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George Leech, retired fire management officer from the Bureau of Indian Affairs-Fort Apache Agency who was also the chief of operations on 2002’s Rodeo-Chediski Fire, said the Forest Service’s firefighting policies of the late 19th century and early 20th century is only now rearing its devastating effects.
“If I had to pick out three main things that make for a healthy forest, it’s rain, snow and fire,” he said. “If you take fire out of the environment, it’s more insidious. It doesn’t show up today, it doesn’t show up next year. It shows up 20, 30, 50 years from now, 100 years from now. Fire suppression has been going on since the early 1910s, so we’re just teetering at 100 years. It’s not sustainable the way it is. It will burn.”
Leech said tree-ring data from the White Mountains and the Mogollon Rim areas stretching from New Mexico to the Kaibab National Forest show a “healthy” history of a low-intensity fire burning every three to five years.
But Leech said it could be a “century or two” before severely burned forest land is “fully recovered. There are areas out there that, because of the fire intensity, you still have patches of red soil that don’t have a bloody blade of grass growing on it. Those may take another 20 or 30 years before they heal up enough to where they can start supporting life again.
“It could be two centuries before they’re totally recovered. It’s going to be a long time.”
The Big Burn
The summer of 1910 was dry. It hadn’t rained since May. By August, the region was experiencing drought conditions. According to U.S. Forest Service history, a man named Clarence B. Swim wrote, “The late summer of 1910 approached with ominous, sinister and threatening portents. Dire catastrophe seemed to permeate the very atmosphere ....”
The first of these 1,700-plus fires broke out on or about Aug. 10, 1910, in the Clearwater, Lolo, Cabinet, Flathead, Blackfeet and Kaniksu national forests. Lacking supplies and firefighters, the Forest Service persuaded President William Howard Taft to deploy military troops to work with the civilian firefighting force, which consisted of just about any able-bodied man in the area. In fact, local jails were emptied of thieves, murderers and bank robbers to work the fire lines — some still shackled.
The government supplied 4,000 troops — mostly the Buffalo Soldiers, the famed African American troops of the U.S. Army.
U.S. Forest Service historical records indicate that by the end of that week, “firefighters appeared to have the upper hand and supervisors began releasing employees on Aug. 19.”
On Aug. 20, hurricane-force winds swept through the Northern Rockies, fanning embers and reviving nearly extinguished fires.
Towns in the path of the fire began running evacuation trains. Forester Edward G. Stahl wrote, “flames hundreds of feet high were fanned by a tornadic wind so violent that the flames flattened out ahead, swooping to earth in great darting curves, truly a veritable red demon from hell.”
This photo, taken in September 1910, shows the mouth of a tunnel where Ranger Edward Pulaski sheltered his men during the Big Blowup. (Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service)
Today’s firefighters know the name of Ed Pulaski. They carry his memory every time they venture to a fire.
Pulaski, a forest ranger, was fighting a fire about 10 miles north of Wallace, Idaho, when he ordered his crew of 43 to take shelter in a mineshaft barely ahead of the flames. Pulaski reportedly ordered his men to lie down on the mineshaft floor while he hung water-soaked blankets. Pulaski also reportedly threatened to shoot any man who tried to leave. The smoke overwhelmed Pulaski as he guarded the entrance.
All but five men had survived the ordeal in the smoke-choked mine shaft. The incident spawned an urgently needed hero amidst the catastrophe. Pulaski, who won $500 in an essay contest for the account of his actions during the Big Blowup, cited a desire to return home to his wife and daughter as a motivation for survival.
He suffered life-long effects from injuries sustained in the fight against the fire, and spent years battling for medical benefits for the men who lived and a monument for those who died.
Firefighters today carry what’s known as a “Pulaski,” a hand tool that combines an ax and an adze in one head.