John Maclean is a precise speaker with a tendency to frame things emphatically in the collective “we” (“We don’t want to kill a lot of people on this fire,”) and the inclusive “you” (“You’re put out there to stop the fire.”) It’s one hallmark of a writer and researcher who has permeated his subject matter so thoroughly that he now seems to revere both the men who fight the fires and the ambiguities of an elemental force that creates as well as destroys.
And Maclean should know about fire. He started working on Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire the day after its defining event took place. The book was published in 1999, five years after the blow-up that took the lives of 14 wildland firefighters on Storm King Mountain in Colorado on July 6, 1994. He still considers himself to be working on it, or at least with it—eight years and counting.
One more thing: John Maclean’s father is Norman Maclean, late author of A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire, the award-winning account of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, published in rough draft form following its author’s death in 1990. Fire, like fly-fishing, runs in the family; it has spread from one generation to the next.
Both Macleans also appear in movie version of Fire on the Mountain, a docu-drama produced by Lone Wolf Films and the History Channel that will run on the channel on Oct. 27. John Glenn narrates, but John Maclean is front and center, revisiting the scene of the South Canyon blaze and conducting interviews with participants in the fire-fighting effort, survivors of the blaze and, in many cases, family members left behind by those who didn’t survive.
Speaking from his Seeley Lake cabin earlier this week, Maclean says he’s pleased with how the filmed version of his book turned out, particularly the scenes that were dramatized, as the producers note, “with special attention given to historical accuracy.”
“I thought they did well with it on a couple of levels,” Maclean says. “It’s very difficult to recreate fire. Too often, (filmmakers) just take a natural gas jet out and blow it off and say that that’s a fire. It’s become a bad joke. Smokejumpers, when they watch these things, say ‘Hey, call before you dig!’ But this time they didn’t do it that way.”
The re-creations, Maclean says, were filmed on a New York mountain that was owned by the director’s brother-in-law. The brother-in-law, a lumberman, agreed to let the filmmakers film dramatized scenes there on one condition: that they let him portray his favorite firefighting character, Wagner “Wag” Dodge, who survived the Mann Gulch blow-up that wiped out his crew by lighting a defensive fire and lying down in the blackened perimeter. This scene is recreated in gripping dramatic detail in the movie.
“They burned enough to get a very authentic bit of footage in there,” says Maclean. “The vegetation is different—they had a much lusher forest (in New York)—but they were skillful enough with interspersing it with shots of the actual vegetation that I don’t think you notice. I’ll take the lusher forest to get the real fire.”
Maclean’s journalistic role in the film is sketched out in the prelude montage (remember that this is essentially a made-for-TV movie) as he contributes sound-bites that are revisited in greater detail and the appropriate context later on. Among the more sensational of his pronouncements is this one: “This is not war. Casualties are not inevitable and to be accepted.” Maclean refines this statement in our interview.
“You have to look at the different kinds of deaths,” he explains, sharply emphasizing the distinction between isolated fatalities and single, multiple-fatality incidents like the ones on the Mann Gulch and South Canyon Fires. “They’re going to happen every year. People get heart attacks, widowmakers take people out—it’s a dangerous profession.”
“But once you get into the realm of multiple-fatality fires,” he continues, “you’re in a different place. In order to kill that many people at once, you really have to fuck up.”
Maclean emerges from the movie as a tough critic of management mistakes made by the agencies assigned to fighting the blaze that lightning started on Storm King Mountain on July 2, 1994. The fire burned downhill for three days, spreading over only a few dozen acres before fire crews were eventually assigned to fight the blaze on July 5 after three days of bureaucratic torpor. A dry cold front blew into the region and stoked the fire into a roaring inferno that fatally overwhelmed 14 of the firefighters working on its western flank on July 6.
An official investigation into the tragedy concluded, within two months of the incident, that one major factor in the firefighters’ deaths was their “can do” attitude. Several surviving family members interviewed in the film take this as an insult to the intelligence of the ones they lost. So does Maclean.
“Recklessness,” he echoes bitterly. “It was unfortunate that the can-do attitude got blamed. What that did was blame the victims for their own deaths. And that, indeed, was the way a lot of people took that fire.”
“My position is that the can-do attitude was part of the culture and these people represented the culture,” continues Maclean. “For the culture to then turn around and blame them—it’s enough to make you gag.”