Chapter 10-Ushering in an era of fire suppression by michael johnson

Three million acres.

That’s what 1,736 forest fires consumed in 36 hours spanning Aug. 20-21, 1910, in parts of Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

Once known as the “Big Blowup,” now, it’s simply called the “Big Burn.”

It’s also the unofficial creation myth of the U.S. Forest Service, which saw a young, beleaguered, undermanned, underprepared and underfunded agency scramble to fight this plague of flames.

“The fires of 1910 transformed forestry in the Inland Northwest,” wrote U.S. Forest Service historian Hal Rothman in the introduction to “I’ll Never Fight Fire with My Bare Hands Again.”

“The scope and scale of the fires, and the need for response, dramatically reshaped the way foresters assessed their obligations.

“The culture of the agency, the way in which foresters saw themselves, and nearly everything else about the agency at the grass roots changed in the aftermath of the fires of 1910.”

The fire grew from huge piles of logging slash left on the forest floor, a record-breaking drought, scattered embers from trains and a freak storm that turned 1,700 small fires into a single holocaust of flame, according to a 2010 story in Montana Outdoors titled “The Great Fire of 1910.”

Steve Barrett, a fire ecology consultant in Kalispell, Mont., said “it was a 1,000-year event, a perfect storm of long-term drought, lightning, high wind, and a total lack of trained people on the ground.”

The fire killed an estimated 87 people, including 79 firefighters, and consumed entire towns — prompting the public demand for suppression of wildfire.

Previously, the fledgling Forest Service, formed by conservationists Gifford Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt, struggled to obtain funding from Congress. After the Big Burn, the agency was given carte blanche to battle blazes, and it invested heavily in roads, lookouts and highly trained fire crews.

Later, the Forest Service introduced bulldozers, smokejumpers and planes that dropped tons of flame retardant — what some now call the wildfire-industrial complex.

The policy, endorsed by lumber companies fearful of losing precious timber, called for extinguishing all fires on national forests by 10 a.m. the following morning.

Dousing all fires made for good politics, but also made the forest ever more flammable.

Early forest management: One man shows another which tree to cut down and which to leave alone.
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Paying the price now

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)

Pulaski lore

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.

Wallace, Idaho, is shown in the aftermath of the Big Blowup, or Big Burn of 1910.

The burning of Wallace

In Timothy Egan’s book titled, “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America,” a “warm fog so opaque” covered the town that, at 3 p.m., the lights in town were all turned on. People buried their worldly possessions in the ground. The townsfolk didn’t appear too worried. After all, the town had survived a fire 20 years prior and its citizens rebuilt using brick, stone and steel.

The town’s population of the elderly, women and children were packed on trains headed out of town. No pets were allowed on the trains and no baggage was allowed beyond what a person could carry. Men were ordered to stay behind and fight the fire. They were told to take up garden hoses and go to their roof, jump aboard a horse-drawn fire carriage, grab a shovel and get on a bicycle.

And pray.

The shooting flames and falling embers from the nearby Bitterroot Mountains made it look as though the town was under heavy artillery fire, Egan writes.

Egan writes that an ember “the size of a horse’s thigh” plummeted from the sky and “landed next to buckets of press grease and rags that had been soaked in solvent at the Wallace Times. The wooden backside of the newspaper building went up in a flash; inside, reporters, editors and pressmen fled with barely time to find the exits.”

The fire then proceeded through town, destroying a mill, rooming house, two hotels, the train depot, a brewery and a courthouse. The heat was so intense that glass began to shatter and wood trim curled. Not even the brick, stone and steel buildings in Wallace posed an obstacle for these intense flames.

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Members of the U.S. Army's Buffalo Soldier 25th Infantry Regiment on fire duty with Forest Service rangers.

Buffalo Soldiers

In Avery, Idaho, the Buffalo Soldiers set up a hurried camp at a baseball field. These same soldiers who had chased Native Americans throughout the Dakotas and the Southwest, put down insurrections in the Philippines and helped establish civil order during Western labor wars, were being asked to tame a raging inferno in the Northern Rockies.

Egan’s book states the soldiers, “in a state with not even 700 blacks,” were greeted with a mixture of “curiosity, skepticism, scorn and open hostility.”

They built trails for fire crews, escorted families out of town, helped keep the peace when the raging fire frayed nerves, evacuated the town of Wallace and played a prominent role in Avery’s survival by lighting backfires when the firestorm approached.

This photo shows burned timber on Rainey Creek in the Lolo National Forest, Montana, following the 1910 fires.

The fire that shaped policy

The Forest Service’s policy of extinguishing all fires as quickly as possible — a strategy that had worked well two years earlier during an especially difficult fire season — was called into question.

Forest Service employees, through a literary campaign, penned essays that reiterated a call for aggressive fire prevention policy as the best way to protect America’s private and public forests, as well as the nation’s economic well-being.

One forester who had fought the Big Blowup argued afterward in favor of letting backcountry fires burn themselves out.

Chief Henry Graves staked the agency’s continued existence on defeating fire. Graves embraced a cooperative approach with state and private associations to fight fire that would change how Americans viewed fire.

Signed into law by President William Howard Taft, the Weeks Act permitted the federal government to purchase private land to protect the headwaters of rivers and watersheds in the eastern United States and called for fire protection efforts through federal, state and private cooperation.

Indirect effects

Despite generations of people raised on Smokey Bear’s “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” message, federal agencies have learned a lot during that time. By the 1980s, many forest managers were endorsing the reintroduction of wildfire into ecosystems. In 1995, the USFS officially revised its firefighting policy to allow some wildfires to burn themselves out. A report by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture following the 2000 fire season noted, “While the [old] policy of aggressive fire suppression appeared to be successful, it set the stage for the intense fires that we see today.”

According to the Montana Outdoors story, “after the Big Burn ... the complexity of old-growth forests was largely replaced by the relative homogeny of lodgepole pine” and “decades of fire suppression created dense stands of aging lodgepole that has become weak and susceptible to attack by pine bark beetles.”

Ironically, the story states, the nation’s response to the 1910 fire set the West up for an era of megafires. Acreage lost to crown fires has doubled and redoubled in recent decades. Fire experts warn that high-intensity fires have become unavoidable.

Spark by Pia Wyer

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