What we see before us is nature's progress over the past 42 years in healing a 5,000 acre wildfire . In the Forest's, surrounding Helena, 5,000 acre wildfires are not terribly uncommon. We have experienced a number of much larger fires just in the past decade. However, this particular fire, one that was ignited by a lightning storm on August 4, 1949, left scars that will last a lifetime. It permanently changed the way the U.S. Forest Service fights fires.
The summer of 1949 was not unusually dry. Total precipitation for the month of August was 0.66 inches. The 10 year average for Helena for that month is about 0.7 inches. However, the early days of August had been unusually hot. Maximum temperatures for the first 5 days ranged between 97 and 100 degrees, and humidity was low.
Late in the afternoon of August 4, a lightning storm blew into the Helena Valley. By dark, five fires had been ignited, three of which were extinguished, and one which was never found.
August 5, 1949 began differently than other summer days on the old Canyon Ferry Ranger District. The previous evening's lightning storm and recent hot weather had caused District Ranger John Jansson to become very concerned about the possibility of hold over fires... so concerned in fact, that he requested that a plane fly his District at 6:00 am. He also instructed Meriwether Guard James Harrison to start an unusual morning patrol beginning at 11:00 am and reporting in no later than 3:30 pm.
At 8:00 am., Observer Stermitz reported that there were no new fires, and all previous fires had been controlled. Ranger Jansson was still concerned, so he flew the District, including the Mann Gulch area, at ll:00. He reported no new fires, and landed in Helena at 12:25.
It is uncertain who first discovered the Mann Gulch Fire. The first discovery on record was at 11:55 am by Harvey Jensen, excursion boat operator. He reported the fire to Meriwether Guard Harrison, who already was busy trying to contact both Missoula and Canyon Ferry by phone and radio. Their report did not get through until 1:30 pm because of phone and radio problems.
The first official report came at 12:18 from Colorado Mtn. Lookout Don Barker. Ranger Jansson also saw the smoke as he landed in Helena. However, he was almost certain the fire must be in the vicinity of Cascade, MT, since he had just flown the Mann Gulch area, and had seen nothing. Jansson decided to fly again, and at 12:55, he was over the fire. The fire was smoking heavily, and was burning mid slope in medium fuels in very steep, rocky terrain. The upper end of the drainage looked like an excellent landing spot for smoke jumpers- a new fire fighting capability the Forest Service had only recently acquired. The fire was doing some minor crowning in juniper and Pine reproduction, but was not spreading excessively, even though it had already grown to 8 acres in an hour.
After hearing Jansson's report, the Helena Dispatcher began trying to recruit firefighters on a local radio station. Terrain, logistics and the hot weather made it clear from the beginning that this could be a tough one.
Upon landing, Ranger Jansson and Forest Supervisor Moir met to discuss the situation. They agreed that they needed to man the fire with experts immediately, if they were to keep the fire from going to several thousand acres and wiping out several drainages. They knew it would be 6:00 pm before forces from town could be on the fire, and smokejumpers could be there in less than two hours. Consequently, at 1:30, Moir ordered 25 smokejumpers from Missoula. Missoula was only able to provide 16 because of an aircraft shortage. Moir and Jansson decided to take all they could get.
Ranger Jansson arrived at Meriwether Landing with 10 men and equipment at 3:00 pm. He could tell that the fire had grown considerably, and had already slopped over the ridge between Mann Gulch and Meriwether.
Jansson tried to locate Meriwether Guard Harrison, since his report was due. All he found was a note on the cabin door saying Harrison had already gone to the fire. By 4:30 pm, Jansson's assistant Hershey had arrived at Meriwether with 9 additional men. Jansson instructed him to take all 19 men and to attack the fire from the Mann Gulch/Meriwether Saddle, and to try to hold the fire on the ridge. Jansson told Hershey to tie in with the Jumpers.
Jansson then headed down river, trying to size up the fire. By now, the canyon was so full of smoke he could hardly see. He landed at Mann Gulch and began to scout the fire. After walking in about half a mile, he could see that the fire had spotted to the north side of the canyon, and was spreading fast. Little did he realize that a chain of events was already taking place that would change many lives.
Jansson had poor hearing. Still, at one point, he thought he could hear voices above the roar of the fire. Snags were breaking off, rocks were rolling, and the flames were beginning to roar. The smoke and heat was becoming unbearable. Jansson was sure the jumpers, who had to be on the fire by now, had been forced to pull back. He thought surely they must have tied in with Hershey on the ridge, since the lower end of the canyon was now burning fiercely.
Jansson was worried because of the way the fire was picking up momentum. Suddenly, a large fire whirl developed, causing him to run for his life, holding his breath because of the searing hot gas, burning firebrand, and smoke. The lack of oxygen caused him to pass out briefly, but he quickly recovered, and escaped from the fire. The air cleared momentarily, and he could see that the fire was spotting up to one half mile ahead.
He headed back to Meriwether where he met Supervisor Moir. Moir informed him that he had already ordered 150 additional men and two dozers, but he had not yet received confirmation that the jumpers were on the fire.
Neither Jansson or Moir knew that the jump plane had arrived over the fire with 16 jumpers at 3:10 pm. Spotter Earl Cooley and Jumper Foreman Wag Dodge chose a jump site at the head of Mann Gulch. The fire was estimated at 60 acres, but they still considered it a routine fire. The air was so turbulent that the jumpers were queasy, so much so that one had become too sick to jump. The turbulence forced a higher than normal approach....causing men and cargo to scatter widely. Bad luck was already beginning. The cargo chute for the radio failed to open, smashing the jumpers only communication with the outside world, into the hill side. Wag Dodge considered the jump and the fire to be routine, but he was surprised to find out how warm it was. He estimated the temperature to be around 100 degrees. Weather records indicate that was probably about right at that time of day. Records also show that the humidity had dropped to around 4%...creating explosive burning conditions!
By 5:00 pm, the men had gathered their gear and were having a bite to eat before attacking the fire. Foreman Dodge heard some hollering near the fire, and went to meet Meriwether Guard Harrison. Before he left, he put squad leader Bill Hellman in charge of the crew. He told Hellman to take the crew toward the river on the North side of the canyon. and told them he would tie in with them when he got back.
Dodge and Harrison caught up with the crew at about 5:40. They continued heading down river with the crew for about 5 minutes. Dodge's plan was to get the fire across from them before they crossed the canyon. Before they could do that, Dodge discovered the fire had crossed to their side. Realizing the danger, he told the men to head back the direction they had come. The wind had come up and the fire was beginning to blow up, burning toward them rapidly in light grass and brush.
The men barely had made 300 yards before Dodge told them to drop their gear to lighten the load. Flames were estimated at 50 feet high and were moving 50 yards every 10 seconds. The grade was steep and the men were becoming exhausted, but they moved even faster because of what they saw happening around them. Ashes and hot firebrands were beginning to fall around them, and the heat and smoke were becoming sickening. Dodge was a seasoned fireman. He knew that fires tend to loose intensity near ridgetops. His plan was to take the crew to the rock slide he had seen before the jump. However, the slide was on the other side of the ridge, toward the head of the drainage.
The crew made another 200 yards when Foreman Dodge knew the fire was going to catch them. Dodge then did something that had never been heard of in the 50,000 fires the Forest Service had fought to date. He lit the first escape fire known. Dodge's theory was that the escape fire would quickly burn out, allowing his men to get into the burned area and be saved, while the fire burned around them. For reasons unknown, Dodge could not get this idea across to his men. It is possible that with the roar of the fire and the terrific wind, they could not hear what he was trying to say. They panicked and continued heading for the ridgetop.
Jumpers Rumsey and Sallee headed straight for the ridgetop. They could see Jumper Hellman disappear in the smoke to their left and Diettert to their right. The made it to the ridgetop with only seconds to spare. After the blowup had subsided, they found Hellman. He had been badly burned, but was alive. Wag Dodge soon appeared and said he had Jumper Sylvia in the same condition. They took both men to the rock slide they had been trying to reach, made them a comfortable as possible, and then Dodge and Sallee headed for the river to find help. Rumsey stayed with the burned men and tried to comfort them.
The rescue crew with Dr's Hawkins and R.L. Haines arrived on the scene at 12:30 am on 8/6/49. They administered plasma, salve and covered the men with blankets. At 1:50, the rescue crew found Jumper Sylvia. He was badly burned and was in shock. He said that if he had followed Dodge's instructions, that he wouldn't have been hurt.
Before the night was over, 10 additional bodies would be found. All had died within 300 yards of each other. The injured men were evacuated at 5:00, and both died in Helena hospitals later in the morning. Dr. Little from Helena arrived on the first helicopter flight to be made on the Helena Forest. He was prepared to assist additional survivors, but none were found.
It is estimated that the fire, during the blow up stage, covered 3,000 acres in 10 minutes. The blowup occurred because a hot, dry mass of air had ironically settled in over Mann Gulch. It was the primary cause of the loss of 13 brave men, and is the largest single loss of life due to fire that the Forest Service has experienced to date. Our efforts here today are a fitting tribute to their memory. Thank you, and good afternoon.
Bob Sallee's Notes