The 'big blowup' of 1910 burned 3 million acres of forest in western Montana and northern Idaho, and shaped much of the modern fire suppression effort
MOON PASS, Idaho - When the survivors came crawling from the creeks and mine tunnels, the monster cedars atop Moon Pass were still burning - like candles, one young firefighter imagined, glowing for the dead.
Some of the snags burned into the winter, stubbornly bearing witness to the greatest firestorm ever recorded in the northern Rocky Mountains.
Some yet stand sentinel, reminders not only of the calamity, but of the debate that followed, changing the course of national forest management by convincing Americans that fire was bad and the forests should be rid of it.
The story of the fire that - on Aug. 20 and 21, 1910 - burned 3 million forested acres in western Montana and northern Idaho is the story of wildland firefighting in America. Heroic. Deadly. Expensive. It is the story, said historian Stephen Pyne, of how and why a society declared war on nature.
And how, 90 years later, nature bit back.
The comparisons began a month or more ago, unnerving even the hardest-edged old warhorses. In 1910, the fires began early. There were lightning storms in June, mass ignitions in July and a national call for help in August. Hundreds - more likely, thousands - of fires burned along a north-south line from the Salmon River to the Canadian border. Smoke obscured every horizon. Settlers and firefighters prayed for rains that would not come.
Still in its infancy, the U.S. Forest Service was nonetheless determined to protect the great forest reserves of the Northern Region. "I was confronted with the problem of either putting out the fires or being directly responsible for what would have been one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the country," Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson wrote later. "Without hesitation, I called upon the forest officers to stop the fires and to make such expenditures as seemed absolutely necessary to accomplish this result. Every source of help was called in."
But the thousands of men - 4,000 was the estimate - dispatched to the fire lines could defend neither themselves nor the national forests when a dry cold front brought hurricane-force winds to the Bitterroot Crest on the afternoon of Aug. 20. Hundreds of fires merged into one maniacal blaze that marched up the mountainous backbone separating Montana from Idaho. Towns and homesteads burned as frantic citizens buried their belongings and boarded rescue trains. Firefighters had time only to cover their heads with blankets and take refuge in creeks and mine shafts; 78 of them died during the firestorm's passing.
"All resistance crumpled," said Pyne, who earlier this summer finished work on a book about the 1910 fire. "Crews fled from the hills, camps disintegrated into ash, pack trains vanished."
Rain and snow quieted the fire's advance on Aug. 23, but not before it had incinerated 8 billion board feet of timber and ignited a nationwide debate over the role of fire in the great Western forests.
Not before Agriculture Secretary Wilson was blamed for one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the country.
In the summer of 2000, the fires came early, too. A mid-July electrical storm ignited 100 fires in southwestern Montana, too many of which proved troublesome. Thousands of men and women were dispatched to the fire lines. Helicopters, too. And retardant-dumping aircraft. Thousands of citizens were evacuated from their homes and given shelter in school gymnasiums. More lightning came in August, and more fires. Satellite photos showed what fire bosses feared - a nearly unbroken line of smoke and fire from Salmon, Idaho, to the Canadian border. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of fires.
And citizens and firefighters prayed the wind would not come.
The "big blowup" of 1910 is the founding story of modern-day fire suppression, according to Pyne, a professor at Arizona State University and the world's leading authority on the history of fire.
"August of 1910 was the single most important moment in American fire history," he said during a visit to the Bitterroot Valley last month. "It burned a swath across the memory of a generation of foresters."
Because of the blowup, the U.S. Forest Service set out to eliminate fire from the national forests - and largely succeeded. Because of 1910, three decades of chief foresters refused to acknowledge any benefit to keeping fire on the landscape. To understand how and why, Pyne said, you need to know a bit about politics and society in 1910.
"Big fires don't always have big consequences, even fires that kill people," he said. "We've burned over crews a dozen times and nothing much happened as a result. But sometimes it does."
The 1910 fire mattered, Pyne said, "because it hit something. It hit a new institution, the Forest Service, which was already under attack. It was a test of what the agency might - or might not - be able to do. It created a story that we are still with."
Thus 1910: Teddy Roosevelt had relinquished the presidency to his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, and there was immediately a donnybrook over management of the national forests. Taft fired Gifford Pinchot, the charismatic chief of the Forest Service. Pinchot was traumatized, as were his rangers - known as "little G.P.s" so devoted were they to their leader. Conservation became "a major political topic," Pyne said.
"Firefighting became the default test of conservation," he said. "Nobody really knew about the long-term effect of forests on climate or whether forests really stabilized rivers or any of these other issues. But firefighting was an easy test: Are there big smokes on the horizon?"
Foresters had proclaimed, as early as 1907, that they could - if given enough men and equipment - protect the timbered reserves from wildfire. "Destruction of forest property by fire may be almost entirely prevented by the adoption of a suitable system of patrol," said forester Clyde Leavitt.
Of course, there was no "suitable system of patrol" when the 1910 fire season broke. Fire guards often worked alone, patrolling vast acreages - 400,000 acres per man - on foot and by work train, freight train, hand car and sometimes self-propelled speeder. Each man carried his own equipment: a canteen, canvas water bucket and shovel.
The diary of one western Montana ranger described his attempt to extinguish a backwoods fire without tools. It took two days, but the ranger eventually beat out the fire, using only his hands, feet and several large rocks. "Damned if I'll ever fight fire with my bare hands again," he wrote.
There were few fire lookouts - some were no more than a platform balanced atop a tree snag - and even fewer trails, telephone lines or backcountry caches. There was the basic outline of a firefighting organization, but little flesh on its bones.
"This was an organization of young guys," Pyne said. "The average age in the Missoula regional office was 29 and that included all the stenographers, all the clerks, everybody. They were young guys, just out of forestry school. And they were all fanatics, little Gifford Pinchots, and they were all convinced they could make it happen.
"Maybe they didn't have enough trails or enough telephone lines or enough people, but they were confident that they could handle the fire problem. The 1910 season just blew them away."
Professional foresters were in the midst of their own - albeit academic - whirlwind in August 1910. Again, fire was at the center of the storm.
"Forestry was the new kid on the block," said Steve Arno, a fire ecologist recently retired from the Forest Service's Intermountain Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula. "Gifford Pinchot brought forestry from Europe to North America in the 1890s. Then he took over the federal forestry program, and eventually the U.S. Forest Service."
So forestry, as preached and practiced by Pinchot, came from France and Prussia where forests were relatively humid and fire was not well-known.
"Their forests were largely denuded areas that had been over-utilized," Arno said. "They built everything out of wood, everything they could. And they had a shortage of wood going back hundreds and hundreds of years. They were short of wood forever."
So forestry, as carried by Pinchot to America, was a rehabilitation science. How to rehabilitate the land and get it back in trees.
Pinchot realized as early as 1899 that fire had shaped this country's forests. "A few observers who have lived with the forest, such as John Muir of California, have grouped fire with temperature and moisture as one of the great factors which govern the distribution and character of forest growth," Pinchot wrote in an 1899 National Geographic article. "Fires determine the presence or absence of forest in a given region far more generally than is often supposed."
But Pinchot also considered fire a monster to be slayed. Wildfires cost the country no less than $20 million a year in lost timber reserves, he said. And there were other, indirect costs: on watersheds, soil and wildlife. Wildfire - "the Dragon Devastation," in Pinchot's words - was a threat to the nation's very security. And fire suppression was a forester's patriotic duty.
"Like the question of slavery, the question of forest fires may be shelved for some time at enormous cost in the end," the chief forester wrote. "But sooner or later, it must be met."
Pinchot's critics, however, advocated a new approach to forestry - one that recognized the ecological importance of fire to the forest. Without fire, they said, the forests would lose their vigor.
"The first settlers really accepted fire as part of the Western frontier," Arno said. "It was like the wind and the rain, who could ever do anything about it?"
The solution, if one were needed, was to adopt the "Indian way," some of those settlers maintained. "If - as the Indians had - we regularly burned the understory in these pine forests, we would not have these big fires to fight," said Pyne. "And if we didn't have these big fires, we wouldn't need to send gangs of people out into the woods to suppress them."
In August of 1910, a northern California timberman named G.L. Hoxie made the case for "light burning" in Sunset magazine, insisting that the practice should not only be accepted, but required. Forest owners who did not regularly burn their underbrush were a menace to all who lived nearby, Hoxie said.
For support, Hoxie had only to look as far as Interior Secretary Richard Ballinger, the Taft appointee who had lobbied for Pinchot's firing.
"The gauntlet was thrown," Pyne said. "It was light it or fight it. There was no neutral ground, there never has been with fire."
It is no accident that firefighting is so often equated with warfare. The explanation comes from August 1910 and the publication - just before the firestorm in the northern Rockies - of the last essay by American philosopher William James. It was called "The Moral Equivalent of War."
A pacifist, James conceded that the martial spirit could not be suppressed. "War is the romance of history," he wrote. "Militarism is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible."
Why not, though, put that zeal for "the strenuous life" to other causes? James asked. What if there were, "instead of military conscription a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against nature?"
Warriors against nature would "tread the earth more proudly," James believed. "The women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation."
It was, Pyne believes, a call to arms for firefighters. Just at the moment of their greatest test.
Forty years later, Betty Goodwin Spencer - a north Idaho author - gave this account of Aug. 20, 1910:
"The forests staggered, rocked, exploded and then shriveled under the holocaust. Great red balls of fire rolled up the mountainsides. Crown fires, from one to 10 miles wide, streaked with yellow and purple and scarlet, raced through treetops 150 feet from the ground. Bloated bubbles of gas burst murderously into forked and greedy flames.
"The heat of the fire and the masses of flaming gas created whirlwinds that mowed down mile-wide swaths of pine and fir and cedar in advance of the flames. And behind all this, advancing ominously and steadily, destroying everything in its path - the ground fire.
"Fire brands the size of a man's arm were blasted down in the streets of towns 50 miles from the nearest fire line. The sun was completely obscured in Billings, 500 miles away from the main path of the fire. Remarkable atmospheric disturbances were felt all over the country. While United States Weather Forecaster Brandenburg in Denver watched his thermometer, the temperature dropped 19 degrees in 10 minutes, and at 5 o'clock, a 42 mile-an-hour gale swept Denver, enveloping it in a pall of smoke from the Idaho-Montana fires, 800 miles distant. At Cheyenne, Wyoming, the thermometer registered 38, the lowest reported on the weather map.
"You can't outrun wind and fire that are traveling 70 miles an hour. You can't hide when you are entirely surrounded by red-hot color. You can't see when it's pitch black in the afternoon. There were men who went stark raving crazy, men who flung themselves into the on-rushing flames, men who shot themselves.
"It was the Big Blowup!"
Fifty years after the fire, the men who Edward Pulaski lead to safety were still writing Forest Service offices, telling of his heroism.
The last of the letters came in June 1961, when William Chance wrote the ranger in Wallace, Idaho, wondering if he were the only surviving member of Pulaski's crew.
Chance was a newly recruited firefighter, bound for the fires in the Bitterroot Mountains, when he met Pulaski on the train from Butte. When they arrived in Wallace, Pulaski issued shovels and bed rolls to each recruit, and escorted them up Placer Creek - "back of town." He taught them how to build "a road" around a fire, Chance said, then how to patrol the road and keep the fire within its bounds.
Chance had barely been in the mountains a day when "fire came at us rapidly." And with a ferocity neither Pulaski nor his crew imagined possible.
Pulaski, at 40 older by twice than most of his men, insisted they would be safe if they followed him back down the creek to town. He did not know that the people of Wallace had ignited a backfire, hoping to stall the flames, unintentionally trapping Pulaski and his men between two converging walls of flame.
Now the crew's only chance was an old prospecting hole, 75 feet deep in the hillside. The firefighters were doubtful when the ranger ordered them into the tunnel, Chance recalled. But Pulaski "emphasized his point with his six-shooters," and the men obeyed.
"Inside, the tunnel was a mad house," Chance wrote. "Some men went berserk, clamoring over the prostrate bodies, choking, gasping. Others praying. Others laughing. I'll never forget one man lustily singing, 'The Pride of the House is Mama's Baby.' "
Chance said goodbye to a buddy from Butte, and fell unconscious.
When he woke, he saw daylight and crawled toward it on hands and knees, finding Pulaski at the tunnel's entrance. The ranger was badly burned, Chance said, as he had tried to extinguish burning mine timbers with his hands.
At Pulaski's urging, Chance helped the ranger and others crawl out of the tunnel - and, eventually, down the mountainside to Wallace. Those who were hungry, Pulaski took to the one restaurant not destroyed by the fire. The rest, he took to the hospital. Then he went home, to his wife and 7-year-old daughter.
Of all the stories from the night of Aug. 20, 1910, the account of Pulaski saving his crew in the mine shaft is the most enduring, said Pyne. "Out of 35 men and himself, he got 30 out of there alive. One man lagged behind and died in the fire. Five others died in the cave, probably from drowning in a seep while they were unconscious."
"He managed to hold them all in there together," the historian said. "They couldn't hear anything. They couldn't see anything. It was so hot they couldn't feel anything. And he saved them by standing at the mine shaft entrance until he also collapsed."
And of all the rangers trapped in the woods that night, Pulaski was the only one who served out his career on the Wallace Ranger District. He helped to rebuild the town and replant the forest. He continued fighting fire, and in fact invented the tool - a combination grubhoe and ax - still used by wildland firefighters.
"In a way, the story of 1910 is embedded in the Pulaski," Pyne said. "It is still very much a part of the whole culture of fire protection. It's a great story. We've never found another one quite like it."
Because they were so young, because they were so traumatized by the fire and the politics and the failed first attempt at wildfire suppression, the forester-firefighters who survived the big blowup simply would not concede any benefit to keeping fire in the national forests.
For William Greeley, the district forester for Montana and Idaho, the 1910 fire was the point of reference for the rest of his Forest Service career. The fire, he later wrote, burned into him the cost - in human lives and in dollars - of fire suppression.
In the weeks immediately following the blowup, agency officials worried and strategized over the potential public-relations problem. "We said we were going to protect the forests, that's why they need to be in national hands, that's why we want to spend millions of dollars purchasing forests in the East. Now people are going to ask: 'What protection? You guys lost your shirts in Idaho.' "
But Pinchot, the deposed Forest Service chief, got to the national media before his detractors - most notably, the Interior secretary - and successfully convinced editorial page writers that the Northern Region rangers and their cobbled-together firefighting crews were heroes who had mounted a gallant defense against overwhelming odds.
Indeed, if they had had more money, more men, more trails and more lookouts, they could have stopped the great burn.
"So the argument then became that the only way to stop these fires - to prevent them from happening again - was to develop the country as rapidly as possible," said Pyne. "Build roads into the forests. Build trails. Until we did that, we were not going to be able to control these wildfires."
The Forest Service might have been "terminally demoralized" by the fires' toll of lives, towns and timber lost, Pyne said. "Instead, the fires stiffened the agency's resolve. The 1910 fires were its Valley Forge, its Long March. Henceforth, it would throw all it had into the fire problem."
For Henry Graves, Pinchot's successor, the big blowup was the first big test of his administrative skill. He considered it a rout, one he did not intend to repeat. "The necessity of preventing losses from forest fires requires no discussion," he declared. "It is the fundamental obligation of the Forest Service and takes precedence over all other duties and activities."
The next three chiefs who followed Graves were all in the Missoula office on Aug. 20, 1910. For them, the blowup "was a complete trauma," Pyne said.
Greeley was next up as chief forester, then Robert Stuart, then Ferdinand Augustus Silcox. "That entire generation would have to pass from the scene before the Forest Service would consider fire as anything but something to be fought," Pyne said. "Silcox, particularly, believed that 1910 was completely preventable, if we only had enough money, equipment and trails."
"1910 really pushed fire suppression over the brink," said Arno, the fire ecologist. "It's like they were trying to get this car started and were pushing it up a hill, and finally they got to the top of the hill and were just barely able to push it, and all the sudden they were over the top and really taking off."
For the public, for firefighters, for the Forest Service, the specter of another such conflagration was "simply intolerable," Arno said. "This was an opportunity to solve a problem that people were clamoring to have solved. How do you do it? Well, you don't adapt. The idea wasn't, well we're going to adapt our communities and we're going to adapt our forest management to the inevitability of fire. That wasn't the viewpoint.
"It was, we are going to make the forest environment safe for people. We are going to do our best to eliminate fire from the forest. Because fire isn't needed, so we will be better off if we just do our best to get rid of it."
"They didn't think it through," Arno said. "They didn't understand these beautiful wildland forests."
They did not know that in a forest, as in an heirloom clock, you cannot remove even one gear, he said. "Because you take that one gear out and funny thing is, the clock doesn't work anymore."
"Fire was the rejuvenating force in our forests, and we took it away," he said. "But the choice was not ours to make. Fire will return to this landscape."
There are still, along the Bitterroot Divide, reminders of the big burn of August 1910.
The silent cedar snags at Moon Pass.
The mostly abandoned mine tunnels in the thicket along Placer Creek.
The crumpled photographs in the old Milwaukee Road Depot in Avery. Of wind-thrown pines and weary firestorm refugees.
The double circle of 57 firefighters' graves in the cemetery at St. Maries. Forty granite markers on the outside row, 17 on the inside. The inner circle facing the outer.
Chris Christensen. O. Ellefsen. Frank Sanders. K. Anderson. Anton Bugar. J. Stevens. Unknown. Jack Hill. Unknown. Oscar Berg. Harry Jackson. L. Schwartz. Frank Masterson.
"In memory of the men who lost their lives fighting forest fires August 20, 1910."
The injured and dead among the victims of the 1910 fires
In 1910, fire suppression went on the offensive and firefighters, for the first time, dominated the list of casualties. For days after the blowup, newspapers in Spokane carried lists of injured firefighters. To wit:
A.E. Sullivan: totally blind, right arm broken and may lose right hand.
Tony Varish: totally blind, body badly burned.
John Blitten: right arm burned, will have to be amputated.
T. Gayers: face terribly burned.
Wm. Christianson: mass of burns around the face and neck, will probably die.
J. Rickey: hands, face and feet badly burned.
Jack Flinn: blind.
George Carrigan: feet burned; will be crippled for life.
Edmond Hickman: face terribly burned and nose completely burned off.
Mike Darrick: totally blind, burned about face and neck, will probably die.
For weeks, the dead were buried (where they fell), then disinterred and reburied (in memorial plots at Wallace and St. Maries). The U.S. Forest Service recorded each man's name, the amount due him for firefighting and the means by which his body was identified.
From those records come these accounts of the men found dead on Setzer Creek:
Ed Murphy. $21.50. Address unknown. Buried on Setzer Creek. No clue as to his identity.
Henry Jackson. $5.50. Tacoma, Wash. Buried on Setzer Creek. Wrote the mayor of Tacoma to look up this man. Identified by Ed Bassett by heel plate worn on shoe.
G.A. Blodgett. $50.75. Supposed to have lived at Hotel Reilley, Butte, Mont. Had card of Butte Workingman's Union No. 5. Wrote to father and mother.
Oscar Weigert. $15. Missoula, Mont. Supposed to have committed suicide, thinking that he would be burned to death. Had hat, clothes, cartridges, gun, tobacco, cigarette papers. Effects sent to Missoula.
L. Ustlo. $41.75. Address unknown. Effects: pocket knife, gold watch. Buried on Setzer Creek. This man was a tall and well-dressed Finlander. Wore lace belt. Scar on right knee. Unable so far to get a clue to this man's identity.
Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.