Section: BOOKS IN REVIEW
In 1949, a forest fire claimed the lives of 13 young men. Their tragedy holds lessons for
Young Men and Fire Norman Maclean Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992
What should the structure of a small group be when its business is to meet sudden danger
and prevent disaster? That question was not posed by an arbitrage unit leader, a
turnaround artist, or an aircraft dispatcher coping with the blizzard of the century.
Instead, it was asked by a former professor of English literature at the University of
Chicago who studied a forest fire that killed 13 young men.
The professor, Norman Maclean 11902-1990), is best known for his novella A River
Runs Through It (1976). Young Men and Fire, which Maclean spent more than a decade
researching and writing, was published posthumously in 1992. It chronicles the attempt to
extinguish a deadly forest fire that raged in the mountains of Montana in August 1949.
Maclean combines interviews with the survivors and other U.S. Forest Service veterans,
personal observations of the remote Mann Gulch site, documents from Forest Service
archives, and mathematical models of the blaze to reconstruct the events of that tragic
day nearly half a century ago.
On August 5, 1949, at about 4 P.M., 15 smoke jumpers - trained firefighters but new to
one another as a group- parachuted into Mann Gulch. The crew's leaders originally
believed that the blaze was a basic "ten o'clock fire," meaning that the crew would have it
under control by 10 the next morning. Instead, the fire exploded and forced the men into
a race for their lives.
The Mann Gulch fire may seem to be a distant tragedy, but Maclean's exploration of the
event touches on many questions of deep significance for readers today. For those of us
concerned about leadership in
, the episode illuminates problems facing
corporate leaders. Increasingly, corporate work unfolds in small, temporary outfits where
the stakes are high, turnover is chronic, foul-ups can spread, and the unexpected is
common. As we will see from what follows, minimal
, exemplified by the
crew at Mann Gulch and found at a growing number of businesses, are susceptible to
sudden and dangerous losses of meaning.
Fight Fire with Fire
The fire at Mann Gulch probably began on August 4 when lightning set a small fire in a
dead tree. The temperature reached 97 degrees the next day and produced a fire danger
rating of 74 out of a possible 100, indicating the potential for the fire to spread
uncontrollably. When the fire was spotted by a lookout on a mountain 30 miles away, 16
smoke jumpers were sent at 2:30 from Missoula, Montana, in a C-47 transport plane.
(One man became ill and didn't make the jump.) A forest ranger posted in the next