Plane returns to honor Montana firefighters killed in 1949

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Montana Daily Life

Spectators use cell phones to capture Miss Montana fly over and drop wreaths Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in the Gates of the Mountains in Montana. The plane dropped twelve wreaths commemorating the twelve smokejumpers who died fighting the Mann Gulch Fire 70 years ago. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The plane that dropped 15 smokejumpers into one of the most infamous firefighting tragedies in U.S. history once again flew over the rugged Montana gulch along the Missouri River on Monday to mark the 70th anniversary of the fire.

The C-47 now called Miss Montana dropped 13 wreaths, one for each firefighter killed in the blaze that caused the U.S. Forest Service to rethink its fire training, safety and research. Dozens of people gathered upstream from the site and took photos of the flyover.

"It's pretty moving," Harold Hoem, a former smokejumper and Helena resident told NBC Montana . "Especially when you're up on the ridge looking down where the fire was and thinking how fast thing happened."

On Aug. 5, 1949, the same plane carried 15 smokejumpers based in Missoula who parachuted into the gulch to fight a small fire that had been caused by a lightning strike. They were joined by a 16th firefighter, a fire guard for the Helena National Forest whose post was nearby.

The wind picked up and caused the fire to spread to thousands of acres in minutes, cutting off the firefighters' escape route to the river and forcing them to drop their gear and run a steep slope to the ridge in a race for their lives.

Twelve of the smokejumpers and the fire guard died after the fire overtook them. Two smokejumpers made it over the ridge, while the foreman, Wagner Dodge, lit an escape fire around him and survived by laying in its ashes as the main fire passed by him.

After the tragedy, the U.S. Forest Service designed new training techniques and implemented new safety measures for its firefighters. It also prompted an emphasis on fire research and studying fire behavior.

The Mann Gulch fire was memorialized by the Montana author Norman Maclean in his book "Young Men and Fire."

The plane also participated in commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day in England, France and Germany earlier this year.