Fire on the Mountain

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When, on the morning of July 3, 1994, the site of a forest fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado was wrongly recorded as taking place at South Canyon, it became the first of a series of seemingly small human errors that, three days later, led to the deaths of fourteen fire fighters, including four women. Fire on the Mountain sets out to answer three mysteries that surrounded the blaze: Why wasn't the fire, which could be seen clearly from an interstate highway, put out earlier? Why did Don Mackey, a smoke ...

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When, on the morning of July 3, 1994, the site of a forest fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado was wrongly recorded as taking place at South Canyon, it became the first of a series of seemingly small human errors that, three days later, led to the deaths of fourteen fire fighters, including four women. Fire on the Mountain sets out to answer three mysteries that surrounded the blaze: Why wasn't the fire, which could be seen clearly from an interstate highway, put out earlier? Why did Don Mackey, a smoke jumper who was already a legend in his own time, turn back to the fire after making his way to safety? And how could such a seasoned group of fire fighting professionals be caught off guard so badly?

With the aid of papers obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and dozens of interviews, Fire on the Mountain also takes a long, hard look at the official investigation that followed the fire and the divided conclusions of the investigative team. If this book is action/adventure at its best, it also offers deeply moving insights into the lives of the smoke jumpers, hot shots, and helitacks who fight forest fires and put their own well being on the line as a daily part of their jobs.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1992 Norman Maclean published Young Men and Fire, 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.--Daniel D. Liestman, Kansas State Univ. Lib., Manhattan Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Emily d'Aulaire
Today granite crosses stand where firefighters fell. Storm King Mountain has become a pilgrimage for family, friends, and the curious and the caring. But perhaps the finest monument is Maclean's book, which dramatically records the uncompromising power of fire and the extraordinary bravery of the men and women who do battle against it.
#151; Smithsonian
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 a 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, composed of elite "smoke jumpers," 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 smoke jumpers 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 thePublic 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. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780688144777
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/28/1999
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

John N. Maclean's Fire on the Mountain was an MPIBA best nonfiction title of 2000. A newspaper reporter and longtime student of wildfire, he is the author of Fire and Ashes and The Thirtymile Fire, and he also assis-ted in the posthumous publication of Young Men and Fire, a work of nonfiction by his father, Norman Maclean. He divides his time between Washington, D.C., and Montana.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The city of Grand junction, located at the confluence of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers, is the crossroads of western Colorado for trade, agriculture and government. The fertile river valley is ringed by flat-topped mesas, lonely, bleak and and in the best of times. In the summer Of 1994 the city's 38,000 residents and all of western Colorado, from the mountain resorts to the peach orchards around Grand junction, faced a severe drought. There had been little snowfall over the winter, and unusually hot, dry weather had followed in May and June. Only once every thirty or forty years did such events occur in combination-drier conditions in 19go had not lasted as long.

In anticipation of an outbreak of forest fires Christopher J. Cuoco, a National Weather Service forecaster from Denver, had been stationed in Grand junction at the Western Slope Coordination Center, a federal fire office located at the city's Walker Field airport. At 3:00 P.M. on Friday, July 1, 1994, Cuoco issued a Red Flag Watch to firefighters in western Colorado. Expect high winds, lightning and no rain, Cuoco told them, and added, "A high potential for large fire growth."

By six-thirty the next morning, Saturday, July 2, Cuoco had upgraded the watch to a Red Flag Warning, meaning that the chance of a major storm had become, for him, a certainty. In his new forecast, Cuoco told firefighters, "Stronger winds will come later this afternoon. Widely scattered thunderstorms with little or no rain. Wind gusts to forty miles an hour possible."

Cuoco's prediction joined a stream of drought-related warnings issued by the array of government agencies charged withforestfire suppression, from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to state, county and volunteer fire offices. The cautions ran a broad gamut: One federal safety officer reminded fire crews to drink plenty of water "and not so much sugar drinks"; another warned that a wind of only ten miles an hour could play havoc with fire in the thickets of scrub oak, pinyon pine and juniper in the high desert country around Grand junction.

All these levels of govemment-federal, state and county-had anticipated trouble early in the spring when several fires deliberately set to clear brush had burned out of control. After a series of meetings, the Bureau of Land Management, responsible for more acreage than any other agency, announced an aggressive policy of attacking all fires as soon as they were spotted. By the end of June, with precipitation at half normal levels and temperatures rising over the hundred-degree mark even in the mountains, virtually every forestry worker in Colorado knew that an electrical storm like the one Cuoco forecast could literally spark disaster.

The first bolt of lightning struck on July 2 in late morning, about 11:40. Before the day ended, more than fifty-six hundred strikes would follow, making this one of the worst lightning storms in the history of the state. Whatever rain it carried evaporated long before reaching ground. The storm arrived at Grand junction at midafternoon, rattling metal roofs, sending trash bins end over end and scooping bone-dry dirt and sand into an old fashioned, Depression-era dust storm.

At Walker Field airport, the wind sent stacks of tumbleweed hurtling along runways. The sky turned an eerie gray-brown. Cuoco rushed outside and began snapping photographs.

The thunderstorm swept through the Grand Valley of the Colorado River, fifty miles long and twenty miles wide. It continued east to the Book Cliffs, a line of mesas named for their resemblance to a shelf of books, and poured through a gap cut by the Colorado River, one of the nation's longest waterways and one of the most heavily used-for everything from electrical-power generation to float trips. It followed upriver a dozen miles on a twisting course through Debeque Canyon, barely wide enough to hold the river and the four lanes of Interstate 70, the fast new highway linking Denver and the western part of the state. Centuries of winds had carved the canyon's sandstone cliffs into a pattern of small, deep hollows called "honeycomb weathering," easily mistaken for swallows' nests.

The storm rumbled out of Debeque Canyon and onto a broad plain stretching eastward more than thirty miles to the beginning of the Rocky Mountains. Once again it kept on course with the river, following the Colorado to Battlement Mesa, a massive formation standing alone in the valley twenty miles beyond Debeque Canyon. There, in July 1976, three men had been killed battling a forest fire, the last such deaths in the state. Fresh growth had long since covered the bum scars, but for those who knew its history Battlement Mesa bore continuing witness to what can happen on a hot afternoon on a steep slope in the wake of a lightning storm.

From the mesa the storm had an open path to the Grand Hogback, a bristling hundred-mile-long ridge that runs at right angles to the Colorado River and marks the official western boundary of the Rocky Mountains. The storm cascaded over the low ridge, hardly breaking stride, and entered the final broadening of the valley. Ahead the mountains rose steeply, but the vegetation remained the scrubby Gambel oak and pinyon pine and juniper, or PJ, of the desert. The snowcapped peaks and alpine forests of picture-postcard Colorado lay farther east.

A dozen miles beyond the Grand Hogback, nearly ninety miles in all from Grand junction, the mountains came together in what appeared to be an unbroken front, though on closer inspection a narrow V could be seen barely wide enough for the Colorado River, I-70 and a set of railroad tracks. To the north of the Col

Fire on the Mountain . Copyright © by John Maclean. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2003

    Excellent Read

    This writer refuses to whitewash the errors made by many of those who fight wildfire and manage the fights -- endeavors that attract some folks with colossal egos that often clash and result in the deaths of the folks who fight these wildfires. I would say, before you consider putting those boots on, read this book and Fire and Ashes. You may think twice, although, to their credit, the no-one-is-at-fault attitude is giving way to a more frank appraisal of what went wrong when the young and brave die fighting these fires. Excellent book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2003

    A disservice to his father and firefighters

    Norman Maclean, himself a former firefighter and woodsman, wrote an excellent account of the Mann Gulch fire. His work was tempered by the distance of time, benefit of age, and experience in the woods. This is obvious through his interaction with the survivors and his search for what happened on that hill. In contrast, John Maclean's account of the South Canyon fire is riddled with accusations, contradicitions of his own statements and interpretations, and the generally muckraking tone. There is searching for truth and then there is searching for animus. I wish he had left this story to those who've spent a bit more time in boots than in Chicago.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 6, 2012

    This is a must read book.

    This is a must read book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2004

    Highly Recommended

    This book was a wonderful tribute to all of those who risk their lives for us. Unless you have been in their shoes, one cannot comprehend the risks and the dangers of this profession. Wonderful tribute to those who perished, and an eyeopener to those who could have prevented the trajedy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2003


    I think this book would give anybody a good look at what all goes on to fight a fire, even if it is only a small one. Most people already have high respect for firefighters, this will raise your respect exponentially!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2002

    One of my favorites...

    This truly outstanding volume satisfies from a journalistic standpoint, as well as just being a great read. Maclean's research was extensive and he interviewed virtually everyone who had anything to do with the tragedy on Storm King Mountain. He weaves this background material into one of the most compelling nonfictional narratives I've personally ever read. I could hardly put this book down. This book represents investigative reporting at its absolute best. In addition,it serves as a memorial to those who died on the mountain.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2000

    Gripping, touching account

    Fire On The Mountain is a very touching account of the fatal fire that claimed the lives of 14 firefighters on Storm King Mountain on July 6, 1994. Interviews and personal acounts are in depth giving a view into the personal insite of the firefigters on the mountain. The book also goes into the investigation of the fire as investigators try to find the true cause of the 14 deaths. Maclean does a great job of keeping the readers interest during the entire book. This book is going to be of great interest to those in the fire service as well as those who are just intersted in a great account of such a tradjic event in these firefigters and their family's lives. A definate must read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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