by James Merritt

This content is part of a series.

Take the Heat (2 of 4)
Series: Out of Options
James Merritt
Daniel 3


1. Wagner Dodge was a professional firefighter known as a ''smokejumper.'' Smokejumpers fly right into the center of forest fires and parachute in hoping to stop the flames. Dodge and his crew jumped into a plane to fight a fire at Mann Gulch in Central Montana. As they parachuted in, it looked like a pretty normal operation. They headed single file down the gorge toward the Missouri River to take on the fire. He left his men in the middle of the gorge to scout what was ahead.

2. As he got within 100 feet of the fire there were three things that would change his life forever. The fire was much worse than what he had seen overhead and it was causing the fire to move a lot faster than he realized. Second, the winds were blowing the fire above the gulch where he left his men all the way up to the ridge cutting off their escape route. As he ran back to his men and ordered them to retreat, he realized that this gulch was in what in known as a transitional zone. As you can imagine that is not good.

3. A forest fire rarely moves at more than 4 or 5 miles an hour which smokejumpers can always outrun, but Mann Gulch was part of a transitional zone - this is an area where mountain forests transition to level plains and prairie grass. In this case, it was shoulder high grass, bone dry, and ready to explode when hit with the flame. Every firefighter knows - you can't outrun a prairie grass fire. He knew within a minute or two he and his men would be completely engulfed in the fire.

4. Sap, in a few scattered trees was superheating and exploding like bullets going off everywhere. Smoke was as thick as fog and ashes and embers were falling like snow. There was no escape. Dodge and his 15 men were trapped. It looked like the only options available were stand and burn up, turn and burn up, run and burn up. They had about 60 seconds to live and Dodge thought, ''I'm out of options ...

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