Fire on the Mountain by John N. Maclean

This is the 18th book I’ve read this year, and easily the most affecting.

I try not to lead with what somebody’s dad did before them, respecting (for example) Joe Hill’s desire to live outside of Stephen King’s considerable shadow, but this one is just too close to its forebear. John N. Maclean is the son of Norman Maclean, who wrote the absolutely earthshattering 1992 book Young Men and Fire about the Mann Gulch fire of 1949 and the tragic deaths of thirteen wildland firefighters there. This book, Fire on the Mountain (1999), does a similar job of rumination on a markedly similar event, the 1994 South Canyon fire, and the deaths of fourteen wildland firefighters. The two events and the two books are too parallel for me to avoid noting this context up front.

Fire on the Mountain is riveting, suspenseful even though the reader knows the outcome from the start. It is better (or worse, if you like) than a horror novel in its pervasive sense of foreboding and doom.

The realization came to Cuoco that the front would strike with almost no warning. Half the fires in western Colorado could explode, and if someone didn’t warn firefighters, they could be caught in harm’s way.

At minutes past noon the main front provided the final confirmation, sweeping into Grand Junction with sudden winds just as the lightning storm had four days earlier. For Cuoco this was ‘an adrenaline-pushing, severe weather condition,’ the same as a tornado warning.

Because this is nonfiction – these are real lives lost – it carries a little extra weight. And there’s just something about fire and, I submit, wildland fire in particular, and the special bravery (or foolhardiness?) and undeniable toughness of the firefighters who venture against it… something especially elemental, romantic, compelling. It makes for fine literature and tempts us to neverending consideration. Maclean’s writing focuses on those elemental forces at work, both natural and human ones. This is in part an investigative work, an attempt to figure out what happened out there – what went wrong, what might have been preventable, and who (if anyone) might be to blame. There were investigations into the South Canyon fire, and attempts to assign blame, and Maclean is hesitant to crucify anyone, but he does wind up trying to correct the record, easing blame in certain quarters (the firefighters themselves) and offer a little more in others (management staff and agencies). He doesn’t get judgmental til the final pages (and even then I don’t mean this as a criticism; he’s here, after all, to make a judgment), at which point it felt perhaps a little jarring to slide into that tone. But he also made good arguments throughout – by the time Maclean begins to assign blame, his points are well proven.

It is a difficult book to read, emotionally, and yet so propulsive that it was hard to turn away from, too. There was one night in particular when I had to force myself to put it down and get to bed before midnight (on a school night!), knowing that that would be best for me (as reader as well as teacher) and for my impression of the book.

I’m deeply impressed and moved. I will say, though, that it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Young Men and Fire, at least for me and according to my memory of that earlier book (which I read nearly ten years ago). The first I recall having more zoomed-out, existential-philosophy-level meditation to it. The religious imagery of the stations of the cross and the relentless focus on the firefighters’ final moments lent it a mythic quality. (You will rarely find me praising a book for its religious imagery.) There was something magical there. This book is excellent; but it remains a little closer to earth, as a work of thoughtful investigative journalism and compassionate remembrance of lives lost. I had forgotten, though, that Young Men and Fire was published posthumously, with John Maclean’s involvement, so that’s an interesting point.

Hard to read, but so worth it.


Rating: 8 steps.

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