Dark Days in August

Dark Days in August

21 June 2010

published by wildfiremag.com


USA — In the summer of 1910, great fires swept across the Northern Rocky Mountains and Western Canada, consuming nearly 4 million acres of prime timber. After an already long summer of seemingly constant wildfires, a warm Palouse wind swept out of eastern Washington on Aug. 20, crossing the Idaho panhandle and heading into Montana, whipping hundreds of separate blazes into a giant conflagration that destroyed more than 1 million acres in a harrowing 48-hour period. The blowup swallowed entire towns, cut off railroads and overran hapless firefighters throughout Idaho and Montana, killing dozens of people.

The fires scarred more than just the landscape; they dramatically affected firefighting efforts on both sides of the U.S. and Canadian border. In the north, the fires had virtually no Dominion Forestry Branch personnel to collide with, but they galvanized the need for fire prevention and suppression policies and efforts. In the United States, where the newly minted U.S. Forest Service had promised to protect the woods from all abuse, the 1910 fires killed debate over whether fires should be fought and loosened Congress’ penurious funding of the agency responsible for guarding the country’s forests. The fires convinced generations of Forest Service leaders to battle fires with everything they had, setting the nation’s perception and approach to firefighting for the next century.

TROUBLING START

Prior to the start of the fires, the five-year-old U.S. Forest Service, created in 1905, was stretched thin. Equipped with a badge, double-bitted axe, rifle and sidearm, Forest Service rangers had instructions to “look out for fires, timber thieves, squatters and game violators” as they patrolled millions of acres alone. When the light summer rains that normally dampened the Northern Rockies never materialized, the Forest Service found itself managing a tinderbox of dry fuels ripe to burn. At the time, the agency was struggling to prove to the public that it was better able to care for millions of acres of timberland than were private interests. The 1910 fires became its first major test.

The U.S. Forest Service appeared well-staffed in 1910 compared to Canada’s Dominion Forestry Branch. Created four years earlier, the Forestry Branch sought to emulate its southern counterpart by establishing a conservation program to manage Canada’s forests for wise use. Central to forest conservation was protection from fire, and Director Robert Campbell worked hard to bring some semblance of systematic fire control to the Western territories. In Western Canada, fire followed the migration of people. Coal-fired railroad engines sent off sparks into the vast forestlands and left raging conflagrations in their wake.

In the summer of 1910, a nearly continuous 75-mile stretch on the eastern slope of the Rockies burned. To combat this, the Dominion Forestry Branch had available a permanent staff of just 40 and an annual budget of $100,000, compared to the U.S. Forest Service’s $4.6 million budget supporting 2,000 permanent employees. In the face of the 1910 fires, the best fire control Dominion could offer were prevention efforts and limited attacks with locally recruited crews. With limited firefighting efforts and few people in their path, the 1910 fires largely ran their course in Canada.

South of the border, fire control efforts were much different. The fires began early that summer. By July, thousands of men, untrained and hastily transported into the mountains, were fighting hundreds of fires across the Northwest under the direction of overwhelmed Forest Service rangers. The extremely rough terrain made many of the fires inaccessible. With the closest roads sometimes 60 miles from the fireline, firefighters had to cover the rest of the ground on foot over rough game trails. In August, timber companies pleaded with President William Taft to commit U.S. Army troops to the fight; Taft responded by sending nearly 4,000 troops, or 5% of the nation’s total standing army.

August’s low humidity and high winds exacerbated the fires. Then suddenly, on Aug. 20 and 21, a gale-force wind blew, fanning little fires into giant conflagrations travelling 30 to 50 miles in a few hours and sweeping over stranded crews and towns. According to one eyewitness in Montana, quoted by Elers Koch, “The sky turned a ghastly yellow, and at four o’ clock it was black dark ahead of the advancing flames.” The fire burned much of Wallace, Idaho, before crossing over the Bitterroot Range into Montana and devouring the mountain outposts of Taft, Saltese, DeBorgia and Haugan. Those unable to escape were forced to weather the blast in whatever places promised some degree of safety. Some retreated into mine tunnels, some took refuge on recently burned-over areas and others lay in small streams covering their heads with blankets. Only rain and decreasing temperatures on Aug. 23 halted the fires’ advance.

Horrific scenes of burned firefighters both alive and dead were widespread throughout the region. Seventy-eight firefighters, along with seven civilians, perished in the flames. Scores of injured firefighters overwhelmed local hospitals. In addition to the loss of life and property, the fires turned millions of acres of verdant forest into a moonscape. The Forest Service estimated that the fires destroyed more than 6 billion board feet of marketable timber, enough to supply the entire nation for several months.

BEYOND THE AFTERMATH

The 1910 fires’ legacy went beyond the lives and landscapes they touched in Idaho and Montana. Shocked by the horrific losses, the public cried out for action, and Congress quickly doubled the Forest Service budget. The fires helped break a legislative stalemate to pass the 1911 Weeks Act, a seminal piece of legislation that eventually brought more than 20 million acres in the East under Forest Service protection. According to fire historian Stephen Pyne, the “big blowup” of 1910 is the founding story of modern-day fire suppression: “August of 1910 was the single most important moment in American fire history. It burned a swath across the memory of a generation of foresters.” Three successive Forest Service chiefs had battled on the firelines in 1910; the experience permanently stiffened their future resolve to make fire suppression the agency’s foremost priority.

1910 also helped shape Canada’s Dominion fire control efforts, but in more modest terms — the difference being that without an institution the size of the U.S. Forest Service for the government to shore up, the 1910 fires had far less to affect in Canada. The fires followed on the heels of the horrific 1909 fire season, which the Dominion Forest Branch had used to successfully argue that prevention efforts alone would not bring down timber losses to fire. In the coming years, the branch began bringing stability to the Western provinces through systematic regulations on burning; investment in permanent improvements such as lookouts, roads and telephone wires to aid fire detection and suppression; and extending its fire protection efforts beyond the boundaries of its parks.

Nature gradually healed the fires’ wounds, but their effect on U.S. fire management lasted much longer. That summer in 1910, the Forest Service decided there was no value for fire in forest conservation. The aftermath of the fires created the policy and infrastructure necessary to permanently ban fire from the national forests, placing the nation on a permanent war-footing against wildfire. Although they burned 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana, the 1910 Northern Rockies fires affected all of the country’s forestlands for the next century.

1910 FIRE COMMEMORATION EVENTS

  • July 16, Savenac Nursery, Mineral County, Mont. Event to highlight effect of fires on tree nursery and reconstruction after 1910.
  • Aug. 19-21, Wallace, Idaho Community events including Wallace Museum tours, Pulaski Tunnel and Ninemile Cemetery tours (self-guided), reenactments, historical theater productions, guest speakers Timothy
  • Egan and Stephen Pyne, along with a new memorial dedication.
  • Aug. 20, St. Maries, Idaho Rededication of Woodlawn Cemetery Memorial and Community Dinner.
  • Aug. 20, Thompson Falls, Mont. “Step Back in Time to 1910” program at the public library.
  • Aug. 21, Avery, Idaho Bike tours and community breakfast, dinner and day-long events including presentations and historical interpretation by Steve Coady.
  • Aug. 21, Savenac Nursery, Mineral County, Mont. Rededication of Savenac Nursery Memorial Grove, planted to honor fallen 1910 firefighters, and a Civilian Conservation Corps reunion.
  • Aug. 21, Trout Creek, Mont. Reenactment of 1910 fire camp, community events and rededication of Swamp Creek Fire Memorial.
     

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