Missoula aeronautical engineer recounts helping Maclean understand Mann Gulch fire

2010-04-15T21:45:00Z 2014-05-29T07:23:33Z Missoula aeronautical engineer recounts helping Maclean understand Mann Gulch fireBy KIM BRIGGEMAN of the Missoulian missoulian.com
April 15, 2010 9:45 pm  • 

Along about 1979, Norman Maclean went looking for an expert.

The University of Chicago professor and a U.S. Forest Service friend, Laird Robinson, sought someone who knew the science of wildfire behavior for a book Maclean was researching on Montana's Mann Gulch fire of 1949. They were soon knocking on Dick Rothermel's door.

That door was at the Intermountain Fire Sciences Laboratory by the Missoula airport. Maclean knew where to find his sources for his acclaimed "Young Men and Fire," which was ultimately published in 1992, a couple of years after he died.

Rothermel, an aeronautical engineer, had developed a fire-spread model at the lab in 1972. It's a model that, while technologically enhanced over the years, remains the engine of tools used to predict fire behavior today.

At first his involvement with Maclean's book was "something I really didn't want to do," Rothermel told a packed room Thursday at the fire sciences lab's weekly seminar series.

Controversy still swirled around the Mann Gulch fire, in which 13 firefighters died, and he had no desire to reopen emotional wounds. But the tragedy was what spawned establishment of the research lab itself, which recruited Rothermel shortly after it opened in 1960.

"We set up a communication that went on for several years while (Maclean) was back at the University of Chicago, and when he'd come to Seeley Lake and hang out, he'd come and see us," Rothermel said.


They went to work on Mann Gulch questions that Maclean felt remained unanswered. How did the fire near the Missouri River north of Helena get from a ridge above the firefighters to the mouth of the gulch below? Where did the men go and why couldn't they escape? Did the escape fire that saved foreman Wag Dodge's life overtake his own crew?

"We never could get it straight, in (Maclean's) mind anyway, as to just what happened until finally I worked out a diagram," said Rothermel.

The graph shows the rate of spread of the fire and the rate of travel of the men, and how "they finally meet in a race that couldn't be won," he said.

Maclean used it in "Young Men and Fire." In 1993, the Forest Service published the chart along with Rothermel's own assessment of the day in a 10-page pamphlet called "Mann Gulch Fire: A Race That Couldn't Be Won."

Rothermel has high praise for Maclean's work, calling it "an almost poetic rendition of what happened that day."

"Norman was kind of a feisty little guy, and he was an English professor," Rothermel said, recalling the days of scientific discussion with Maclean and fellow fire scientist Frank Albini.

"Norman would look at us and we'd get into ‘rate of spread' and ‘flame lengths' and ‘heat content,' and pretty soon his eyes would glaze over. He'd start saying how strong these young men were. His main thought in this book was the young men themselves, and the tragedy that occurred."

Rothermel, 82, lives in Missoula. He retired 15 years ago from the fire lab after nearly 35 years, but was back on Thursday for a slide presentation on "A Race That Couldn't Be Won."

It was a rehearsal for a presentation he'll make next month in Wallace, Idaho, for the Inland Empire Society of American Foresters commemoration of the Fires of 1910. Rothermel will be joined for the Friday evening session by Bob Sallee, the lone living survivor of the Mann Gulch fire.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.


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