The True Story of the South Canyon Fire

Fire on the MountainFrom 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, piñon 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. ... Nine of the deaths were hotshots from Prineville, Oregon. 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.

From Amazon:  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 such as the Forest Service and the BLM reacts to these flare-ups as if going to war - and in theory, the coordination and communication ensure 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.

From Library Journal:  In 1992 Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, was published - an account of the deadly 1949 Mann Gulch fire in Montana. Two years later the horror was relived when 14 firefighters, including four women, died when a fire blew up on Storm King Mountain in Colorado. Maclean's son John, a former reporter and editor for the Chicago Tribune, now writes his own account of the fatal Colorado fire. While lacking the urgency of his late father's work (the elder Maclean revealed that he was dying and was thus rushing to complete his investigation), this is nonetheless a gripping account of a more recent tragedy that probably could have been avoided. The benefits of hindsight notwithstanding, Maclean unravels a host of lost opportunities, snafus, and human failings that combined with horrific consequences. Expect high demand for this moving and gripping account of human tragedy, as it will be heavily promoted. Recommended for public and academic libraries.

From AudioFile:  On July 3, 1994, a severe fire raged on Storm King Mountain in Colorado. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Land Management did not have an accurate location for this fire, and some devastating misjudgments resulted in several deaths. John Maclean's research into this tragedy took him nearly 50,000 miles to interview a multitude of people connected with the fire. His performance reveals a man deeply touched by the tragic events and by the people whose lives have never been the same. His respect for the firefighters is passionate, and his compassionate depictions of their efforts is touching. This is an important and well-reported account of a disastrous event in the history of Colorado.

From Booklist:  Maclean, a recently retired journalist, collects all the details in hope of discerning the truth behind the deaths of 14 firefighters in a forest conflagration in 1994. Its similarity to the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949, which Maclean's father Norman memorialized in the admirable Young Men and Fire (1992), whose lessons imbue the culture of the famed smokejumpers, makes the recent tragedy the more baffling. ... Maclean forges the chain of causation with the first link, the welter of federal agencies assigned to fire duty in the West. They had to decide to which of the small blazes in Colorado to commit their smokejumpers and hotshots. One was visible to homeowners, who became the unwitting second link by clamoring that it be extinguished. Meanwhile, the third link was approaching - a weather front with winds that could stoke a blaze into an inferno. Maclean combines clinical detachment with solemn engagement with the firefighters' fate for a finely wrought factual and emotive record.

From Kirkus Reviews:  A hellish travelogue inside a murderous wildfire. John Maclean, a retired writer and editor for the Chicago Tribune, labors under a long shadow: his father was Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It and the less-well-known Young Men and Fire, an account of another man-killing wildfire that raged a half century ago. Maclean the younger's prose lacks something of the elder's studied lyricism, but he has a tested reporter's punch. In this narrative, he looks into a fire that began, innocently enough, on the side of southwestern Colorado's Storm King Mountain on the morning of July 3, 1994. Other fires were burning that day along the Colorado River, brought on by a series of lightning storms, and this one went ignored for a time - and more dangerously, was mislocated, a dispatcher having placed it on a nearby mountain. This was, Maclean writes, but the first of a series of mistakes that would lead the crew that eventually went in to fight the fire three days later to approach the fire incorrectly. The crew was caught in a maelstrom of flames when the wind shifted and the fire changed course. Fourteen of its members - ten men and four women - burned to death, and later crews of smokejumpers found the bodies "so badly burned that dental records had to be consulted to make positive identifications.'' The fire, Maclean writes, proved to be an embarrassment to the poorly coordinated federal agencies charged with fighting it, and it was an expensive one at that:  the fire, Maclean records, cost $1,689,119 to put out, and "the largest single bill was an additional $1,784,989 for payments to the families of the 14 victims under the Public Safety Officer's Benefits Act of 1949'' - a sum, he adds, that amounts to $127,499 per dead firefighter. Maclean's carefully crafted exposé honors those dead.

From Joyce Meskis, owner, Tattered Cover Bookstore:  This book is totally engrossing. The reader experiences the gamut of emotional response:  the intellectual stimulation of plotting the complicated maneuvers of firefighting; an understanding of the rush of adventure; foreboding; alarm; horror; and a deep, deep, deep sadness. ... Long after finishing the book, I continue to be haunted by its detail, its humanity and its message.

From Washington Post Book World:  One of the very best writers to deal with the American West.

From The Rocky Mountain News:  For readers, not firefighters, there's only one lesson:  Read every book written by either Maclean. Savoring a book this true, no matter how grisly the topic, is a pleasure.

From David Frey, High Country News:  I was a rookie reporter at the Glenwood Post when the Storm King Mountain fire erupted. When the school bus of Oregon's Prineville Hotshots arrived to knock down the fire, I didn't even know the mountain's name. I snapped photos and jotted down interviews. The laughter that flowed so readily is frozen in a moment when they were utterly unaware of what awaited them. Now, Fire on the Mountain paints a vivid portrait of that fire. Assembling more than a dozen Freedom of Information Act requests and scores of interviews with survivors, investigators and family members, John N. Maclean provides an intimate view of the fireline. He tells the story from the perspective of firefighters who were there. His attention to detail is what makes Fire on the Mountain difficult to put down. Maclean honors the 14 men and women who died on Storm King - and those who survive them - by telling their tale and making their lives tangible. Maclean's work is not just investigative journalism. It is a memorial.

From Larry Haftl, Wildland Firefighter Magazine:  As much as anyone could, Maclean has managed to get the whole story. He has also managed to tell it in a compelling and understandable way. Be forewarned:  once you start reading this book it is very hard to put down. He is able to provide the information that people have wanted for the last five years, the kind of information that can save other lives. Fire on the Mountain is a must-read.

From Kelly Andersson, Wildland Firefighter Magazine:  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.