Trial by Fire

Trial by Fire

22 July 2010

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USA — With so much attention paid to Glacier National Park’s centennial this summer, it’s easy to overlook another 100-year commemoration, one with its own important place in American history: the anniversary of the Great Fire of 1910, also referred to as the Big Burn or Big Blowup.

The massive wildfires that year burned 3 million acres in northeastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana. Collectively, they formed the largest wildfire recorded in U.S. history. At least 85 people were killed, including 78 firefighters, and five towns were destroyed.

A vast Western landscape was left charred, prompting a new era in U.S. Forest Service fire policy and propelling the conservation movement into the national spotlight. And if the Big Burn was the flame that changed history, a fire in Northwest Montana could be considered the spark that triggered it.

On April 29, 1910, a wildfire broke out in the Blackfeet National Forest, an area that was later merged into the Kootenai and Flathead national forests. In the years leading up to that fire, the federal government had made efforts to improve and streamline its capacity to fight wildfires.

The Secretary of the Interior, in 1901, issued a statement outlining management practices in the nation’s forests: “The first duty of forest officers is to protect the forest against fires.” Then in 1905, management of the nation’s forest reserves was transferred over to what then became known as the U.S. Forest Service. By 1908, the Forest Service had prepared systematic plans for wildfire emergencies.

Those efforts were necessary progress, but hardly enough to prepare the fledgling Forest Service – or anybody – for what was about to come.

After the Blackfeet National Forest fire, other parts of western Montana went up in flames, burning bright and deep into May. The Butte Intermountain declared in a May 16 headline: “Terrible Losses By Forest Fires.”

By the end of June, forests were burning everywhere, and the flames raged into July and August. An account in the Montana Daily Record, titled “No Tools Available in Flathead County,” depicted a scene in which the region was woefully unprepared for the spreading fires.

“No tools are to be had in the Flathead valley today with which to fight the forest fires,” the story began, “which are raging in the heavy timber areas in the northern part of the county, and the men who are being sent out are but poorly equipped.”

The same mutterings one might hear today about slow-responding government agencies could be found in the Kalispell Bee, which published an editorial on Aug. 2, 1910.

“Having put 75 per cent of this county into forest reserves,” the editorial stated, “it would seem that the government should be under some obligation to protect the forests from the ravages of fires.”

“For more than a month,” it continued, “settlers, including women and children, have been fighting to save their homes and in nearly every instance the fires have originated on the government lands.”

Then, in a frantic two-day period on Aug. 20-21, hurricane-force winds stirred the flames, creating unbearable conditions for firefighters and destroying entire towns. Fueled by wind, the scattered, isolated fires whipped together to form something akin to a giant, fiery, and rapidly moving beast. Those two days are known as the Big Blowup.

Of the 78 firefighters who perished, 72 were in the Couer d’Alene National Forest, four in the Cabinet National Forest and two in Pend Oreille National Forest. No fatalities occurred in the Flathead region, though the nearby Cabinet National Forest deaths hit close to home.

Rose Davis, media liaison for the Forest Service’s Northern Region, said 1.2 billion board feet of timber burned in Montana. The hardest hit areas in the Treasure State were Trout Creek, Taft, De Borgia, Saltese and Haugen, including the Savenac Nursery that burned. The fires came just short of St. Regis.

Elers Koch, the supervisor of Lolo National Forest at the time, wrote about receiving a call from a ranger on the night of Aug. 21. Fire was taking over the town of Wallace, Idaho.

“Mr. Koch,” he recalled the ranger telling him, “the fires have all gone wild.”

“The flames are just breaking into Wallace,” he continued. “I don’t know where my family is, and my men and pack strings are all out in the path of the fire, and I am afraid many of them can’t escape alive.”

In the aftermath of the Big Burn, large national fire campaigns were launched, altering the nature of U.S. forest ecology and ultimately leading to the creation of Smokey Bear.

One-hundred years later, the potential of large-scale wildfires is ever-present in the West. When a large fire erupts, the nation shifts its collective attention to the flames. And while the nation is undoubtedly better prepared to combat wildfires today, each time one breaks out, people hold their breath, hoping Koch’s words are prophetic.

“It is possible that such burning conditions might again occur,” Koch wrote after the 1910 fires, “but with the present organization of the Forest Service it is not likely that sufficient fires will ever again be uncontrolled at one time to build up such a widespread conflagration.”

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