MANN GULCH | By Keith J. Cunningham

Excerpted from The Road Less Stupid

On August 5, 1949, thirteen men died battling a relatively small blaze that turned deadly at Mann Gulch. Upon investigating the circumstances of why most of the smoke jumpers (firefighters who parachute into the back country to fight fires) died while three lived, the U.S. Forest Service came to some startling conclusions.

The lessons they learned sixty-five years ago are universal and as relevant today as they were then, regardless of the “firefighting” we are doing.

Mann Gulch is a remote canyon surrounded by 1,200-foot cliffs in Montana’s Helena National Forest. Many of these canyon walls are steep and treacherous to navigate in normal conditions, but the northern cliff is particularly difficult because of the 76° incline.

A small fire got started in the backwoods at Mann Gulch and necessitated calling in the smoke jumpers to combat the blaze before it got out of control. As the sixteen men were battling the fire, the wind suddenly shifted, and the fire expanded to 3,000 acres in a matter of minutes. The escalation and shift in direction trapped the smoke jumpers against the steep north face.

The smoke jumpers were in a race for their lives. To survive, they had to climb a nearly vertical northern wall of the cliff faster than the rapidly encroaching fire. One of the amazing things the Forest Service discovered was that the thirteen men who died had carried their cumbersome tools -poleaxes, saws, shovels, as well as very heavy backpacks -while attempting to outrun the fire up the face of the cliff. Even though their equipment was worse than useless in a footrace up the mountain, and it ultimately slowed and exhausted them, they had been trained to keep their equipment with them at all times. They literally died with their backpacks on.

For these firefighters, their tools represented who they were, why they were there, and what they were trained to do. Dropping their tools meant abandoning their existing knowledge, training, and experience. Their identity was at stake.

In hindsight, it seems obvious they made a catastrophic mistake in judgement, but because they hadn’t been trained to think about outrunning a fire, they had no alternative models for behavior.

Here it is on a bumper sticker: When the environment radically changes and you are confronted with moments of uncertainty and danger, clinging to the old “right” way might seem like a good idea, but it can frequently be deadly.

The three survivors of the blaze-one of whom was the foreman, Wagner “Wag” Dodge-were men who, when forced to rethink the real problem they were facing (in real time), came up with a solution. The problem was not how to put out or control the fire but rather how to escape from it and survive.

Dodge used a technique now known as an “escape fire,” which was widely used by the plains Indians when trapped in a similar situation, but which had never been taught or used by the Forest Service.

Dodge struck a match and purposefully lit a ring of fire around himself. The fire he started burned the surrounding grass, providing him with a safe area in which to lie down. Since the area he burned had no remaining flammable grass, the main fire that was bearing down on him “jumped” over him and saved his life.

In the chaos and confusion of this tragic event, Dodge attempted to show his new idea to his fellow smoke jumpers, but they couldn’t see how a burned patch of dirt was a solution for surviving the rapidly encroaching wall of flames, so they continued running up the steep slope.

Here it is on a bumper sticker: New circumstances always require new skills and tools, fresh training, innovative solutions, superior team members. The alternative (relying on past answers) is often a prescription for suffering and failure to survive.

Here it is on another bumper sticker: Sometimes the problem we started out to solve mutates. If we miss the shift, we will try to solve the new problem using solutions for the old problem. Chances are, those old solutions for the previous problem are useless.

Thinking Time

  • What is the real problem I am facing and exactly how is this problem different form the one I thought I had? Or used to have?
  • What are the poleaxes, shovels, and backpacks I’ve been lugging around that are no longer useful in helping me solve my immediate problem?
  • What are the tired, worn-out strategies and plans that are no longer supporting us to solve the problem we face?
  • What are the existing models of behavior we need to drop because they no longer work?
  • What existing knowledge, training, or experience needs to be abandoned?
  • What are the new, fresh ideas and solutions we need to create to get us past this problem and back on track to our desired outcomes?
  • Survivors and successful people are always learning, innovating, and adjusting. If this statement is true, what do we need to learn and where do we need to adjust our performance to succeed?
  • Who around me is screaming an alternative solution, but I am ignoring them because I don’t see the problem or need to shift strategies?
  • Under the broad heading “What got me here won’t get me there,” who do I need on my team, who is excess baggage slowing me down, and what do we need to start doing differently?

NOW…Go Think! You will thank me later.