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The Mann Gulch Wildfire of 1949: Lessons for Rural Pastors

August 5, 1949. A wildfire started in Mann Gulch of Montana’s Helena National Forest that burned nearly 5,000 acres of woods and grasslands.[1] When the fire was first spotted by plane, it was estimated to be an ordinary “ground fire” that was slowly advancing.[2] The crew of 15 sent in to fight this fire were confident that they could have it contained quickly and efficiently.[3] And, this was not just any crew being sent in, it was a crew of elite firefighters: the Smokejumpers.[4]

The U.S. Forest Service started sending Smokejumpers to fight inaccessible forest fires in 1940. Smokejumpers parachute in with their tools and begin fighting a fire before it expands beyond a controllable size and intensity. The Smokejumpers had developed a reputation across their 9 years as elite firefighters in the Forest Service ranks.[5] Not only were they effective, but they seemed invincible. Despite falling from the sky and landing on rocks and in trees in the face of danger, not a single Smokejumper had perished fighting a wildfire prior to 1949.[6]

On August 5th, 1949, 15 Smokejumpers leapt from their C-47 to fight the fire in Mann Gulch. The Smokejumpers had a relatively uneventful landing about one-half-mile from the fire. The crew collected their airdropped supplies and met up with a fire guard from a nearby campground who was fighting the fire singlehandedly.[7] When the crew moved from their cargo area around 5:00 pm they were still not alarmed by the fire—it was limited in size and intensity.[8]

Before the Smokejumpers were able to start fighting the fire though, the crew’s foreman, Wagner Dodge, noted that the fire had jumped its previous boundaries, so the plans to contain the fire were shelved and developing an escape route became the primary concern. By 5:45 pm the fire was roaring up to 30 feet high, and Dodge turned the crew around to begin the race up a steep slope to reach the safety over a ridge. As Mann Gulch became engulfed in flames, two of the Smokejumpers were fast enough to make the dash of 700 yards to safety.[9] One Smokejumper found a place of safety. In just a matter of minutes, the race to escape was over. By 5:57 pm, 13 perished and only 3 survived.[10]

This story is a catastrophe. As author Norman Maclean advocates, we cannot erase the catastrophic aspects, but we can move the story to a “remembered tragedy” where we discern life applications for today.[11] There is something in this for us as rural pastors as we move from surviving the catastrophic events of the last few years to a “remembered tragedy” where we thrive in ministry because we are moving to a healthier place.[12] From COVID to social upheaval to financial challenges, the list is long in regard to harrowing events we have faced. Learning from our shared tragedy is required for health as we face future fires together.

There are three lessons from this remembered wildfire tragedy that I want us to consider as rural pastors as we lead out of this season of crisis that we are ministering through: 1) Drop your tools; 2) Practice Communication; 3) Fight the right fight.

Drop Your Tools

By the time the Smokejumpers landed in Mann Gulch, the fire had grown to 60 acres from its spotted size of 6 acres, but it was still confined to the ridge.[13] Due to conditions surrounding the drop, the cargo was scattered around the hillside, and extra time was required to collect tools and supplies.[14] Tragically, at this point in the story the Smokejumpers saw their primary job as fire control and responsibility to the crew and safety as a distant second.[15]

Since the focus was on fire control, a series of small, but tragic decisions took place when minutes made a world of difference. First, the crew started running later than they should have under these conditions.[16] Second, there was a delay in an order to drop the heavy tools and equipment being carried[17]. Third, and perhaps most tragic, some Smokejumpers did not drop their tools even after the command was made by the foreman.[18]

Let’s pause here for a moment. At 5:45 pm the crew had turned around and started to run. It was not until 5:53 pm that the command to drop tools took place. Some had already tossed their heavy packs, but some refused even after the command. But why hold their tools when things were already getting desperate?

We hold our tools because it is our default response. In fact, it is not just a physical response, but holding our tools is also an allegory of our response whenever we find ourselves in danger.[19] A lack of holistic identity drives us to hold our tools.[20]

Identity. When you drop your tools, you are admitting failure—and you do not want to do that too soon.[21] This failure gets wrapped up into identity. The tools of the firefighter are part of who they are and what they do—laying them down is not simply setting down an implement, it is setting aside who they are and what they are called to do.[22] Research has demonstrated in a number of settings that tools become part of our identity, and many of us will continue to run with extra weight. As in Mann Gulch, people carry their tools even though every second matters.[23] In Mann Gulch, they were within sight of a safe area, but did not reach it due to the extra weight.[24] They were firefighters with iconic tools for the work. They were slow to gain the necessary nimbleness by recognizing purpose and identity change.[25]

This brings us to an opportunity to reflect in our ministry roles and ask some key questions. As rural pastors, what tools do we hold on to due to identity? After experiencing the last two years, what are the “pastor tools” that you are no longer carrying? Which ones should stay dropped and which ones get picked up again?

These questions are critical for us to consider. There have been ministry tools that we have been carrying that no longer fit our current context—certain modes of communication, expectations of the church always functioning in its gathered state rather than scattered, and the list goes on. At the same time, there have been certain tools that we have dropped, such as certain inter-personal interaction, that need to be picked up once again. Intentionality matters when it comes to our tools—where we wear God’s missional call in the present over the pastoral identity we would like to project.

One more question is worthwhile to consider as we start thinking about communication. This wildfire story pointed out the tragic focus on the task of fire control while responsibility to crew and safety was a distant second. As rural pastors caught in the wildfire of these times, how can our priorities reflect a similar focus?

Practice Communication

Realizing that the crew would not make it to safety, Dodge stopped, took out matches, and did what few people had ever done before. He started another fire. He lit wild grass on fire to create an escape fire. He beckoned the others to join him in this space where the fuel for the wildfire was now gone, but they thought that he was crazy to start another fire and jump in behind it. As Dodge wet the handkerchief over his face and lay down as close to the ground and remaining oxygen as he could, the rest of the Smokejumpers sought to outrun the blaze.[26] The lack of two key communication foundations fed into these choices: just cause and trust.

Just cause. The Smokejumpers had been coached on the usefulness of the tools and the financial cost of the tools, not trained on times where the tools could be a detriment. This training is reinforced by social pressure if the people ahead of them continue to carry their tools rather than setting them down. Alongside this is the sense that dropping tools seems like an insignificant change that is unlikely to provide significant benefits. We will stick with an overlearned behavior rather than do something new.[27]

Dodge did not keep the crew briefed during the incident. Without a “why” behind the commands of drop the tools and lie down in the escape fire, they did not make sense.[28] Dodge felt that the dangers were so obvious that a reason for dropping tools was not needed. Yet, 9 of the 15 were first year jumpers, and all of them were trained for timber firefighting, not the grassland that they were now in.[29]

What Dodge intuitively saw, but the rest of the crew missed was a change of context.[30] If anything, the crew should have been more attuned to their context since the Smoke Jumpers had not even been provided with maps during the rushed preparation for the jump.[31] The crew was also isolated from the outside world since the parachute for the radio had failed to open.[32]

With all of these communication items working against them, why would they not be ready to listen well? The Smokejumper’s reputation as fire experts prevented them from seeing what they did not know about a wildfire “blowup” that was taking place.[33] Science surrounding wildfire blowups was not understood until the 1950s but the Smokejumpers did not have a posture of listening.[34] Because of limited scientific study, no one grasped that the wind conditions had created a “blow-up” where the fire was rapidly expanding—the 1,500 to 1,800 degree Fahrenheit fire was covering about 3,000 acres in 10 minutes.[35] While Dodge did not understand the mechanics of a blowup, he did recognize the dangers of the context. No longer were they protected from the wind by trees, and they were now in fast burning cheat grass, and not within the boundaries of a forest fire that they had been trained for.[36]

Dodge had the posture of learning and a lens of experience to observe the danger—a posture and lens that the rest of the crew were not utilizing. Dodge missed that he needed to be preparing his crew for this moment by communicating the obvious before they reached a time in which the noise of the close fire would prevent meaningful communication between people.[37] The roar of the fire, the rush of the wind, and the frantic panting of men on the run created a noise that drowned out Dodge’s pleas.

Trust. “People persist when they don’t trust the person that tells them to change.” There was not trust between Dodge and the crew because of limited training time together.[38] On the one hand, Dodge did not communicate with providing just cause, but he was not placed in a position to do so with ample time. The limited training time together was exacerbated by no training aimed to build a sense of team nor upon how to take orders.[39]

Since trust was not built, Dodge stood up all alone from his experimental escape fire patch 15 minutes after he called out to others to join him. Through the tragic turn of events, 13 others would perish.[40] Wagner Dodge’s example was not followed. Even his words went unheeded. If the crew had listened rather than thinking he was crazy, they could have survived.[41] Just cause was not communicated to the crew, and that was enhanced by a lack of trust.

As rural pastors, we have some important questions to ask in regard to communication. How healthy is my communication? Do I provide just cause for why we do what we do in ministry? Am I investing in relationships in a way that builds trust and is not simply aimed at task completion? Finally, what are unique ministry opportunities that God is inviting you and I to communicate in this season? We need to be honest about the noise around us and the change of context. Intentionality behind our communication is necessary—and our experience over the last two years should push us ever further into that space.

Know the Right Fight

Third, this was a fight that should never have been taken on. It was not until 1978 that the U.S. Forest Service changed their policy that all wildfires should be suppressed as quickly as possible. This is despite the fact that scientists in the 1880s had already outlined the importance of wildfires in forest life cycles.[42] The Mann Gulch Fire was not threatening human life nor significant personal property—yet lives were put in danger to immediately fight it. If we only focus on what we can learn about dropping our tools or communication, we have missed a key lesson of the story. With modern understanding of needing to let wildfires burn as a natural lifecycle, “the battle in Mann Gulch seems worse than pointless” where we engage “in a war that, as we no know, we lose even when we win.[43]

Co-vocational. One battle that we fight circles around our time—how do we maximize our ministry time when the needs are so great? How do we maintain a healthy balance? How does that work when we are bi-vocational? This leads me to one my most unfavorite questions.

“Are you full-time or are you bi-vocational?” That question has always unearthed some of my well-hidden insecurities. In essence, what I hear being asked is, “Are you a real pastor or are you a 3rd class minister?” My insecurities may be rooted in the fact that the majority of my ministry years have been as a bi-vocational pastor in small, rural churches. Even setting my personal issues aside though, I find this question unhelpful as an icebreaker at pastor gatherings. The next question is no better, “What is your worship service attendance?” Apparently, our ministry only matters with a given critical mass of people gathered.

I would much rather focus on what unites us as pastors – we are all co-vocational. We do not live compartmentalized lives in which some work is for God and some work is simply secular work. We all undertake a wide variety of work during our week—and all of it is for God. All of our work is linked together as Kingdom service (co-vocational), it is not a competition amongst the different types of work that we have compartmentalized our lives into (bi-vocational).

Don’t get me wrong, there are differences between pastorates that are compensated to meet all of a pastor family’s living expenses and those that do not. What I think is unhealthy is that we somehow conflate compensation into the idea that some pastors “work full-time” and other pastors “work part-time.” We all work full-time.

All pastors are co-vocational. We are only in a healthy place if we recognize that our work calling is not a sacred versus secular calling. God calls us holistically. Last I checked, all of us need to do unpaid work: laundry, dishes, yard work, fixing the broken vehicle, driving the broken vehicle to a garage after we broke it more while “fixing” it, helping the neighbor, caring for our children and loved ones, shopping, cleaning—I think you get the picture here.

All of our co-vocational work is in service to God—but it means that we need to be honest about difficult life experiences. Over the last few years, pastors have faced an increasing number of challenges and struggles from all directions in life, not just the “ministry compartment.” In many ways, we have been facing a wildfire, and we have lessons to learn.

A couple of introspective questions are worthwhile here as we think about our own personal health for the months of ministry ahead. What are co-vocational elements of my ministry that I tend to overlook? What is ministry service that I am currently doing “under the radar” that still exacts an emotional and spiritual toll? What joys am I missing by not observing my co-vocational work? Finally, how does my congregation affirm or miss my co-vocational ministry? Am I communicating the nature of my calling well?

As rural pastors in this ministry season, we are called into a posture of learning. One key lesson from the story of Mann Gulch is that the Smokejumper’s reputation as fire experts prevented them from seeing what they did not know about a wildfire “blowup” that was taking place.[44] This is not a season for rural experts as much as ministry practitioners with a posture of learning who are focused on the well-being of the crew, not just putting out the fire.

May we all consider lessons from our shared tragedy: to lay down our tools, to communicate, and fight the right fight.

[1] Lehman, Eben. 2009. “August 5, 1949: Mann Gulch Tragedy. Forest History Society. (August 5) Accessed 3/29/2022.

[2] Maclean, Norman. 1992. Young Men and Fire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 33.

[3] MacLean 1992, 61.

[4] Grant, Adam. 2021. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. New York: Viking. 1.

[5] MacLean 1992, 19.

[6] Maclean 1992, 57, 269. Lehman. 2009.

[7] Lehman 2009.

[8] MacLean 1992, 57.

[9] Grant 2021, 1-2. Maclean 1992, 269. Two of the smokejumpers survived a brief time before succumbing to the effects of their burns.

[10] Lehman. 2009.

[11] Maclean 1992, 46.

[12] Numerous applications of this can be observed in recent literature: Grant, Adam. 2021. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. New York: Viking.

Weick, Karl E. 1996. “Drop Your Tools: An Allegory for Organizational Studies.” Administrative Science Quarterly

41 (2): 301-313.

[13] Turner, Dave. 1999. “The Thirteenth Fire.” Forest History Today. [PDF]. Accessed April 28, 2022. 27.

[14] Maclean 1992, 57.

[15] Maclean 1992, 217.

[16] Maclean 1992, 5.

[17] Maclean 1992, 71.

[18] Maclean 1992, 73,

[19] Weick 1996, 301.

[20] Weick 1996, 308.

[21] Weick 1996, 307.

[22] Weick 1996, 308.

[23] Maclean 1992, 226.

[24] Weick 1996, 301.

[25] Grant 2021, 7.

[26] Turner 1999, 27. Grant 2021, 2.

[27] Weick 1996, 306-7.

[28] Weick 1996, 305.

[29] Weick 1996, 305-6.

[30] Maclean 1992, 40.

[31] Maclean 1992, 43.

[32] Maclean 1992, 56.

[33] Maclean 1992, 19, 33.

[34] Maclean 1992, 87.

[35] Lehman. 2009.

[36] Schulz, Kathryn. 2014. “The Story That Tore Through the Trees.” New York Magazine. September 9. Accessed. March 30, 2022.

Maclean 1992.

[37] Maclean 1992, 72.

[38] Weick 1996, 306. Maclean 1992, 40.

[39] Maclean 1992, 101, 219.

[40] Grant 2021, 2.

[41] Maclean 1992, 96, 99, 100. Grant 2021.

[42] Grant 2021, 11.

[43] Schulz, Kathryn. 2014. “The Story That Tore Through the Trees.” New York Magazine. September 9. Accessed. March 30, 2022.

[44] Maclean 1992, 19, 33.