Missoula woman tells of being among the first to spot the deadly fire 50 years ago
HELENA - She remembers never taking her eyes from the glass, scanning the distant mountains for telltale wisps of smoke.
It was early in the day but already well on its way to 97 degrees in nearby Helena - the hottest Aug. 5 on record at that time. Despite the thunderstorms that had blown through the area in recent days, the forests had proven time and again that they were dry and ready to burn.
Carley Cromwell was taking her job as a fire lookout seriously.
Fifty years later, her voice still rises as she remembers once again searching the mountains and rugged gulches far to the north of her perch above Strawberry Peak.
"I remember sweeping that direction and not seeing anything," said Cromwell, who now lives in Missoula. "There was nothing, and then, right before my eyes, up it came."
Later, when federal investigators interviewed her, she described the plume of smoke as "huge, looking like a mushroom cloud from a bomb."
Cromwell, 65 feet above the ground in the small Forest Service lookout, was among the first to see the Mann Gulch Fire. Her call to Forest Service offices in Missoula came just minutes after another lookout on the nearby Colorado Mountain alerted foresters of the fire. It was shortly after noon.
Hours later, as Cromwell watched the distant smoke through the glasses, 15 young smokejumpers parachuted into Mann Gulch. Only three would come out alive.
Several days passed in the lookout tower before Cromwell and her husband, Maxwell, who also was spotting fires at Strawberry Peak, were told of the firefighters' fate.
"We'd had no idea they'd sent kids in there," Cromwell said. "It would have been unbelievable except we had a feeling something had happened - it just looked like such a devastating fire."
In the end, it took 450 men to control the fire. While the smoke was still clearing from the rugged gulch just downstream of the Gates of the Mountains, visitors arrived to talk with the Cromwells in their tower.
"They came from Washington, D.C., and interviewed all the lookouts and anybody else who had anything to do with the fire," Cromwell said. "There were so many stories swirling around, different stories."
It wasn't until earlier this decade that Cromwell finally heard the rest of the story.
"I found out more by reading Norman Maclean's book 'Young Men and Fire' than I ever learned earlier," Cromwell said. That book wasn't published until 1992.
It has taken a long time for the smoke to clear from Mann Gulch.
The summer of 1949 was the first season the Cromwells had spotted fires for the Forest Service, and dry conditions throughout western Montana kept them busy.
When Cromwell reached for the telephone to call in the smoke sighting in Mann Gulch, she already had made more than a dozen similar calls that summer. By the time a premature snowstorm closed the tower in early September, Cromwell and her husband had called in 21 fires.
"It seemed very ironic," Cromwell said. "It had been so hot and dry, and then there was the fire and then, not long afterward, the snow came and ended the season ahead of schedule."
That season was 50 years ago and once again, things are heating up in Mann Gulch. Earlier this month it was announced the gulch had been included on the National Register of Historic Places. To mark the anniversary, events are planned at the Capitol in Helena for this Aug. 5 to remember the 13 young men - 12 smokejumpers and a fire guard who joined the crew - who died in the fire.
Now 77, Cromwell, a 1939 Helena High School graduate, hopes to attend the event. Mann Gulch still hasn't faded from her thoughts.
"It was unbelievable, overwhelming," Cromwell said. "I remember that feeling whenever I travel back to Helena."
Thursday - 6/24/99