Mann Gulch – A Tale of Survival

In 1949, thirteen (out of a highly skilled team of sixteen men) died battling a relatively small blaze that turned deadly in Mann Gulch, Montana. Upon investigating the circumstances of why thirteen of the “smoke jumpers” died while only three lived, Norman Maclean wrote a book entitled “Young Men and Fire”, which is the true story account of that fateful expedition of the “smoke jumpers” - fire fighters who parachute into the back country to fight fires. Maclean found some startling and interesting facts. Mann Gulch is surrounded by steep canyon walls with the northern slope at a 75% incline. When the wind turned suddenly on the smoke jumpers, they were in a race with the fire up those steep walls. Unexpectedly, the fire started to spread much faster than anticipated. One of the amazing and notable things that Maclean discovered was that the thirteen who died had carried their tools - heavy poleaxes, saws, shovels and heavy back packs - while attempting to out run the fire up those steep walls. In other words, the thirteen had run as far as they could with all their equipment, even though that equipment was worse than useless in a race with the fire. Their inability to drop their heavy tools and packs ultimately prevented them from being able to outrun the fire. To these seasoned fire fighters, their tools were more than simple objects - they represented who they were, why they were there and what they were trained to do. Dropping their tools would have meant abandoning their knowledge, beliefs, training and experience. This might not seem like a hard choice to make to you, but because these specialized fire fighters hadn't been trained for such an unpredictable moment, they had no alternative models or maps for behaviour. In moments of uncertainty and imminent danger, clinging to the old "right" way might seem like a good idea... but more often than not, it is actually deadly. The three survivors of the blaze were forced to think outside the box and develop alternative methods of escaping the fire. Once they figured out they were no longer “fighting the fire” but were instead “trying to escape from it”, they realized they had to drop all of their useless equipment. One survivor used an innovative technique called the 'escape fire' where he took a match and lit a ring around him so that the fire would "jump" over him. When he tried to suggest it to the other men, they continued running up the steep slope because the 'escape fire' technique had not been part of their extensive training. Their inability to drop the tools and equipment that weren't working and seek new methods to escape is what ultimately led to them being engulfed by flames and smoke. My question to you is this: What are the poleaxes, shovels and backpacks you're currently running with? What are the tired, worn out strategies and tools which you are lugging around? What existing beliefs and models of behaviour do you need to drop in order for you to survive and prosper? What training, attitudes, decisions or experience needs to be abandoned in favour of a new, innovative approach? It has often been said that “the thinking that got you to here, won’t get you to there”. Never has the simplicity and wisdom of this statement been more poignant, than it is today. Those of you who adopt and learn the critical skills, tools and mind-set necessary to survive (and even thrive) will be the winners in all of this. But, this has always been true. Survivors and successful people triumph because they are flexible and willing to do whatever it takes to get the results they desire. New or changing circumstances always necessitate a new perspective or approach: The alternative, “doing the same thing over and over again” is the definition of insanity and can only lead to suffering, disappointment and pain.

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