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Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire Paperback – August 29, 2000
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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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This books fills in a lot of the back stories and firefighter biographies that are not present in the two South Canyon incident reports. It certainly doesn't answer all the questions about the fire--they likely exist in the ten thousand pages of reference material cited by Maclean at the end of the book--but it's certainly worth reading for anyone looking for more insight into the incident.
Written in a nice prose style, Maclean builds suspense throughout the first five chapters, even though I already knew what the final outcome of the fire was. It put an ache in my gut more than once as Maclean described the everyday activities and fateful chance decisions of the firefighters 24 to 48 hours before their deaths. The prose isn't perfect: On more than one occasion, Maclean refers to previous wildland incidents (such as Mann Gulch) in a choppy fashion in an attempt to relate it to South Canyon. The attempt is probably lost on the casual reader. References like that only made sense to me because I've studied the fires (or took the time to look them up while I was reading the book). The obligatory photos in the center of the book are in black and white (hence the -1 star) and aren't very useful when it comes time to understanding movement in the last minutes of the firefighters' lives. To get useful pictures, the reader will need to download one of the official reports, which will have much more detailed reference photographs.
The book provides a nice level of detail that allows me to study the leadership decisions and risk management associated with the fire while providing useful insight into the emotional side of the tragedy.
Maclean's research was complete and meticulous. He compiles his work into an astounding, captivating narrative that draws the reader along as the tragic events unfold on Storm King.
I felt as if I were there on the west flank line with the Prineville hotshots and the smoke jumpers. As I read this compelling book, I felt as if I'd known each of the victims for many, many years. I could actually feel the superheated air and smell the toxic gases coming off the blowup.
Along with a gripping narrative, Maclean incorporates analysis of events and decisions made prior to, during, and after the tragedy. This, again, is based on hours of interviews and meticulous research.
His reconstruction of the final moments of each of the victims was very benifical as well.
I've never been to Storm King Mountain, but after reading this truly exceptional book, I plan to go. I didn't know any of the victims or people involved either, but after reading John Maclean's exceptional book I feel as if I were there.
Buy this book, read it, cherish it, be moved by it.
It is a lasting memorial to those who died on the mountain.