Young Men, Fire, and the Missoula Fire Lab

By MARK VOSBURGH

A story that honors the dead realistically partly atones for their sufferings, and so instead of leaving us in moral bewilderment, adds dimensions to our acuteness in watching the universe’s four elements at work – sky, earth, fire, and young men.

– Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

It’s August, it’s hot, and it’s fire season.

If you haven’t read the Montana literary classic, Young Men and Fire, now is the time. If you read it a while ago, take it out and read it again, it’s that good.

In doing so you will experience Norman Maclean’s obsession, and in his view, deep moral obligation to discover what happened on that fateful day August 5, 1949 when 13 firefighters, 12 of them smoke jumpers, were overrun and killed by a wild fire in Mann Gulch, Montana.

His search for answers led him to Missoula’s USFS Fire Sciences Laboratory, the “Fire Lab.”

There he met Dick Rothermel, who, as a young high-powered aeronautical engineer, worked on a government program to develop an atomic powered airplane. When that program was scrapped, he was snapped up by the first director of the nation’s newly built Fire Lab to pioneer ground breaking work on wildfire behavior.

Maclean also met Frank Albini, an engineer and scientist. Prior to his career at the fire lab, Albini worked for Hughes Aircraft and the Institute for Defense Analysis to predict the speed of missiles. In one of their meetings, Albini told Maclean, “It’s a lot easier to predict the speed of missiles than it is to predict the speed of a wildfire.”

As best described in the book, Maclean, the poetic, high-minded writer, was able recreate the final moments of the Mann Gulch fire by consulting with Rothermel, the pragmatic and creative engineer.

In an August 2010 Missoulian article, Rothermel says “Norman was kind of a feisty little guy, and he was an English professor,” Rothermel said, recalling the days of scientific discussion with Maclean and fellow fire scientist Frank Albini.

“Norman would look at us and we’d get into ‘rate of spread’ and ‘flame lengths’ and ‘heat content,’ and pretty soon his eyes would glaze over. He’d start saying how strong these young men were. His main thought in this book was the young men themselves, and the tragedy that occurred.”

With Young Men and Fire, Maclean presents a detailed, haunting, and insightful look not only at the Mann Gulch tragedy, but also of our own human condition. As an excellent companion piece to the book, and to look at the tragedy through the eyes of and engineer and wildfire researcher, read Rothermel’s classic publication, Mann Gulch, a Race that Couldn’t be Won.

Richard C. “Dick” Rothermel’s early work in the wind tunnels and combustion chambers at the Missoula Fire Lab, still form the basis for the computer models used to predict how wildfires will spread.

Today, researchers at Missoula’s Fire Lab are working to answer fundamental questions needed to develop the next generation of fire behavior computer models.

 

The early days of the Missoula Fire Lab.
The early days of th...
The Fire Lab marked its 50 year anniversary in 2010.
The Fire Lab marked ...
Dick Rothermel, the pioneering director of the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory.
Dick Rothermel, the ...
The recent Scratch Gravel Fire near Helena.
The recent Scratch G...
The famous photo of the smokejumpers who were the subject of Norman Maclean's "Young Men and Fire".
The famous photo of ...

Helena Scratch Gravel Fire photo curtesy of Jason Jonas, Jason Jonas Photgraphy. Other photos curtesy of the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station.

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Mark Vosburgh is a fourth-generation Montanan who has lived in Missoula for 26 years. He’s worked as chemical engineer, backcountry ski guide, and wildfire scientist. He started playing mandolin and attending bluegrass jams a few years and has just started performing with local bands: The Black Mountain Boys, Alley Cats Bluegrass Band, and The Flaming Wheelbarrows. He currently works for the US Forest Service as a scientist in the Fire Science Lab.