For our God is a consuming fire. Hebrews 12:29 (NASB)
It was a very hot summer in 1949 and wildfires were rampant in the state of Montana. It did not take much to start a fire, nor for a small fire to quickly swell into a blazing inferno. However, the resources required to put out such fires were in low supply and high demand. Firefighters were often brought in from other regions to assist in the relief efforts, and this summer was no different.
On August 4th 1949, a routine lightning storm passed through the southwest part of Montana, and new fires were reported from numerous sources. Firefighters were dispatched immediately, but unfortunately not all of the fires were discovered right away. On August 5, 1949, Robert Wagner Dodge, a 33 year old smokejumper with the U.S. Forest Service, better known as “Wag” Dodge, received an emergency call at his post in Missoula, Montana for immediate assistance. A C-47 was quickly loaded and dispatched with Wag and a group of other smokejumpers. Not long after takeoff the firefighters made a successful jump and landed safely in the Mann Gulch river valley of Helena National Forest, in the western part of Montana. When the smokejumpers landed and gathered all of their gear, the fire was on one side of Mann Gulch and the smokejumpers were on the other, with only the gulch between the men and the menacing fire.
Most people know that fire requires three essential elements in order to burn, and those elements are heat, fuel and oxygen. In Mann Gulch that day, there were plenty of all three. Covered with dry grass and pine needles, there was already an abundance of heat in the area, and when the winds shifted, an excess of oxygen caused the fire to burn wildly. Due to the growing blaze, and the unpredictable nature of fire itself, Wag made the command decision to move the men down the gulch towards the Missouri River.
Suddenly however, the fire blew up and crossed over to the side of the Gulch where Wag and his men were standing. From Wag’s vantage point he could see that they were blocked in, and there was no possible way to make it to the river. The only conceivable way of escape was to move back up the gulch to the ridgeline, so Wag signaled to his men to reverse their direction and go the other way. Dropping their heavy gear, the men could suddenly see the fast approaching fire and they quickly withdrew up the gulch towards the ridgeline.
The problem however, is that heat rises, and there was a surplus of fuel, heat and oxygen in Mann Gulch that day. Therefore, the firefighters were running for their lives against a fire that was moving significantly faster than they were. Nonetheless, with the ridgeline now visible, the men continued to run. It was at that point however that Wag Dodge did the unthinkable… unlike the other men, Wag stopped running.
Realizing that he did not have the strength or the energy to fight the flames or outrun the fire, Wag simply stopped trying. With the vicious wall of fire approaching, Wag Dodge pulled out a match, lit it quickly and threw it on the ground in front of him. As the small fire set by Wag began to quickly spread, he called out to his men to stop running and to do the same thing… but they either could not hear his instructions or did not listen. Wag however stepped into the center of the burned out area, poured water on a rag to protect his face, and prostrated himself in the middle of the scorched ground. While the others tried to outrun the fire, Wag prepared for whatever would happen next.
Immediately, Wag was surrounded by aggressive flames and was all but burned by the penetrating heat. However, just as quickly as the fire arrived, it hurriedly passed over and around Wag and continued up the gulch. Through the smoke, Wag was not able to see exactly what happened next, but it soon became clear that the fire overtook thirteen of the other firefighters, who attempted to outrun the flames. For nearly a week the fire continued to burn, and thousands of acres were consumed. When the wildfire was finally contained, crosses were erected to memorialize the sacrifice made by the fallen firefighters in the gulch that day. The cluster of crosses are still there today, and act as a reminder of what happened when the thirteen firefighters tried to outrun the fire.
As Christians, we too are standing amidst a roaring fire, an inferno of worldliness that races toward us with fierce abandon. As these lethal firestorms swell around us, we all have a decision to make. We can try to outrun the blaze, do nothing and be consumed by the flames, or we can light a match and seek safety in the center of God’s will. Like the crosses found in Mann Gulch, the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified, should serve as a reminder for all of us that we cannot outrun the flames. The only way to withstand the approaching inferno, is to light a match, and step into God’s will, the all-consuming fire.