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Cliff Mason, a veteran foreman of the Forest Service's elite smoke jumper unit, is called out with his men on an emergency, despite the fact that they have not rested in three days. Accompanied by R. A. "Pop" Miller and four other men, Cliff leaves the smoke jumper base at Missoula, Montana for a fire deep in the woods of Bugle Peak in the Selway National Forest. Hours later, at headquarters, superintendent Richard Dryer becomes worried because Cliff has not yet radioed in. The next day, Dick heads a search and rescue operation and is stunned to find only an hysterical Cliff wandering through the devastated region. Cliff is rushed to the hospital, where he gradually recovers, although he cannot remember how he got separated from his men, or why he was the only one to survive. Upon his return home, Cliff is greeted by Pop's son Ed, who is also a smoke jumper. Ed expresses genuine concern for Cliff, but Cliff, sensitive about his lack of memory and worried about his possible role in Pop's death, is rude to the younger man. Soon after, a board of review conducts a hearing into the matter, and Cliff grows increasingly irritable after several grueling days of questioning. Cliff's paranoia about being considered a coward who deserted his men escalates, despite the assurances of his devoted wife Peg and Dick, who places him in charge of training. Ed continues to question Cliff, asking him why he was found in the protected rockslide area while the corpses of his men were found on an exposed ridge dozens of yards away. Cliff and Ed's relationship deteriorates as Ed's suspicions about Cliff grow and Cliff reacts even more bitterly. One night, an emergency crew is called out to repair a downed power line, and when crew member Boise is hit by a live line, Cliff heroically saves him, although Ed casually remarks that it was not necessary to prove his bravery. Soon after, despite having been cleared by the board of review, Cliff confides to Peg that he is plagued by doubts about his courage. Later, Dick gives Ed a watch that was mistakenly sent to Winkler's family, and Ed recognizes it as his father's. Upset that the watch was found on the ridge, rather than the rockslide, Ed confronts Cliff, whose memory is finally jogged by the item. Cliff recounts that when the fire began to race along the treetops, he urged his men to dig in and seek protection in the rockslide, but they got spooked and ran. Cliff attempted to stop Pop, but Pop, in a blind panic, knocked Cliff to the ground. Ed furiously accuses Cliff of deserting his men and goes AWOL, driving his motorcycle day and night, then taking an airplane to Bugle Peak, where he finds Pop's identification bracelet on the ridge, not on the rockslide, where Cliff says he saw Pop last. Believing he has obtained proof that Cliff abandoned his men on the ridge, Ed returns to base, only to discover that Cliff and another team of men have been sent to Carson Canyon. There, Cliff and the men are battling a fierce blaze. Despite their apprehension about Cliff's leadership, the men succeed in beating back the fire, although high winds threaten to restart it. Cliff requests more equipment and men, and even though Dick had fired Ed for his grudge against Cliff, Ed joins the team heading for Carson Canyon. When he arrives, however, Ed tracks down Cliff and fights with him. Ed breaks his leg when he tumbles off a small ridge, and Cliff immediately returns to the main encampment to summon help. After sending two men to retrieve Ed, Cliff orders the other men to dig foxholes, as the heightened blaze is about to pass over them and burying themselves is their only hope for survival. The men protest, preferring to run, but acquiesce when Cliff insists. While he is being rescued, Ed is surprised to discover that Cliff is responsible, and when he is brought back to the others, Cliff helps to cover him in a foxhole. Later, after the fire has passed, the men smile gratefully at Cliff, and Ed, realizing that he was wrong about Cliff, apologizes. Back at headquarters, a relieved Peg and Mrs. Miller learn that Cliff and Ed are safe, as the men radio in for reinforcements.