USA — The summer of 1910 was dry and unusually hot, with temperatures often surpassing 90 degrees. Forest Service firefighters battled blazes throughout much of August, most of which were kept well under control.
On Aug. 20, 2010, ferocious winds that could reach 70 miles per hour in a single gust ventured north to the Silver Valley from the rolling Palouse hills of Idaho and Washington. The gusts blew straight through the wildfire-infested northern Rockies. Thousands of smaller fires under control by firefighters exploded.
Stories have been told for years about Forest Service ranger Big Ed Pulaski saving his crew in an abandoned mine tunnel. The 1910 Fire also spurred legislation and policies regarding wildfire management.
However, according to DePaul University scholar Thomas Krainz, the history of the 1910 Fire is missing an important element.
During a recent speech called, Caring for Big Burn Refugees, the assistant history professor said he believes historians have focused on exciting escape stories and the impact on new national policies, but nothing about the thousands of refugees.
The treatment of refugees, those who fled the fire constitute an important missing element from the story of the 1910 Fire, Krainz said. I would argue this is a key element to the fire, because the fire was not just a fire on trees, it impacted the community.
While writing his book, Delivering Aid: Implementing Progressive Era Welfare in the American West, Krainz came across several examples of refugees who were displaced due to fires or floods.
At that time, he discovered that people know little about how society cared for refugees. With a motivation to learn more, Krainz is working on four case studies to understand how different communities cared for refugees. The case studies will combined to make his second book.
The 1910 Fire is one of Krainz’ case studies and he said it was a difficult project to research. Kraniz came to the region in 2007 for a week to research the Big Burn.
I expected to have more official sources from city and county and state governments, Krainz said. There was almost nothing. So everything had to be pieced together through newspaper articles and oral histories.
This week, Krainz has come back to the region to share his findings with the local communities.
Krainz is in the middle of a speech circuit that has already taken him to Missoula, Superior and Coeur d’Alene. Krainz will wrap up his tour in Sandpoint and Segal tonight.
During his speech in Superior Tuesday night, Krainz outlined his Big Burn case study.
Krainz began his talk with an overview of the 1910 Fire. More than 4,000 people became refugees when the fire hit the area, Krainz said.
Most of the refugees fled by train, and railroads sent relief trains to help evacuate the locals. However, Krainz said they didn’t know which direction to run which way was safe or dangerous.
Krainz used Wallace as an example. People were fleeing Wallace while other people on the outskirts poured into Wallace.
The misinformation at the time caused problems, but Krainz said eventually the majority of refugees made it to two locations, Missoula and Spokane. Each town had about 1,200 refugees.
Missoula only had a few-hour warning before the first batch of 300 refugees from Wallace would pull into town by train. Nearly 900 more refugees followed, and yet Krainz said Missoula stayed extremely organized.
Without a strong local government at the time, Missoula businessmen were the ones to help the displaced people.
What was ideal about the businessmen is that they had exactly what the refugees needed, Krainz said. The businessmen had access to money, housing and goods.
Through various fundraising, Missoula was able to help the refugees. The pattern of grassroots help was seen in other areas, but not in Spokane.
Spokane decided not to provide any assistance at all, Krainz said. They decided to wait and see.
Five days after the first refugees attempted help in Spokane, the town opened an eating house to feed 200 people. By the time Spokane reacted, all the other refugees left and it was too late to help.
It’s a mixed record for the 1910 Fire, Krainz said. On one hand, it can be efficient and organized, but it can also be an disaster.
Despite the mixed record, Krainz said knowing exactly what happened to the refugees helps better understand the 1910 Fire. To bring the information back to the region is another goal altogether.
I have this desire to bring what I do to the local communities, Krainz said. Most scholars don’t do that. They’ll write an article and that’s it.