Anyone who has spent time with me has heard me tell this story. I'll tell it again today, on the 60th anniversary of the event.
On August 5th, 1949 a forest ranger spotted a fire in Mann Gulch. The fire was in timber in the Gates of the Mountains wilderness area. The gulch had timber on one side, and prairie grass on the other. A crew of smoke jumpers dropped into the gulch and met the ranger, 16 souls in total. Wag Dodge, the crew chief, assessed the situation and decided to side hill and fight the fire from below. After crossing the gulch Dodge notices the fire has changed. He saw boiling smoke, but what he didn't see was that the fire had jumped into the grass and blown up in the mouth of the gulch. He ordered the men to turn and head for the ridge. The terrain is close to a 45% slope, at about 4,500 ft elevation. Within moments he turned to order the men to drop their gear, and saw that most of them already had. As the fire raced through the grass, Dodge struck a match to the grass in front of him and yelled for the men to lie in his fire. No one knew what he was talking about. Dodge and two others escaped, 13 men died. The two that escaped used Dodges fire as a guide up to the ridge. They found a tiny crack in the rim rock and raced through, nearly being overtaken.
Dodge died shortly after due to Hodgkin's. This story has been used as a case study for years at many organizations. This story has haunted me like no other. Norman Maclean wrote a book entitled Young Men and Fire, in which he tells this tale, but also tells his own journey to understand what happened. James Keelaghan wrote Cold Missouri Waters (the song from the video above) after reading the book. The first time I heard the song I wept deeply as if I had lost someone very close to me. These men died before my father was even born. What is about this story that so grieves me?
These men were tough mountain men. Several had been in the Airborne during WWII, one had dropped on Bastogne. Their death was so avoidable. The only way to save their lives was to do the most asinine thing in the world, lie down in the midst of a fire. They were running from fire, how was fire going to save them? They ran up that slope, depending on their strength and it failed them. What am I depending on? What does it mean for me to give up my life for Christ, that his Kingdom might come? I think it looks like death.
Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, "The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is in your midst."
Then he said to his disciples, "The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. People will tell you, 'There he is!' or 'Here he is!' Do not go running off after them. For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.
"Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.
"It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.
"It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot's wife! Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it. I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left."
"Where, Lord?" they asked.
He replied, "Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather."