OCTOBER 6, 2003
MICHAEL A. ROBERTO
ERIKA M. FERLINS
Fire at Mann Gulch
On August 5, 1949, twelve U.S. Forest Service (USFS) smokejumpers lost their lives in a fire at
Mann Gulch, Montana. What appeared to be a routine firefight turned disastrous as the men raced frantically from an oncoming fire blowup. Less than two hours after they had parachuted from a plane, the terrified crew found themselves caught between a raging fire and the rocky slope that blocked their route to safety. Each person faced a frightening choice: race the fire to the top of the ridge, or follow the foreman in what appeared to be a madman’s tactic. Only three men made it out alive. What caused this tragic accident? Some described the situation as a race that could not be won.1
Others argued that the crew’s foreman, Wagner Dodge, demonstrated poor leadership. Another theory held that the tragedy resulted from the panicked reaction of an inexperienced crew.
Nonetheless, everyone agreed on one thing: the events that transpired at Mann Gulch would remain etched in the minds of firefighters for generations to come.
The USFS trained the smokejumpers—a highly select outfit created in 1940—to attack fires quickly by parachuting onto them while they were still small. The USFS expected the smokejumpers to attack Class C fires (10 to 99 acres), “putting [them] out so fast they don’t have time to become big ones.”2 Rookie training was rigorous, and even the most hardened firefighters sometimes failed to pass the test. Smokejumper training included an excruciating physical test, parachuting classes, and the vicious “hell week,” where rookies had to dig fire lines for days at a time with no rest, and carry their 85-pound packs through the woods for miles. At their base in Missoula, Montana, the smokejumpers also embarked on a rigorous three-week training program at the beginning of each fire season. The regimen conditioned the men, while teaching them to work together, react quickly, and follow orders.
Professor Michael A. Roberto and Research Associate Erika M. Ferlins prepared this case. This case was developed from published sources. HBS cases are developed solely as the basis for class discussion. Cases are not intended to serve as endorsements, sources of primary data, or illustrations of effective or ineffective management.
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Fire at Mann Gulch
Smokejumpers arrived from all over the country as forestry students, seasoned firefighters, volunteers, and military veterans. Of the 15 men at Mann Gulch, 12 had served in the armed services. They had been described as people who “love the universe but are not intimidated by it.”3
They were the best of the best, and they knew it. In the 1940s, smokejumpers boasted that they could dig a trench around any fire by ten o’clock the next morning. Norman Maclean, author of Young Men and Fire, a book that told the story of the Mann Gulch tragedy, described this elite group:
In 1949 the Smokejumpers were still so young that they referred affectionately to all fires as
“ten o’clock fires,” as if they already had them under control before they jumped. They were still so young they hadn’t learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy. . . . The requirements used in selecting the first crews of Smokejumpers give a rough profile of the kind of men the Forest…