Norman Maclean'sYoung Men and Fire (1992), which is an old man's book. He was in his eighties when he wrote it, and it is full of observations of how, for instance, some days the universe is just against you, no matter how strong and determined you may be. I copied out a few passages. (Where is that notebook?)
I remember Dad, the district ranger, indoctrinating some seasonal firefighters (no S190 class then—much more informal), telling them never to run uphill from a fire, that men died doing that. He must have been talking about Mann Gulch, still relatively fresh in the Forest Service's institutional memory, but it never came together in my mind until I read Young Men and Fire.
(I did not know until today that Canadian songwriter James Keelaghan had composed a song about it, "Cold Missouri Waters.")
More recently, having heard so much about them, I started on some of the books by John Maclean, Norman's son, beginning with the Colorado one, Fire on the Mountain (1999), since I had at least seen the location.
It's about the 1994 South Canyon (a/k/a Storm King) Fire near Glenwood Springs, where 14 firefighters died for a patch of scrub oak and PJ, thanks to various sorts of miscommunications, bad judgment, and hubris. A true tragedy as my eighth-grade English teacher defined it—when people do what they think is the right thing and bad stuff happens anyway.
John Maclean himself writes elsewhere of drama where "the sense of inevitable disaster builds until it overpowers the participants, who are swept along on a pathway to destruction. The audience watches with compassion and horror, aware of what's coming and as powerless as the actors to stop it."
The book audience is also muttering, "Get in your truck and go look at it, you idiot," and so on, but the end point is still the same.
I let a little time go by, went back to the library, and checked out The Thirtymile Fire (2007). I read a few pages and sat it down — I just was not ready to deal with another hand crew, full of confidence, setting off to fight a "minor fire" that would finish some of them.
But now I have started it, watching with compassion and horror.
Lines like this in The Thirtymile File remind me of Maclean senior: "For the Hagemeyers, the day would bring one missed portent after another, which added up to one huge miscalculation: that the natural world they counted on for spiritual solace cared in turn for them."
Eventually, I will get to the new one, The Esperanza Fire : Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57. In due time. Meanwhile (because it is set in southern California?), a movie version is in the works.
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Yes, there is a literary allusion in my title. I wonder if Norman Maclean owned that book; he might well have.