Wednesday, July 3, 2013


I live part of my life in the woods – a creek winds and splashes its way among the willows in the valley bottom, ponderosa pine and craggy rocks climb steeply upward both behind and in front of the modest cabin. In my ancestral Norwegian this valley would be (somehow even more lovely-sounding) a “dale.” It is, to use an expression of the mother of a friend of mine, “just like a picture.” And she's right. Although on a slightly smaller scale, it is not unlike the picture below.

It is only in my nightmares that I see orange flame tips cresting the ridge—like an army of invading marauders who have crept up from the other side—and charging headlong down the slope into the green valley.

Over the years those flames have come close enough to our little dale. It puts me—in terms of forest management—right in the thick of the ecological and moral debate about the choice between “let ‘er burn” and the political and economic pressure to save homesteads like ours. (Timothy Egan, in this New York Times essay, addresses this dilemma well.)

I know there’s more to it than that, but it is when my orange nightmare meets the headlines reporting the deaths of nineteen firefighters out of Prescott, Arizona, that I am made aware of the degree to which brave strangers (or nephews or daughters) put their lives on the fire-line for me.

But I am struggling (quite obviously) to find the words. Like you, whether you dwell in city or in forest, I am wordless at the news and unable to plumb the depths of the loss of these husbands and fathers and sons.

Mann Gulch, Montana. The 76° slope (left) up which
the firefighters tried to outrun the flames that had
unexpectedly crossed the gulch. 
In place of my own words (or yours), may I make this suggestion for a memorial reading: Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, an account of the similarly devastating Montana Mann Gulch Fire of 1949. Maclean, who became an honored professor of literature at the University of Chicago and the author of the exquisite A River Runs Through It was himself a young forest fire fighter in his native Montana before heading off to college. In his elder years (he died in 1990), he poured his passion for the story of these young men into a prodigious act of research resulting in a book that is profoundly simple in its telling and heartbreaking in its tale. I will read it again in honor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
You may also want to listen to James Keelaghan’s “Cold Missouri Waters,” a song based on the Mann Gulch Fire story (and probably on Maclean’s book), sung here by the trio, “Cry, Cry, Cry.” (Whoever put this YouTube slideshow together did a nice job, but you may hear the story better with at least one eyes-closed listening.)