that the car was re-starting itself. Until I glanced at the plate-glass window of the butcher shop right next to me, and I saw small ripples traveling through the glass like waves in water. It took another second or two for me to believe what I was seeing, and by that time, the motion had stopped. I got out of my car, experiencing for the first time the jelly-at-the-knees sensation that turned out to be my standard response to quakes, and I looked around at the people walking down the sidewalk next to me, everyone in sight. Not a single person was reacting to what had just occurred; the two women nearest me were talking about their boyfriends as if nothing had happened. I felt crazy. I got my delivery and went on into the store, where there was a line (as always) at the counter. I waited my turn, eavesdropping on all the talk around me, and again, not a single person was discussed the temblor. When I got to the clerk, I handed over my delivery and the clipboard for him to sign, then asked diffidently, "Did you, uh, just feel an earthquake?" In a bored tone, he said "Yeah, we just had a small one", returned my clipboard and motioned to the next customer. When I got home that day, there was an 18 inch long crack in the wall of our kitchen, which my landlord said was no big deal and refused to patch.

From what I experienced after that, it wasn't just Noe Valley. People would simply stop briefly to brace themselves during a shock, then go on as if the only "cool" response was to ignore it. Possibly Loma Prieta has changed that attitude; if so, I think that's a good thing.

The main natural problem we're facing, however, is water shortages. It's already begun, with Georgia filing suit this month in federal court to control river access. It will rewrite the urban landscape of the West, as snowpack disappears and aquifers dry up.

But before you give in, folks, to that gut-dropping feeling of hopelessness -- check out this link and notice there's a LOT you can do. Power and connection comes from action. You deserve to enjoy life, and empowerment is the best aphrodisiac of all. Check it out. Water Use It Wisely