If you are looking for a yawn-filled historical exhibit to attend and some mind-numbing facts to make your eyes glaze over, don't even think about attending the new exhibit at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula.

The exhibit called "When the Mountains Roared: The Fire of 1910" is an interactive exhibit that engages the senses and crackles with life.

This ambitious project, which was more than three years in the making and opened on Sunday, retells the compelling stories of the men and women who lived and died during the most dramatic wildfire in the nation's history, said Robert Brown, the museum's director.

The multi-sensory experience includes a light show, an audio show, interactive touch-screen computer programs and a wood smoke scent dispenser that fills the air with the distinctive smell of forest fires.

"We pulled out all of the stops for this exhibit," Brown said proudly as the museum filled with a record-breaking crowd on Sunday. "It's unlike any other - it's truly like being in a big-city museum."

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What is sometimes called the Big Burn, The Great Idaho Fire, The Big Blowup and, most often, Fire of 1910, was arguably the most devastating natural disaster to ever hit this part of the country, Brown explained.

Fanned by hurricane-force winds, 3,000-some smaller fires that had been burning during the long, dry summer rapidly combined into a hellacious firestorm that was 185 miles long and 65 miles wide.

It stretched from the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho, through the Clearwater to the Coeur d'Alene and eastward over the crest of the Bitterroot Mountain Range.

More than 85 lives were lost in the fire, 3 million acres burned and the unstoppable flames decimated the towns of Taft, Haugan and DeBorgia. Evacuated by the African-American soldiers of the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry, most of the residents of Wallace, Idaho, fled by train to Missoula for safety.

"Missoula was like mission control," Brown said. "It was a major hub for communication and it was home to the Region 1 Forest Service headquarters.

"Nearly the whole town of Wallace came here to escape and Missoula just embraced them and took care of them."

This summer, on Aug. 20, will not only mark the fire's 100th anniversary but it also marks the singular event that shaped the U.S. Forest Service and changed its philosophy from letting fires burn for the health of the forest to fighting fires.

"Call it what you will - disaster, catastrophe - the Fire of 1910 is an important part of our history," Brown said. "And it will happen again - it's just a matter of when."

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While the modern technological aspect to the exhibit is engaging, it's not what made the crowds linger - it was the relics of the past, the tangible old-school things that prompted the oohs and ahhs.

Back then, communication was done through telegraph and morse code, and the equipment on display looks incredibly analog in our day and age. Another display explains, with show and tell, that horses and pack strings were the only way to access the fire line and the only emergency transportation, and because of that, the animals were fitted with special goggles to protect them from the fire and hot ash.

Ken Petroff wandered slowly through the exhibit, fascinated by it all.

"My uncle, my dad - all of us - we just love the history of Montana," said Petroff. "This fire touched so many lives and it's such an incredible story.

"I went to Taft, that old railroad town that was burned to the ground," he said. "It was said to have 27 saloons or something like that. We dug around and found a bunch of bottles - hundreds of them - all on top of one another ... all from that fire. It was pretty amazing to see."

Lorraine Hermiston, a teacher from Plains, was eager to see the exhibit after having read the book "The Big Burn," by Timothy Egan.

"I'm just fascinated by all the human elements to this story and the politics that were involved at the time with the Forest Service and the struggle of the railroad and how it all played into it," Hermiston said. "This exhibit is really well done and I think it would be a good place to bring students to on a field trip.

"The artifacts they saved and present here gives us an appreciation of what happened then, how things have changed and makes us appreciate what we have today."

"I'm pretty impressed with what they have on display," said Betty Toczek of Missoula. "This exhibit is done well and effectively."

Toczek wasn't surprised by the large crowd - well over 100 people and counting by midafternoon, according to the museum staff.

"Fires are still a huge part of lives," she said. "No matter how modern we get, when Mother Nature decides to do a a storm, there are certain things we can't control, we can only learn from the experience."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

 

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