Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire

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9780688144777: Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire

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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Review:

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

From the Back Cover:

In 1994, a wildfire on Colorado's Storm King Mountain was wrongly identified at the outset as occurring in South Canyon.

This unintentional, seemingly minor human error was the first in a string of mistakes that would be compounded into one of the greatest tragedies in the annals of firefighting. Before it was done, fourteen courageous firefighters—men and women, hotshots, smoke jumpers, and helicopter crew—would lose their lives battling the deadly so-called South Canyon blaze.

John N. Maclean's award-winning national bestseller Fire on the Mountain is a stunning reconstruction of the killer conflagration and its aftermath—a page-turning true adventure of nature at its most unforgiving, and a powerful, indelible portrait of a unique breed of heroes who regularly and without question place their lives on the line.

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