2010 is a special year that commemorates many events in my small region of the global fire community. One of the most important events occurred in August 100 years ago — "The Big Burn." This issue of Wildfire features an article by Dr. Lincoln Bramwell on that 1910 fire season in the Rocky Mountains of the United States and Canada. There have been numerous major wildland fire events across the world, many with greater loss of life, but the 1910 fires earned a special significance. The fires burned millions of acres that year in the newly established western national forests — more than 3 million acres alone in Idaho and Montana.
Those 1910 events would influence the marching orders for a fledgling U.S. Forest Service, which would be administered strongly by three consecutive Forest Service chiefs, each of whom had been directly involved with the 1910 fires. They would implement a controversial national wildland fire policy and dominate a national program oriented toward total fire suppression, strongly influencing forestry organizations around the world and eventually affecting how all of us today think about fire in the "wilds." So as a lead to Dr. Bramwell's article, let me set the stage for "when the mountains roared."
By 1910 a young U.S. Forest Service was finding its footing, administering lands in the Rocky Mountains and marking boundaries previously assigned to the Forest Reserve system begun in 1897. These local forest reserves were reorganized into several national forests and Glacier National Park. The vast, rugged country was only partially explored and populated by scattered valley communities and mining settlements, mostly along train and wagon transportation routes. The agency was composed of a select few forest supervisors and a small force of rangers and forest guards.
The U.S. portion of the forest fires began in late April and was burning across the entire mountainous region by late June. During July, several lightning storms pounded the forest, igniting more fires. There was little organized fire protection, not much equipment, no permanent fire lookouts, and limited telephone and telegraph communication. However, Forest Service personnel had gained some fire experience over previous summers, and by mid-July these "fire bosses" were leading an unprecedented force of 3,000 — mostly untrained labor from the larger neighboring towns of Missoula, Butte and Spokane. Railroad, mining and lumber companies supplied additional men to form an international firefighting force that frequently didn't speak or understand English.
By Aug. 9, Elers Koch, supervisor of the Lolo National Forest — where quite a few fires had begun — said that every fire was either out or practically under control. The impromptu fire crews were exhausted. But on the next day, the humidity dropped and the winds began to blow; the previously unseen or partially extinguished fires flared to life. By mid-August, fire crews had swollen to 4,000 men and had extinguished an estimated 3,000 small, backcountry fires and more than 90 large ones. This force soon was supplemented by regular U.S. Army troops.
On Aug. 20, the winds began to howl, hundreds of fires returned with a fury previously unseen in the region by settlers — the "Big Blowup." For two days, crown fires raced across the mountains oblivious to any natural barriers, burning one town after another and 1 million acres of coniferous forest. Thousands of refugees would escape by special trains toward evacuation centers in Missoula and Spokane, with trestle bridges burning behind them. Firefighters sought refuge wherever possible from the onslaught, with many dying. As the gale blew itself out, men wandered out of the mountains with stories of heroism and total despair.
By Aug. 31, a general wetting rain ended the fire season and people returned to the smoking mountains. Elsewhere across the United States, however, this fire event was just beginning to have a major impact, creating a political and policy tsunami that would hit the administration of President William Taft and then ripple around the world.
Contact the IAWF
International Assn. of Wildland Fire
3416 Primm Ln.
Birmingham, AL 35216
To join the IAWF, visit www.iawfonline.org
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Attn: Kevin Daniels