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 firefghters in 1949.

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 detail from the sign shows the route the men followed from the time they parachuted in until they were engulfed by fire. On the hillside, granite columns mark where each man died.

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.

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





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?



To read a detailed blow-by-blow account of the events at Mann Gulch

To read a blog post on Mann Gulch by the Forest History Society

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


As always, I love hearing what you think! Have you ever been near a wildfire? Have you ever worked as a firefighter or smokejumper? Have you ever been to Mann Gulch? Leave a reply in the box below!