Now that Americans live at a safe remove from the wilderness, the temptation is to sentimentalize its dangers. Indeed for most, it requires an act of imagination to realize that contrary to Smokey the Bear, most forest fires aren’t caused by naughty smokers or careless campers, but are an inevitable product of drought and lightning — more like a tornado, say, than a toxic waste dump. Nor, for that matter, as Norman Maclean points out in this painstakingly idiosyncratic narrative about a deadly blaze in the Montana wilderness in August 1949, are the long-term ecological consequences of forest fires necessarily bad. If anything, the converse may be true. Everything else being equal, as Native Americans knew, fire can rejuvenate natural habitats.
But everything else, alas, is never equal, and long-term benefits were little consolation to the 13 U.S. Forest Service ”Smokejumpers” who parachuted into the Mann Gulch fire, only to perish in a ”blowup” during which tens of acres of forest and grassland were incinerated and temperatures may have reached as high as 2,000 degrees. Racing up a steep mountainside trying to outrun a wall of flame roaring like a runaway train, the fire fighters died of suffocation and burns long before their bodies were immolated — the worst disaster in Forest Service history, spawning controversy, lawsuits, and a bureaucratic cover-up lasting more than 25 years.
Despite his rigorous research, Maclean’s purposes were more elegiac than investigative. ”This story of the Mann Gulch fire,” he wrote, ”will not end until it feels able to walk the final distance to the crosses (marking where they fell) with those who for the time being are blotted out by smoke. They were young and did not leave much behind them and needed someone to remember them.” Maclean himself would seem to have been the ideal historian. A native of the Western Rocky Mountains of Montana who fought wildfires in his youth, he was a retired University of Chicago English professor and the author of the outdoor classic A River Runs Through It when he began the arduous job of researching what he knew would be his last book — a final opportunity to meditate upon nature’s heartless beauty. (He died at 87 in 1990, leaving the manuscript almost complete.)
Alas, despite the same flinty integrity and elegant prose that characterizes all of Maclean’s work, Young Men and Fire cannot be counted a total success. There are too few facts, not enough characters, and too little storytelling to carry the burden of meaning he sought to impose upon the tragedy. Apart from their names and some evocative descriptions of the kinds of young daredevils who volunteered to be Smokejumpers, Maclean was able to learn surprisingly little about the victims as individuals, and not much more about the three survivors — one of whom, the foreman, was later charged (mistakenly, in Maclean’s opinion) with taking actions that caused the disaster. Possibly too much time had passed.
Even so, Maclean possessed a rare ability to write authoritatively about the wilderness without lapsing into bathos. Readers who have admired his earlier work will not soon forget the image of the author as an old man, scrambling about on a steep, remote slope in the Rockies seeking evidence to exonerate the reputation of a heroic young Smokejumper dead for almost 40 years.