Wildfire and the Fourth of July

When I heard the awful news on Sunday that 19 firefighters died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, I immediately thought back to the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949. I had studied Mann Gulch for an interpretive project for the U.S. Forest Service. I also wrote a post about it last winter, and wondered briefly if now would be a good time to re-publish it. On the one hand, it seemed too soon, too sad. But, since most of the West is a dried-up tinderbox, and as we’re headed into the fire-crazed Fourth of July season, I decided that the more we think about the dangers of fire, the better.

By the way…does anyone else wish we would find a better way to celebrate Fourth of July? Maybe with red, white and blue waterballoons? Light-shows?

Anything but fire?

Here’s the re-post from last winter:

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Interpreting Tragedy

Occasionally in my interpretive sign career, I have been hired to deal with difficult, sensitive topics. Many historical themes fall into this category…our nation’s past has its share of dark subject matter, after all.

One particularly sad project was an interpretive sign I did for the U.S. Forest Service in Montana about the tragedy at Mann Gulch, a wildfire that killed thirteen young firefighters in 1949.

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At full size, the sign is 2 x 3 feet.

 

The Forest Service wanted to tell the story of the fire to honor those who died as well as the three who survived. They also wanted to frame the story in the greater context of what it taught us about firefighting techniques. There were a lot of hard lessons learned at Mann Gulch.

The sign was to be installed on the ridge above the canyon where the fire occurred. From the viewpoint, you can see across to the very place where the men died. It’s a chilling view.

This is where the sign was installed.

This is where the sign was installed.

 

This detail from the sign shows the route the men followed from the time they were dropped in by helicopter until they were engulfed by fire.

I illustrated this detail on the sign showing the route the men followed from the time they were dropped in by helicopter until they were engulfed by fire.

The Fire

The lightning-caused fire was—as most wildfires are—small at first. But it was a windy day and soon the fire “jumped” downhill to the mouth of the gulch—a much more dangerous position. Fires naturally burn uphill, and fueled by the tall, dry summer grasses, it soon “blew up” into a raging monster, racing uphill until it became a three-story high wall of flame, burning with the intensity of a giant blow-torch.

 

The Sign Project

One of the difficulties in interpretation is deciding what to include and what to leave out. On a sign, you are limited to approximately 150 words or so—not many when you consider how complicated most topics are. The objective is not to impart knowledge or information as much as it is to spark curiosity and interest. We want viewers to walk away with questions…wanting to know more.

But Mann Gulch was also a particularly sensitive subject. There was still one survivor alive at the time, as well as many close family members of the men who had died. The Forest Service wanted the subject matter handled carefully, out of respect for their feelings.

I decided on an approach to help the viewer relate the events of the day to the place—to bring the story alive. As in most sign projects, the graphics are where you hope to tell the story. I wanted to create illustrations that would ignite a sequence of events in the viewers’ imaginations—as if they were standing in this very spot in 1949 and witnessing those terrible events.

Here are some close-up snippets from the sign. You can’t see at this scale, but there are tiny little marks that indicate where the men were at each stage. Click on the photos for a larger view.

(Watercolor illustrations by me, Denise Dahn)

The fire started close to where the viewers stand as they read the sign. The smokejumpers dropped in by parachute.

The fire started close to where the viewers stand as they read the sign. The smokejumpers dropped in by parachute. (watercolor illustration by me – Denise Dahn)

 

As the men were heading down, the fire jumped the creek. Suddenly the men found themselves trapped in the canyon, with no way to get to the river and to safety. Fires naturally burn uphill, but the only way out was up, so the men turned and tried to outrun the fire as it raged behind them.

As the men were heading down, the fire jumped the creek. Suddenly the men found themselves trapped in the canyon, with no way to get to the river and to safety. Fires naturally burn uphill, but the only way out was up, so the men turned and tried to outrun the fire as it raged behind them. (Watercolor illustration by Denise Dahn).

 

 

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Watercolor illustration by Denise Dahn

 

 

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Watercolor illustration by Denise Dahn

 

 

Leaving with a thought

The concluding message on the sign was “They did not die in vain.” The investigation and study of this fire led to new and improved strategies and techniques in modern fire fighting. This tragedy may have ultimately saved the lives of future firefighters.

Unfortunately, Mann Gulch was not the last tragic wildfire. Firefighting is a dangerous business.

All the more reason to be careful with fire. You know that already, right?

 

 

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To read a detailed blow-by-blow account of the events at Mann Gulch http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mann_Gulch_fire

To read a blog post on Mann Gulch by the Forest History Society http://fhsarchives.wordpress.com/2009/07/10/visiting-mann-gulch-60-years-later/

To read a popular book based on events at Mann Gulch check out “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean

To see a video about the fire and one of the firefighters, S. Raymond Thompson http://vimeo.com/37412195

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Have you ever been near a wildfire? Have you ever worked as a firefighter or smokejumper? Have you ever been to Mann Gulch?

Do you think our country should find a better, less dangerous and potentially catastrophic way to celebrate the Fourth of July than with fireworks?

Leave a reply in the box below!

 

 

8 thoughts on “Wildfire and the Fourth of July

    • Thanks so much! Your photos are awesome. I wish I had seen them when I was doing the illustrations! Montana is so beautiful.

  1. I wonder if you’ve watched the Vimeo (on line) film “Death At Mann Gulch” about the life of one of the firefighters, S. Raymond Thompson?

    I’d suggest it would be a fitting addition to your list of resources:

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    Your work is wonderful. The boards for Mann Gulch are the best graphics of the fire I’ve seen. (Since I was a member of a hot shot crew in my youth, I’ve read and re-read everything I could find in print and on line about Mann Gulch. Your drawings are far-and-away the clearest visual explanation of those events.)

    • Thank you so much, Bill. I’ve added the link to the Vimeo. It’s so nice to hear that my graphics are effective, especially from one who knows firefighting first-hand. As I was painting the sequence, I kept wishing the story had ended differently.

    • Oh, I know. That poor guy. I hope the media leaves him alone, because he is undoubtedly suffering terribly.

  2. Denise – I, too, immediately thought about the Mann Gulch Fire when I heard about the Yarnell Hill fire. And I remembered your last winter’s post about Mann Gulch. It is true that many – perhaps most – of our U.S. forests are tinder boxes, needing only a spark to ignite. Climate change is a factor certainly, but the building of many homes in these areas contributes, too. We show little respect or gratitude for the gifts of nature.

    Re-posting your article on the Mann Gulch fire is respectful and timely; I appreciated reading it again. The loss of so many people, their lives cut short, is a terrible tragedy, deeply painful.

    I also wish that we could find a better way to celebrate the 4th of July – without all the fireworks. Of course, our national anthem, with its “rockets’ red glare, ” and “bombs bursting in air” no doubt contributes to the fireworks mania.

    I think a light show might be better. No harm done. Balloons can be a danger to wildlife, too, I believe. Again, thank you for the post, as always. When I see your name in my mailbox, it brightens my day.
    Pat

    • Thanks, Pat! You’re right, balloons are no better. Lights would be good, though.

      There are so many things we’re going to need to do differently for the sake of the planet and the life it supports. We have to learn to adapt, just like the plants and animals do.

      I’m so glad you enjoy the posts. It’s a nice feeling to know that.

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