A Divine Fire Escape

In the Eastern churches, the service of matins includes several odes presenting images of salvation from the Old Testament. There is an ode on Moses and Israel escaping Egypt through crossing the Red Sea, another on Jonah’s three days in the belly of the whale and escape from the depths of the sea, and two odes about the three young men in the fiery furnace who miraculously escape. In all three stories, an escape is accomplished following a trial in a place of danger: in crossing the waters of the Red Sea, in the belly of the whale in the depths of the sea, and in the flames of the fiery furnace, where suddenly we find “four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods” (Dan. 3:25). There is Christology in all three stories.

I was especially reminded of the fiery furnace and the escape of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego many years ago by the title of a book that had nothing to do with the book of Daniel: Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean (author of A River Runs Through It and Other Stories).Maclean tells, as the subtitle puts it, A True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire, a tragic tale of both death and survival.

While I’ve always connected the book’s title with Daniel’s three young men, it was not until years later that I realized that its story offers an image that has deepened my understanding of how Christ’s death opened the way for salvation. A dramatic act in the story of the fire is an image of salvation, that is, of Christ’s saving death. Moreover, the responses of the young men in the story to that act parallel our responses to Christ. But first, I must summarize the story.

The Blow-Up

In the late afternoon of August 5, 1949, fifteen men parachuted into the Montana wilderness to put out a newly spotted forest fire. Most, save the foreman, Wagner “Wag” Dodge, and the second-in-command, William Hellman, were college boys from around the country. They floated down into Mann Gulch, which empties into the Missouri River. Next to Mann is Meriwether Gulch, named for Meriwether Lewis, who had camped there on July 19, 1805, during the Lewis and Clark journey of discovery. The fifteen smoke-jumpers, as they were called, had their own journey of discovery before them as they shed their chutes in the gulch next door.

After gathering themselves and their equipment, they started downhill toward the flames at the bottom of the V-shaped gulch. But the fire suddenly exploded into what is known as a “blow-up.” The crew was potentially threatened by a fire that had jumped to their side of the gulch —and it was now running uphill in their direction, driven by strong winds and fueled by dry, waist-high grass.

The foreman, Dodge, ordered his crew to hurry back up the hill, but, because of its steepness, to do so on a more manageable angle of ascent, away from the fire. As the flames raced through the dry grass and brush towards them, the men were ordered to drop their equipment and run for their lives. Two of the fastest boys, Rumsey and Sallee, abandoned the angular path of ascent and headed straight up the slope, thinking they could make it to the top of the ridge in time and escape the fire.

The Remedy

Then Dodge quickly reassessed the size and speed of the fire, the distance his men had run, the distance the fire had run in chasing them, and the distance his men had yet to go to reach safety. He realized that he and the remaining twelve men behind him wouldn’t make it out on their own legs.

Dodge then did something neither he nor anyone else in the forest service had been trained to do. He stooped down, struck a match, and lit another fire in the grass. As crew members ran past him, he called out, “This way!” —beckoning them into the fire that he had started. Dodge then “walked through the flames toward the head of the fire into the inside and continued to holler at everyone as they went by.” Because of the smoke, he couldn’t see clearly, but there seemed to be a slight pause —then the voice of the second-in-command boomed out, “To hell with that! I’m getting out of here,” and the others ran with Hellman away from Dodge in the fire. They thought he had “gone nuts.”

Alone, Dodge, having entered the fire he had set, then fell to the ground. He knew he had to lie down close to the ground near the flames in hot ashes where there might be some oxygen left. He later said that when the main fire passed over and around him, he was lifted off the ground two or three times. “This lasted approximately 5 minutes.” Dodge was saved through an “escape fire.”


James M. Kushiner is the Director of Publications for The Fellowship of St. James and the former Executive Editor of Touchstone.

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