Opinion | How to prevent deadly wildfires? Stop fighting fires.

A photograph from August 1949 shows the extent of the Mann Gulch fire near Helena, Montana, which claimed the lives of 12 smoke jumpers and a ranger as a wall of flames rushed up a steep slope.  The lightning-triggered fire burned more than 3,000 acres and required more than 400 firefighters to control it.  (AP photo)
A photograph from August 1949 shows the extent of the Mann Gulch fire near Helena, Montana, which claimed the lives of 12 smoke jumpers and a ranger as a wall of flames rushed up a steep slope. The lightning-triggered fire burned more than 3,000 acres and required more than 400 firefighters to control it. (AP photo)

MANN GULCH, Mont. — We went with ghosts.

On the western edge of Montana’s vast prairies, the meandering Missouri River leaves the lofty catastrophe of the Rocky Mountains for an ocean of grass. Traveling upstream more than 200 years ago, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark compared the sudden change in geology to a gateway from one world to another and named the passage Gates of the Mountains.

Just above the gates is a small, sharp cleft in the mountains called Mann Gulch. It can be reached from the nearby state capital, Helena, in about half an hour by car and a short speedboat ride. Yet the canyon feels a world away, silent except for the breeze blowing through pine trees.

An afternoon before a lifetime – cross that out; If lifetimes shared a length we never would have gotten here. The afternoon was 73 years ago, roughly the Bible’s span of 30 and 10. On a hot August day in 1949, lightning struck a slope in Mann Gulch. By dinner the next day, 11 firefighters were dead and two died from their burns. A life for her was as short as 19 years and no more than 28.

My friends and I had been reading and discussing a book together, Young Men and the Fire, in which the author, Norman Maclean, struggled with his famous eloquence to understand the how and why. By going there and walking with the spirits, we found a first set of answers with little effort. That breeze I mentioned in the pines? It was very variable, both in direction and speed. On that fateful day, a wind shift blew flames from one side of the gorge to the other, blocking firefighters’ route to the river. Then the wind pushed the fire up the canyon toward them.

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The why of the tragedy was told in the steep incline and loose rock at the top of the gorge. Where the trees gave way to long, dry grass, we felt the almost futile escape in a chaos of blinding smoke, failing muscles, gasping lungs, and slipping feet. Two of the 16 made a lucky decision to break straight uphill to the towering ridge, where they narrowly escaped into the next gorge. A man somehow had the presence of mind to start another fire and lie in his ashes; By the time it reached this spot, it was low on fuel, the main fire going past either side of its infernal lifeboat, then rushing forward to attack and consume the others, one at a time.

If we looked very carefully, in the billowing grass we could find the markings placed where each man had fallen. A teenager, Henry Thol, made it the furthest, and from the spot of his death we saw the head of the ravine maybe another quarter mile away. Had it waved at him, or had it seemed hopelessly far away? In large spaces, the distance is deceptive.

A simpler how and a deeper why haunt Mann Gulch and are still relevant today. Those lives were lost because the men were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the reason they were there is because we’re fighting too many wildfires. Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem and essential to wilderness health. Walking with the spirits means recognizing the futility of fighting a fire in this remote place and being repelled by the hubris of those who believe that humans can and should control nature.

Where the gorge meets the river, a sign proclaims, “Lessons learned from this tragic event continue to influence wilderness firefighting.” But all these years later, with lives lost time and time again in similar circumstances, state and federal agencies continue to give Spending billions on fighting wildfires while paying lip service to enlightened fire management in comparison.

Fire is nature’s way of renewing the wilderness by eliminating excess growth and dead fuel. People can deal with wildfires in two ways: by doing the cleanup themselves, using work teams, and performing controlled burns; or by allowing remote forest fires to do their work unhindered. Artificially preventing the necessary work of wildfires only makes future fires worse by feeding them more fuel.

Climate change is widely blamed for the record wildfires of recent decades, and it is undoubtedly a factor. But for more than a century we’ve held the idea that the only good fire is a fire that’s out, and along the way our wilderness has filled with combustible fuels. Fires get bigger and move faster when there’s more to burn.

Enlightened managers from the Forest Service and other agencies are coming to a new approach, but they have a steep hill to climb in public opinion. Maybe it’s time to update Smokey Bear: only you can prevent firefighter deaths.

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