Saturday, July 19, 2014

Fire Tents and Oregon Fires

This video piece about fire tents and how they saved the lives of one crew was a lot more captivating than I expected:

Fires are in the news here a great deal right now.

Besides A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean wrote an interesting book titled Young Men and Fire, the story and an analysis of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire that killed 13 people (there were only 3 survivors). Realizing they were in trouble, the firefighters raced up a steep (38°) mountainside in front of the fire; four of them made it, but only two were able to crawl though the rock ridge at the top. (Wildfires burn exceptionally fast going up hill, because the heat of the towering flames is closer to the upslope than it would be to flat ground, which pre-heats the upslope so it combusts more quickly.)

Once he realized he and several others couldn't outclimb the fire, the crew's Foreman, Wagner Dodge, famously lit the grass right in front of them and encouraged those near him to lie down in the burnt area. It was no doubt hectic and terrifying, and the others didn't realize what Dodge was doing, and they dismissed him and kept climbing. All those who ran away from Dodge's "escape fire" lost their lives, while Dodge laid in the burnt area and the main fire went around him.

Anyway, the last of the three survivors, Robert Sallee, just died a few weeks ago, which brought the book and the fire back to my mind.

Dodge's escape fire was controversial afterwards. He said he invented the idea on the spot, as it seemed "logical" to him (but maybe he had talked about it some years earlier). A lot was learned from this particular fire that was incorporated in firefighters' training.

I just noticed that Maclean's son, John Norman Maclean, wrote a book, Fire on the Mountain, that told a similar story about the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain on July 1994 in Colorado, where 14 firefighters lost their lives. I find these stories fascinating, perhaps because they are so terrifying.

Fires are in the news here because Oregon has many burning right now, with five that just started yesterday and are large (69,000 acres) and uncontained. It's so bad the governor declared a state of emergency on Wednesday. One fire has already burned 576 square miles and is 20% contained, and another has burned 262 square miles and is 0% contained. Those two alone are 70% of the size of Rhode Island.

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