Sunday, August 30, 1992 Section: Arts Page: 19



By Norman Maclean

University of Chicago Press, 301 pp., $19.95

ON AUG. 5, 1949, a crew of 15 United States Forest Service Smokejumpers stepped into the sky above a 60-acre fire in Mann Gulch just east of the Missouri River in a Montana wilderness area in the Helena National Forest. Within an hour, all but three of these young men (and a Forest Service fire guard who had been fighting the fire) were dead or fatally burned, the only members in the history of the elite fire-fighting outfit to die on the fire line.

'Young Men and Fire" is Norman Maclean's memoir, history, scientific analysis (he calls it a "fire report") and memorial of a fire he visited while it was still burning and stayed with all his life.

Maclean, author of the immensely popular "A River Runs Through It and Other Stories," did not begin writing until he was over 70 and retired from a distinguished career as a professor of English at the University of Chicago. And then he certainly took his time. "A River Runs Through It" is less than 250 pages and includes only three stories. But they are wonderful stories, full of eloquent descriptive detail and human insights touched with humor, breathing life into the country, characters and relationships of his youth in Montana. That was his fiction work.

Kindling a fire

''Young Men and Fire," Maclean's contribution to non- fiction, is an examination of the complex events that occurred in one hour of a very hot afternoon on a remote steep hillside in a Montana forest fire. He worked on the book for 12 years; he had thought about it for more than 25 years before that. The book was unfinished when Maclean died in 1990 at the age of 87. His publishers at the University of Chicago Press have put a good deal of work and thought into its publication, and it was well worth the work and the thought. There is a graph illustrating, during the first 30 years of their existence, the very real impact the Smokejumpers had on controlling small fires. There are anecdotes to fix the Mann Gulch environs in history (from Lewis and Clark to World War II). There are topographic maps of the Gates of the Mountains wilderness, the Mann Gulch fire area and wind directions in the gulch on the day of the fire. There is a short discussion on the history of the pulaski, pre-eminent hand tool of the forest firefighter. There are photographs and diagrams, charts and mathematical equations to help the reader understand, as Maclean struggled to understand, exactly what occurred in that remote time and place.

But what makes this a great book, as "A River Runs Through It" is a great book, is what Maclean has put of himself into it. Maclean is there on every page, and he has tried to get inside some of the people he writes about.

The foreman of the crew survived by starting an escape fire in the grass in front of the fire they were fleeing and lying down in the ashes as the main fire passed over him. Maclean strives to understand why no one followed his lead, to see how the father of one of the young men killed could blame the foreman (and be wrong), to explain how who the young men were influenced how they acted and where they ended in those last few minutes. He researches the practice of building an escape fire. (Mann Gulch was the first use known in the forest service, and the lucky foreman could be said to have invented it, except that James Fenimore Cooper refers to it in fiction in 1827, and Plains Indians used the technique in reality long before that.) He analyzes the relationship of the young men to the foreman and the nature of young men and foremen and the complexities of discipline and communication.

Guides to life

Jackson Burgess, the great professor of creative writing at Berkeley during the '60s and '70s, used to remind his students that great writing should teach the reader how to do something. In "A River Runs Through It," Maclean gives us enough vivid descriptive detail about fly fishing, horse packing and gyppo logging to give us the feeling that we might just know how it is done. In "Young Men and Fire," though there is much concrete detail about the behavior of fire and people, what Maclean is really teaching the reader is how to look at living and dying and how to remember both so that they matter.

Maclean writes about Harry T. Gisborne, a pioneer in forest- fire science who died of a heart attack in Mann Gulch the November after the fire while checking out (and proving wrong) some of his theories about fire behavior: "For a scientist, this is a good way to live and die, maybe the ideal way for any of us -- excitedly finding we were wrong and excitedly waiting for tomorrow to come so we can start over, get our new dope together, and find a Hypothesis Number One all over again." Maclean lived and wrote in this way, and in this book we are get to watch him doing it.

I am sorry I never ran into Maclean in the woods, or at the university (he was teaching English just a mile from where I went to high school; others in my class studied there). I wish he could have met my son (who's working now on a trail crew in a Montana National Forest, elite and thinking himself immortal like the Smokejumpers of Mann Gulch). I am sorry he left us only two books. But I am glad that he turned to writing rather than shuffleboard when he retired. Now he and we and those young men have a piece of immortality that comes only in great books.

PICTURE: Photos (2)