It surprises me to write, finally, that it’s raining. Not a hard rain but a steady one. This morning I swam in it because I was going to get wet anyway and I loved doing my lengths from the little trio of cedars on one end of the area I swim from to the single cedar at the other end, stroking on my back, my face damp with lake water and with soft rain. I was thinking of fire. The news is full of evacuation notices, new danger zones, highway closures. The images coming out of the hot spots are terrifying. While I was swimming, I was thinking of a song, “Cold Missouri Waters“, written by James Keelaghan and part of his Recent Future album, released in 1995. It’s about the 1949 Mann Gulch fire, in the Gates of the Wilderness area in Montana. The story of the fire, the tragic deaths of 13 firefighters, and the aftermath, is beautifully documented in Norman Maclean’s magisterial Young Men and Fire, published in 1992.
I can’t remember if I came to the song because of the book or vice-versa but I certainly knew of both in the mid-1990s. The song is written from the perspective of Wag Dodge, the foreman of the team fighting the fire and it will make you cry. You will think of the young men burned to death and the difficult legacy of Dodge’s decision to create an escape fire to offer his team their best chance of surviving a sudden blow up, trapping them on a slope.
I am thinking of the men and women fighting the fires in this province, and elsewhere, and hoping that the weather changes, and beyond that, that we somehow get a grip, take serious measures to change the way we are living on this planet. And I’m going to re-read Young Men and Fire. I remember how beautiful the prose, how lyrical, and how devastating the narrative as we follow the team into the gulch, knowing (because of our historical perspective) the outcome. The story is Shakespearean in its scope, forensic in its attention to fire science and wind behaviour. It wasn’t published until after Maclean’s death and in many ways it’s his elegy as well as a memorial for the 13 men who died and for Wag Dodge whose decision to create an escape fire might have saved their lives if they’d followed him into its circle.
The survivors say they weren’t panicked, and something like that is probably true. Smokejumpers are selected for being tough, but Dodge’s men were very young and, as he testified, none of them had been on a blowup before and they were getting exhausted and confused. The world roared at them—there was no safe place inside and there was almost no outside. By now they were short of breath from the exertion of their climbing and their lungs were being seared by the heat. A world was coming where no organ of the body had consciousness but the lungs.