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Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire Paperback – December 8, 2009

4.5 out of 5 stars 92 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Colorado and its neighboring states battle thousands of wildfires every year, scrub and sagebrush blazes often ignited by lightning strikes in the dry, hot days of summer. A vast, intertwined firefighting infrastructure combining local resources with agencies like the Forest Service and the BLM, reacts to these flare-ups as if going to war--and in theory, the coordination and communication ensures that fires are fought in the most efficient and safe manner possible. But while most wildfires in Colorado end up costing just over $60,000 on average with no loss of life, the catastrophic South Canyon fire of 1994 burned for 10 days, at the ultimate cost of $4.5 million and the lives of 14 firefighters. OSHA would later describe the coordinated action flatly as a "management failure," and concurrent investigations would reveal a tangled web of jealous rivalries, bureaucratic bungling, and severe morale problems. (One of the early on-scene supervisors would later tell investigators, "Leadership in this state sucks.")

John Maclean (son of Norman Maclean, who wrote both A River Runs Through It and an award-winning account of Montana's deadly 1949 Mann Gulch fire) skillfully unfolds that summer's foreboding blow-by-blow. Fire on the Mountain weaves together a tense narrative of almost cinematic action, starring ballsy cowboy smokejumpers, frustrated federal middle managers, seasoned "hotshots" flown in like commandos, pissed-off tanker pilots, and well-intentioned but spin-wary politicians. Maclean's well-sketched personalities bring the action on the ground convincingly to life--and knowing up front that many of his main characters won't survive South Canyon makes this tragic tale that much more compelling. --Paul Hughes --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

With a reporter's objectivity and brisk prose, Maclean describes a series of small blunders in fire management that led to tragedy in July 1994 in western Colorado when a thunderstorm on Storm King Mountain, mislabeled by a dispatcher as South Canyon, killed 14 firefighters. As rain evaporated in the severe heat and drought, lightning ignited the high desert forest of scrub oak, pinion pine and juniper. Maclean's evenhandedness works against him: the reader longs for more outrage at the series of blunders and misfortunes that first led to a delay in responding to the fire and, later, to fatalities among those who battled the blaze. Maclean does bring the terrain and the fire to life with clarity and economy, and he paints a vivid portrait of the rugged firefighters who supply the most thrilling and saddest moments, men and women who displayed remarkable bravery and sheer physical effort. Among the 49 firefighters assembled on Storm King Mountain by the National Interagency Fire Center were "smoke jumpers," who parachute onto fires; "helitacks," who attack fire from helicopters; and "hot shots," mostly younger ground teams with a mix of skills and experience. Nine of the deaths were hotshots from Prineville, Ore. Maclean handles their deaths respectfully and manages to communicate the lessons to be drawn about fire management in the course of a suspenseful narrative filled with admirable, everyday heroes. 7-city author tour. (Oct.) FYI: The author's father, Norman Maclean, wrote the classic Young Men and Fire about the 1949 smoke jumper disaster in Mann Gulch, Mont..
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (December 8, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061829617
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061829611
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (92 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #78,900 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
John Maclean's "FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN" is subtitled "The True Story of The South Canyon Fire," and it is indeed the true story. Because the truth about what happened on that awful day in 1994 is so convoluted, so complex and multi-layered, and so strewn with conflicting viewpoints and cumulative errors and circumstances, writing the true story would have been impossible for anyone intimately involved with the fire. Maclean, however, brings his formidable background as a 30-year journalist to the story, and he makes the setting, the background, and the tragedy come alive for his readers.
With meticulous attention to detail and the unflagging search for facts that only a professional journalist can bring to bear, Maclean waded through stacks and years of documents, reports, interviews, and background material to produce a book that exceeded all expectations. The subjects of the book - wildland firefighters and wildland fire managers in state and federal land management agencies - nearly all agree that it's an accurate portrayal of both the South Canyon Fire and also the world of wildland fire. It's honest, it's well researched, and it's a compellingly good read. It explains and answers the many questions that nagged those of us in fire after the 1994 season.
If you're in fire, or you know someone who is, this book is mandatory.
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By A Customer on December 7, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This is a detailed, accurate and captivating narrative. Fire on the Mountain is truly a service to the fire fighting community because it dispels many of the inevitable myths and rumors about the South Canyon Fire. In 1996, I jumped a fire with Eric Hipke who was one of the most fortunate survivors on South Canyon. He said he was impressed by the efforts John Maclean was making to write this book. In April of 1995, Maclean quit a long-time career at the Chicago Tribune where he had been an editor, correspondent and reporter. He spent the next 4 1/2 years researching and editing material for Fire On the Mountain. The bookÕs thoroughness and accuracy reflect his professional experience and talent. John tirelessly researched every aspect of the story. Of the 49 firefighters at South Canyon, 35 lived. John interviewed 30 survivors. He gathered photos, dispatch logs and copies of anything that was written during or after the fire. Firefighters on the fire reviewed every chapter. This is the most authoritative work done on the fire. Much more detailed than the official report which took 45 days to complete. Maclean's account is very readable.
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Format: Hardcover
I was privileged to read this book twice as bound galleys and now a third time in finished form. With each reading I find myself again caught up in the events of July 6, 1994 in western Colorado. I am drawn deeper into the lives of wildland fire fighters and the exciting, dangerous job they have. "Fire on the Mountain" accurately portrays these modern day heroes as they become caught within a modern day tragedy that is the South Canyon Fire. Event though I was closely involved in the incident and know many of the details presented in this book, I learned a lot from it and found it hard to put down. When I had to put it down, I couldn't wait to pick it up again.
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Format: Hardcover
First of all, to qualify myself, I am an engineer that graduated from Montana State University in Dec 2000, and paid for most of my education by working summers in Montana as a U.S. Forest Service Firefighter. I have been on Type 1 and Type 2 hand crews, served time on a helitack crew, been an engine slug, and injured myself beyond repair as a Rookie Smokejumper in Missoula, Montana, and traveled the length and breadth of Western North America fighting wildfires. I may not have as many qualifications as some secret squirrels, but I almost certainly have less ego and better attitude.
In my opinion, this is a very good book, but must be read with the offical government report published in 1994 and the Fire Chonology Report published by the Fire Research Lab of Missoula in 1999, under the heading of "Research Paper RMRS-RP-9, Fire Behavior Associated with the 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado" This is available online at [...]
There is much that I now know that I was afraid to ask before. Much of what I had known has been from the offical report published in 1994, and from the little bit that I have heard in discussions around campfires. I personally know more than a few jumpers and have many as close, personal friends, and have been on fires with some of those who were survivors of Storm King, but have been loath to ask them about the incident, not knowing how deep or painful the scar might be. So, this book serves for me, as I am sure it will serve for other Wildland Firefighters, as "The Offical View From Ground Zero", the Author having done the painful task of asking the painful questions.
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Format: Hardcover
Like "The Perfect Storm" and "Into Thin Air", Maclean's book is a modern tale of young physically fit people whose lives are snuffed out by the forces of nature. This time, however, the victims engaged in the risk in order to help others, which makes their deaths all the more tragic. Maclean's account reads like a novel and it is obvious that he knows this material well. His moment by moment description of the firefighters' attempted escape as the flames bore down on them is breathtaking. Overall, an excellent and heartbreaking true adventure story.
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