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

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Department or Administrative Unit


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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.


This article was originally published in the Journal of Geoscience Education. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.

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Journal of Geoscience Education


Copyright © 2006 National Association of Geoscience Teachers



Spatial Coverage (for ex: Ellensburg, WA)

Montana, USA