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062010 dolack fire painting
Monte Dolack talks with a visitor next to his painting commemorating the wildfires of 1910 on Saturday at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. The painting, commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service, has been turned into a poster that the agency will distribute. Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

One hundred years ago this summer, in the course of three terrifying days, the biggest wildfire in recorded American history swept over a vast swath of land in Idaho and Montana. Fueled by a bizarre weather event that sent winds of 65 to 70 mph northward from Colorado, the fire consumed a vast tract of forest, 185 miles long and 65 miles wide, stretching from the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho, through the Clearwater to the Coeur d'Alene, eastward over the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains.

The fire instantly transformed the role and policies of the U.S. Forest Service, a new agency at the time, which thereafter established an "all suppression, all the time" approach to wildfires that remained standard practice for decades.

"This single fire event changed things overnight socially, politically and for the forest resources across America," said Rose Davis, a media liaison with the Forest Service and a member of the agency's 1910 commemoration team. "It was a huge event for the Forest Service, but it was also a huge event for America as a whole."

Yet surprisingly little visual evidence of those fires remains. Forests have regenerated; the burned-out town of Wallace, Idaho, was rebuilt; and only one photograph of the actual fires is known to exist.

So, to add a visual element to this year's centennial commemoration of the wildfires of 1910, the Forest Service turned to Missoula artist Monte Dolack. On Saturday, at a ceremony at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, Dolack unveiled "Fires of 1910: Heroes Heritage Renewal," a commemorative painting and series of posters aimed at honoring the dozens of firefighters who lost their lives in those fires.

For Dolack, the commission was both a creative challenge, and a trip down memory lane.

"I actually worked for the Forest Service and used a Pulaski many years ago, while putting myself through college," said Dolack. "So it was nice to work on a subject with which I had a little bit of personal history myself."

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Dolack's image features numerous elements referencing the fire: firefighters digging fire lines, a burning building, an owl fleeing the smoke and an image of the Forest Service's memorial to those killed in the fires - all situated around a burning ponderosa pine, the trunk of which morphs into a Pulaski.

"This is not a celebratory piece, it is commemorative," noted Dolack. "It's really to help lend a visual element to the whole commemoration."

Davis said she and her team working on the commemoration of the 1910 fires hoped that Dolack's poster would provide a dynamic hook to interest people in the story of the watershed fire.

"I'm sort of a history buff myself, but I know some people can find history dry," said Davis. "So we wanted to appeal to people's senses, and Monte's work obviously does that."

In addition to distributing prints of Dolack's poster, the Forest Service has put together a day-trip tour guide, which allows interested travelers to visit important sites that were affected by the 1910 fires.

The Forest Service is not the only organization working to commemorate the 1910 fires. The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula currently features a large exhibit, titled "When the Mountains Roared," about the historic fires.

Dorene Might-Dyer, education director at the Historical Museum, said interest in the exhibit has run high ever since it opened in late March.

"It's been unbelievable," said Might-Dyer. "We had over 400 people here for the opening. Our staff couldn't even be in there, it was so crowded. We've had really good feedback, and people are coming from all over, from Montana and also from out of state.

"I think there's still a lot of people who still don't know about the fires," added Might-Dyer. "But I think people have been eager to learn."

Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358, jnickell@missoulian.com or on NickellBag.com.

 

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