Adding to the bitterness of these tragic deaths, moments before the holocaust engulfed them, their crew foreman, R. Wagner “Wag” Dodge, pointed the way to safety—and was ignored by the men he sought to save. The reasons behind this breakdown in leadership, as well as the other factors that contributed to the disaster provide a powerful analogy for the importance of teams and teamwork.
Well over half a century has passed since fire swept Mann Gulch, but the scars from the burn are still evident. In the harsh and arid climate of western
wounds to the earth heal slowly. The
charred trunks of downed ponderosa pine still dot the landscape, only grudgingly
succumbing to decay. New trees struggle
to establish themselves, their height after all these years still measured in
inches. One small but significant change
to the landscape will forever mark the events of that blistering hot August
afternoon 64 years ago. Tantalizingly
close to the 4,800 foot crest of the ridge that delineates the northern edge of
the gulch—a ridgeline that for a few fleeting moments mocked desperate men
scrambling to reach it with the false promise of escape from the inferno below—today
there stands a scattered collection of white crosses. Each cross marks the spot where one of the
thirteen fell. Montana
Just three fire fighters survived. Two of these, Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey, were the only men who made it over the crest of the ridge ahead of the flames to the safety of a rockslide area on the far side. Their accomplishment represented a combination of good fortune, youthful vigor and speed. Even then, it was a near thing. A third man following close behind then died just shy of reaching the crest. Sallee and Rumsey outran their companions and outdistanced a fire that at one point was traveling an estimated 660 feet per minute (7.5 miles per hour) up a 76% grade and that was burning with an intensity of 9,000 BTUs per foot per second. A 76% grade gains 7.6 feet in elevation for every 10 feet of forward progress. A fire of this speed and intensity, fueled by tall dry grass and fanned by 40 mph wind gusts (all on a day of record heat and very low humidity) would have produced flames that reached heights of 40 feet. Fire fighters refer to such a firestorm as a blowup.
The only other survivor of the Mann Gulch blowup was Wag Dodge. He never made it to the crest. From his position further downslope than the rest of the crew and thus closer to the advancing wall of fire, he could see that he would never make the summit ahead of the fire. Consequently, he did the last thing that would occur to most people in his situation: he took out a book of matches and started another fire. This second fire saved his life and could have saved most, if not all, of the others.
Some thirty seconds ahead of a rapidly advancing wall of flames, Dodge literally invented the escape fire. The concept of an escape fire was not something the forest service taught him. It was not in their training courses (though it is now), nor was it a part of the institutional wisdom handed down by word-of-mouth from one generation of seasoned fire fighters to the next. Until that terrible day, no one in the service had ever conceived of such a thing. With a remarkable presence of mind in the face of near certain death, and with only seconds to react, Dodge reasoned that if he lit a second fire up slope and down wind of his position, it would quickly burn off the available fuel in the immediate area. He then walked into the still smoking wake of that fire, covered his face with a bandana that he had moistened with water from his canteen, and proceeded to lay face down in the hot ashes. The larger inferno behind him reached his position and parted to either side. By placing his face next to the ground, he positioned it at the only location not totally deprived of oxygen. It was also considerably cooler at ground level, thus sparing his lungs from inhaling super-heated gases. Encompassed by a terrible vision of hell on earth, Wag Dodge survived virtually unscathed.
Dodge tried, but failed, to save others. As he walked into the fire that he had set, he called to his crew to follow him. They refused. Sallee later reported after he neared the crest he looked back and saw Dodge lighting the escape fire.
“I saw him bend over and light a fire with a match. I thought, with the fire almost on our back, what the hell is the boss doing lighting another fire in front of us? We thought he must have gone nuts.”
Dodge was certain that entering the escape fire was their only hope. As he reported later:
After walking around to the north side of the fire I started as an avenue of escape, I heard someone comment with these words, “To hell with that, I’m getting out of here!” and for all my hollering, I could not direct anyone into the burned area. I then walked through the flames toward the head of the fire into the inside and continued to holler at everyone who went by, but all failed to heed my instructions; and within seconds after the last man passed, the main fire hit the area I was in.
Dodge lit his escape fire at 5:55 PM. By 5:57 PM thirteen fire fighters, most of them ranging from 17 to 23 years of age, lay dying. What went wrong? What are the lessons of Mann Gulch that will benefit not just fire fighters, but anyone who would seek to be a leader of men? What principles of leadership and teamwork can we glean?
Principle #1 – Not every crisis that we face was covered back in school. Be prepared to adapt to unexpected and changing conditions. The brief training course provided to the smokejumpers of the 1940s was limited to techniques for fighting forest fires. Furthermore, their specialty was dealing with small fires of no more than few acres and controlling them before they spread. They had little training or experience in fighting large fires and knew nothing about fighting grass fires. Mann Gulch sits east of the continental divide near the point where the Rocky Mountains meet the
Great Plains. In
these arid mountains, stands of pine are thick on north slopes but give way to
large areas of open grasslands on south-facing hillsides. When the crew jumped the fire that August afternoon,
it was burning relatively slowly going downslope in the timber on the south
side of the gulch. At 5:30 PM, the fire
leaped across the bottom of the gulch.
Fire travels faster uphill than down hill and the steeper the grade the
faster it moves. It also moves much
faster in grass than in timber. In the
next 27 minutes, the firestorm crossed 1500 yards (over half a mile) and climbed
900 feet in elevation, gaining both speed and intensity as it went. The fire that killed the smokejumpers was one
they were not trained to fight.
For a team to function effectively in a crisis, the members must have an accurate understand of the nature of the challenge before them. It is critical that they not become trapped in their thinking by models and paradigms of the past that do not fit the current situation. When conditions change, you may need to alter your approach or invite disaster.
Principle #2 – When the solution to a crisis is counter-intuitive, the team’s need for trust in their leader increases. Had the firefighters’ best way of escape been to run for the ridge top, they would have quickly followed instructions without hesitation. Their limited training told them ridge tops generally offer a measure of safety in a fire. The fuel is usually thinner, the rock and shale more prevalent and winds tend to fluctuate at the crest. Once over the crest, the fire would slow down. Running for the summit—and away from the flames—was the instinctive and seemingly logical thing to do. But what Wag Dodge pleaded with his men to do made no sense to them. “Stop running and follow me into the flames” seemed like the words of a suicidal maniac.
Effective teams are often able to make decisions on an informal consensus basis. That’s as it should be. However, there are circumstances where nothing but the sudden insights of a leader, quickly carried out, will serve. These are always times of great pressure and urgency. And while for most teams this will not literally be a matter of life and death, leadership breakdowns at such times are always costly, both to the team and to the larger organization they serve.
Principle #3 – Keen insight and technical expertise alone will not make you a team leader. Wag Dodge was an experienced woodsman and fire fighter. He knew his stuff. He was also one of those rare and wonderful people who are able to keep cool in a crisis. In fact, the only cool spot in Mann Gulch on that fateful August afternoon was between Wag Dodge’s ears. He acted calmly, rationally and with remarkable speed. He grasped the true nature of the danger, conceived a creative and workable solution and executed the plan. All of this sounds like a leader, but in those fateful moments, Dodge’s men did not follow him. Why?
To function smoothly, especially under pressure, the members of a team must know one another well. They must understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They need an instinctive sense of how each member will react in a crisis. Such intimate cohesiveness doesn’t come about automatically. It is a by-product of spending time working together in a variety of contexts. To lead a team requires all of this and more—it requires trust. As danger and urgency increase, so does the demand for high trust in a leader. The smokejumpers in Mann Gulch didn’t trust their leader, not because he was untrustworthy, but simply because they didn’t know him. In fact, there were only three men in the entire crew that Dodge had ever met. While the rest of the crew trained together earlier in the spring, Dodge was excused from training in order to serve as the maintenance man for the entire smokejumper base. Thus, his woodsman’s mechanical skills indirectly contributed to the deaths of thirteen men. After the fire had passed, Dodge walked up to the top of the ridge where he met up with Sallee and Rumsey. He told them that he encountered one badly burned crewmember who still clung to life. He couldn’t remember the man’s name except that it began with an “S”.
A man is loath to entrust his life to a leader who can’t remember his name.
[I am indebted to the late Norman MacLean’s marvelous book, Young Men and Fire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, © 1992) for the details about the Mann Gulch Fire cited in this article. – GL]