Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Teaching with Catastrophe: Topographic Map Interpretation and the Physical Geography of the 1949 Mann Gulch, Montana Wildfire

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Teaching with Catastrophe: Topographic Map Interpretation and the Physical Geography of the 1949 Mann Gulch, Montana Wildfire

Article excerpt


Topographic map interpretation is typically taught by "imaginary landscape" or "classic terrain" approaches. This paper details how a "catastrophic approach" involving the August 1949 Mann Gulch, Montana wildfire may be used to teach topographic map interpretation in a university-level Introduction to Physical Geography course. The Mann Gulch wildfire erupted from lightning-struck trees to a blowup that killed twelve smokejumpers and one fire and recreation guard as it burned 3000 acres in ten minutes. Two smokejumpers survived by outrunning the fire and one lived by lying in the ashes of his escape fire. The wildfire and its tragic outcome were the culmination of topography, fuels, weather, and human response to calamity. The mix of topographic map interpretation as well as physical geography questions in multiple-choice, explanation, and calculation formats target key steps taken by the fire crew over a ~2 hour period. This approaches' effectiveness stems from its mental and emotional involvement of students as they holistically analyze the landscape and the firefighter's actions within a very real and dynamic setting. Variations of the exercise have been successfully used in three different courses over the past eight years. Numerous other examples of catastrophe could be used to enhance topographic map interpretation in various geography and geology courses.


Topographic maps form the spatial "base" for much of what is taught in physical geography and physical geology. Topographic map interpretation, typically involving scale, coordinate systems, direction, aspect, distance, contour line principles, elevation, slope gradient, and slope morphology, is thus a key component in the education and training of geographers and geologists.

Topographic map interpretation is taught in a variety of approaches including: constructing topographic models (Tucker, 2001); drawing contour lines on clay or rock models (Miller et al., 2000); creating topographic maps of small mounds (Fife, 1995); making topographic maps of imaginary places (Van Burgh et al., 1994); developing scripts for plays acted out on particular landscapes (Van Burgh et al., 1994); using road rallies (Kirchner and Searight, 1989); and emphasizing land development projects (Lacy, 1997). However, the most common approaches in US-published introductory physical geography and physical geology laboratory manuals involve examination of imaginary landscapes combined with subsequent analysis of classic terrain topographic maps (e.g., Christopherson and Hobbs, 2003; Busch, 2000). The downside to the "imaginary landscape" approach is that the topography is not of any particular place thus students may struggle to relate to it. The "classic terrain" approach avoids the pitfall of the imaginary landscape approach by exposing students to real places, often with world-class landforms and landscapes. Because these classic landforms and landscapes typically illustrate the effects of a dominant geomorphic process, students also learn about that particular process as they study the maps. Unfortunately, this topical advantage commonly lacks dynamism (i.e., the landscape appears static on the map) and holism (i.e., one process, typically geomorphic, is emphasized on such exercises while the actual landscape is polygenetic) thus students don't develop an appreciation for the real world applications or their learning.

The objectives of this paper are to demonstrate another approach-catastrophe-to teach topographic map interpretation. The catastrophe used here is the August 1949 Mann Gulch, Montana (located immediately east of the Missouri River and ~25 miles north of Helena in the Helena National Forest) (Figure 1) wildfire in which 12 United States Forest Service (USFS) smokejumpers and one USFS fire and recreation guard were over-run by flames. This event was made popular by the 1952 film Red Skies of Montana (20th Century Fox^sup R^) and Norman Maclean's book Young Men and Fire (1992). …

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