Young Men And Fire

spruce fire

My old journalism professor, Michael Downs, sold me on Norman Maclean’s book Young Men and Fire almost 10 years ago when he told me how perfect the ending was. I don’t remember what he said, or what the last few lines were, but I remember how it felt when he told me. It was important that if I wanted to be a writer, I read that book.

In the book, an elderly Maclean investigates the Mann Gulch fire, the 1949 Montana wildfire that killed 13 firefighters, 12 of them smokejumpers. The book becomes a reconstruction of the fire and the last moments of the crew of firefighters who died—not one of whom was over the age of 28—as well as an exploration of life and death as only Maclean could write it. The writing has always been important to me, and the story about the firefighters stayed in the back of my mind.

I was up late this past Sunday night, clicking around the Internet for information about climbing routes, when I read that 19 firefighters died in a wildfire in Arizona on Sunday. Eighteen of the men were in their 20s and 30s. Instantly, whatever I was going to climb on Tuesday was unimportant.

It’s unmistakably a tragedy when 19 men die, and we will do all the things we do when people die too soon: mourn, speculate, try to remember them, read news stories that tell us who these 19 men were when they were alive, donate to help their families deal with the tragedy, call them heroes, investigate what happened in hope of finding something that can be done differently in the future, and above all, wish they weren’t dead.

All these things are appropriate, especially the heroes part. I keep searching the Internet for the definition of a hero, and I can’t find the one I’m looking for, which is something along the lines of: A hero is someone who puts their life in danger for someone else when they don’t have to. Which is what those firefighters did on Sunday, and they lost their lives.

I’m sure there are many times when firefighters, soldiers, and police officers face situations in which they might be killed, times when they think about quitting, about turning in their badge, or getting a dishonorable discharge. All of us have quit jobs over less: We’re not getting paid enough, we don’t feel challenged, we’re not advancing in the company quickly enough. But most of us haven’t ever, as part of our job, gotten shot at, put on body armor to go to work because we might get shot at, or jumped in front of a fast-moving wildfire.

We talk about climbing as if it is heroic sometimes, like we’re fighting a war against an invading enemy, as if it’s something we must do. And it’s not. And all day Monday I thought about all the dangerous situations I put myself in, and how it’s amazing when I make it out alive, but if I don’t, it’s nothing more than folly.

Tuesday I walked up high into my favorite mountains, hopped wobbly boulders, chopped steps across a snowfield, tied into a rope and picked my way up a face of gneiss past loose blocks, to a summit no bigger than a studio apartment, worrying the entire time that a thunderstorm would roll in on top of us before we got down, and it was great. I risked my life for something meaningless to almost everyone in the world but me. During my long walk in, I thought a lot about those 19 men who died in Arizona.


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12 replies on “Young Men And Fire”
  1. says: Curt

    Great post. It’s amazing what those men and women do everyday. I hope we can learn from this, reassess our priorities, and hopefully reduce the chances of having it happen again.

  2. says: AlisaG

    having spent a brief time in the fire universe it is both easy to and impossible to understand how and why that crew was out in 115 degree heat underneath a storm putting down hard downdrafts with no safety zone. sadly no matter how much thought and precaution goes into such efforts mother nature can rip away all of what we think we know in too short of a timespan. what the families, community and the surviving member are going through is heartbreaking.

  3. says: Kevin Mokracek

    In the corner of your mind you know that the bottom can drop out and everything can go south in an instant, even with all precautions in place. These guys knew that and they loved their work and the brief moments of excitement that the job brings during days of boredom. As in climbing you can’t dwell on the possibility of tragedy or it will paralyze you. My hat goes off and my prayers go up to these 19 young men and I thank them for their willingness and love to do a job that ultimately took their life. So long brothers.

  4. “I, an old man, have written this fire report. Among other things, it was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature. In addition, I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.”
    — Norman Maclean, YOUNG MEN AND FIRE

  5. says: Josh nash

    I was in the Marines in artillery, training to go to war many years ago. It was during the Iraq invasion. We were on our deployment schedule to go on to join the 31st meu in Okinawa. Every single one of us was ready to go and do our job. Fatefully, we deployed to the pacific and never went to go get shot at in the desert. I often think about the kind of person I would be if I went. I got out, got a house, got a job and started a family. A lot of my freinds who stayed in and one of my good freinds at work fight some dark demons. These kinds of jobs where danger is ever present is for the young and foolhardy. It’s that sense of invunerability you have that carries you through some crazy situations. I cannot imagine what happened to those young men as the fire overcame them. It’s a huge tragedy but at least it’s not senseless like so many deaths are. They didn’t get wiped out by some random occurance. They died for the greater good.

  6. says: Jayson Nissen

    I fear, but do not know, that these young men died not to save lives, but to save empty buildings. I do not think this reflects poorly on them, but it must be taken into account with how we as individuals choose to react and move forward to this loss. Where do we build our homes? How do we manage our lands? What laws do we support? Every choice made has a consequence which is real, but may be borne by someone else. The mountains hold us personally responsible and that is part of their appeal.

  7. says: Dan Snyder

    I’m a fire lieutenant in a Front Range city in Colorado. When this happened I was on a surf trip to Nicaragua. (I too value those private personal moments of risk surfing, climbing, skiing, etc.) I sent this email to my boys and then I cried hard in my beer.


    When something like this happens it lets us all know just how mortal we all are and how unavoidably hazardous what we do can be.

    Undoubtedly, there was a causal chain that led from it being a routine, if badass, fire to 19 (fuckinhell!) deceased brothers. Always be watching for that chain to form. Always be watching each other’s backs. Take care of those we’re sworn to protect (their stuff is a very distant second) and each other. And always, always, know that if you see that causal chain forming you MUST speak up and be the brave badass that breaks the one link that leads to disaster. It only takes one link, and it’s likely that no
    one will call you “hero” (you became that when you took the oath, not when you die for it), you may not even recognize that you prevented
    disaster but that does not matter, because on those days everyone DOES go home.

    Recognizing the chain begins with integrity. Doing the right thing, at the right time is not a singular, extraordinary, special circumstance. It is a habit. Plain and simple: a habit. Recognizing the small, shrinking window when your decisive, well-trained action can be the deciding factor in a good outcome grows from that foundation of integrity.

    There are many other factors, but this is becoming preachy and was meant to be a quick note to tell you all I love you, that I’m thinking
    of you, and to take care and be fucking careful.

    Cheers from Nicaragua, see you soon”

    To be sure, no new mistakes were made. Whatever any investigation turns up it will show that many links in that “causal chain” missed being noticed and spoken up about. Always, always speak up, in the mountains or on the fireline or where ever you take your risks.


  8. Well said, and a great book. This was a required read in my Fire Science courses in college. It was after reading this book and watching a documentary by the name of Fire Wars that I decided to do the wildland portion of fire rather than the municipal side. I am now a California Hotshot and attempt to let people in on what we do as the fire seasons unfold. I invite you all to follow along via my Instagram @greggboydston or website I have been featured on Instagram for my fire photographs and interviewed by a few outdoors based companies. I’m just happy to be able to inform people on the lifestyle that is not so promoted nor pleasant. Look forward to helping out!


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