Engulfed by fire 

John N. Maclean’s incendiary entanglement

John Maclean mentions destiny when he speaks of wildfire. Certainly, it’s easy to look back and see the inevitability in his personal path—the son of Norman Maclean, revered author of A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire, has spent more than a decade writing on his own about wildfire. But in a recent telephone interview, Maclean says The Thirtymile Fire, the latest of his three books about fire, exemplifies his inexorable entanglement with the subject.

“I didn’t particularly want to do [the book], to be honest with you,” he says. But circumstances and personal connections drew the author, who primarily resides in Washington, D.C. but spends considerable time at the Maclean family cabin on Seeley Lake, into the story of a wildfire in the Chewuch River canyon of Washington’s North Cascades Range that killed four Forest Service firefighters on July 10, 2001.

Maclean first learned about the fatal fire while with the family of another wildland firefighter killed on the job—Bitterroot native Don Mackey, one of 14 smokejumpers killed on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain in 1994. By then, Maclean had written a book, Fire on the Mountain (1999), about the South Canyon Fire that killed Mackey and 13 others, and he was in Montana with a film crew from the History Channel to shoot footage for a documentary. Mackey’s mother asked Maclean if he was going to write about the Thirtymile Fire. He avoided giving her an answer.

“These things are difficult to do,” says Maclean. “I know people who have bowed out on these because they involve a lot of time with families and a lot of time thinking about people who shouldn’t have died and who are pretty admirable people.”

Sure enough, Jody Gray, the mother of one of the firefighters killed on the Thirtymile Fire, contacted Maclean once it became clear a Forest Service investigation was going to blame the fatalities on the deceased. The circumstances appeared to mirror those Maclean wrote about in Fire on the Mountain. According to Maclean, Gray wrote in an email: “Look, you wrote a book in which you defended people who had been wrongly accused of participating in their own deaths. We have a worse situation here.”

Maclean ultimately chose to do the book after likening his own situation to that of the firefighters he often writes about.

“Don Mackey got killed going back to check on people he put in harm’s way,” explains Maclean. “If [he] had gone back for others I had a similar obligation to go back.”

Maclean’s study of the Thirtymile Fire revealed a muddled narrative, in which facts about the critical moments did not easily resolve into a coherent tale of culpability. The four firefighters who died on Thirtymile were on a rockslide away from the 10 others trapped at the same site. A wave of superheated air swept over the rocks, destroying their lungs despite the protection of their fire shelters. Some of the others who survived were badly burned; still others came away essentially unscathed. More troubling still, no one should ever have been trapped by the fire in the first place. The entire team fighting the fire had disengaged earlier in the afternoon when the fire grew too ornery. Gradually and without due caution, however, they were drawn back in just as the blistering late afternoon sun created conditions most conducive for a blowup.

“It was a total contradiction of the lesson of Storm King,” says Maclean, “which is that you quit when things get beyond your capability.”

Unfortunately, as Maclean’s book details, failing to learn Storm King’s lessons didn’t stop there. Investigators botched interviews with survivors and initially blamed the dead for failing to obey a direct order to leave the rocks where they died. Later investigations reversed that conclusion and led to criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter and making false statements against incident commander Ellreese Daniels.

Maclean describes the fire and its aftermath with a narrative melding eulogy and history. From the first pages readers know something terrible came about from what started in the morning as nothing but a “no account fire.” Suspense imbues the story regardless, leaving the reader to wonder how and, crucially, why things went so wrong. For instance, Maclean writes often about a pivotal “left hook” the fire took before overrunning the firefighters and spawning tragedy. His book takes a similar left hook, delving into the lives of the fire’s victims before returning to the day that brought them to prominence and the investigation that turned first against them and then, later, their leader.

And still there is more to the story. Maclean will cover Daniels’ trial in January for the paperback version of The Thirtymile Fire.

“I will stick with the story,” says Maclean, “until either it or I are finished.”

Maclean’s encounters with fire stories are, in fact, a litany of the story finding him and refusing to be extinguished. After his father’s death, John Maclean edited Young Men and Fire, the account of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire that killed 13 smokejumpers.

“He worked on it for 14 years and was never completely satisfied,” says Maclean. “The book was finished, what every publisher sees when a book comes in…Nonetheless, I got involved with it, read it many times, offered a hundred editing changes…all nicking, nips and tucks.”

Following Young Men and Fire’s publication, John visited as many people as he could who were involved in the story.

“I believe my dad would have done that and it was a responsible thing to do,” says Maclean, “to give them an opportunity to say what they thought—good, bad or indifferent. As a consequence of that, I got even more involved because the names had faces and voices and I had spent time with people…I have some roots in this.”

And so when the South Canyon Fire claimed the lives of smokejumpers once again, it was natural that an editor at the Chicago Tribune, where John had been working as a reporter and editor for 30 years, assigned him to write about the fire. Relying on his contacts from Young Men and Fire, Maclean penned a newspaper story about the similarities between the two tragedies. “I thought I was done,” he says.

But the official investigation’s assignment of blame for the deaths on Storm King Mountain spurred Maclean to leave the Tribune and dedicate the next five years to writing Fire on the Mountain and redirecting responsibility to the demands of firefighting culture on those who perished.

Maclean followed that first book with 2003’s Fire and Ashes, which examined the phenomenon of wildfire and the techniques used to combat it through the lens of several different fatal fires, including the 1953 Rattlesnake Fire and Mann Gulch.

Finally, with The Thirtymile Fire, Maclean says he feels as though he’s completed a trilogy of sorts. The work has taken almost 15 years and the gravity of it weighs upon him, but Maclean shows no signs of shirking.

“If you walk away from something big,” says Maclean, “that has your name written all over it, you miss your life.”
John Maclean reads from and signs copies of The Thirtymile Fire at Fact & Fiction Wednesday, Oct. 3, at 7 PM.
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