Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Big Blow Up—The 1910 Forest Fire Omen of Things to Come

Crews tried to dig fire breaks to contain the 1910 fire but high winds carried embers from tree top to tree top jumping the lines and sometimes trapping the fire fighters.

Fires are raging again in California and other Western states, Although not as wide spread as last year’s disastrous fire season they are still intense and with record shattering heat in some areas might yet become another massive calamity.  Welcome to the new normal thanks to global climate change and the pitiful inaction to avert catastrophe.  What modest steps toward reducing greenhouse gas  emissions and shifting to renewable energy under international climate change agreements and the Obama administration have been aggressively reversed by the Trump regime.
Ninety years ago the Great Fire of 1910 a/k/a the Big Blow Up was an omen of things to come.

The Big Blow Up was actually sores of fires that burned out of control in and and around several National Forests in Idaho and adjacent states.
Hot and dry conditions and a buildup of underbrush from earlier years left the forests of eastern Washington, the Idaho Panhandle, and western Montana south of Glacier National Park a tinderbox.  Scores of small fires were ignited daily, mostly from burning cinders from the smokestacks of the steam locomotives that crisscrossed the region, lighting, and backfires meant to contain larger blazes.  Most would die out or be able to be contained by local firefighters.  By late August more than a 1000 such blazes were burning in the region.
But on August 20 a cold front moved in and with it near hurricane force winds.  Within hours scores of small fires were whipped up and merged into one enormous blaze that was spreading with unprecedented speed. 
Several towns were immediately threatened.  The infant Forest Service, only 5 years old, was powerless to fight a fire on that scale with their small numbers of seasonal fire fighters at its disposal.  President William Howard Taft ordered Army troops, including members of the Black 25th Infantry Regiment from Fort Wright in Spokane to join the effort.

Members of the Army's all Black 25th Infantry Regiment on fire duty with Forest Service Rangers.
Railroads scrambled to bring manpower and equipment into the region which was nearly devoid of roads and to evacuate those in the path of danger.  Several trains from Wallace, Idaho brought refugees to Spokane, Washington and Missoula, Montana.
Some trains barely made it away.  More than 1000 refugees on a train from Avery, Idaho found themselves hurtling over a burning trestle and the train had to take refuge in a long tunnel as the firestorm raged over the mountain.
Smoke from the mammoth fire reached all the way to New York State.  Hundreds of miles out into the Pacific Ocean freighters could not navigate by the stars because the towering columns of smoke from the blaze obliterated half the sky.

Wallace, Idaho in ruins after the the 1910 Big Blow Up.
The towns of Falcon and Gradforks in Idaho and De Borgia, Haugan, Henderson, Taft, and Tuscor in Montana were wiped out.  So was more than a third of Wallace the principle city of the Coeur d’Alene silver-mining district.   In Wallace alone property damage totaled more than one million dollars. Burke, Kellogg, Murray, and Osburn in Idaho also suffered major damage.
The fire spread over private forest land, mining districts, high country cattle ranches, and all or parts of the Bitterroot, Cabinet, Clearwater, Coeur d’Alene, Flathead, Kaniksu, Kootenai, Lewis and Clark, Lolo, and St. Joe National Forests.
Considering the vast size of the blaze and the rapidity with which it spread, it is amazing that only 87 deaths have been confirmed, although more victims probably died in isolated cabins or fleeing and never found. 
73 of the dead were firefighters.  Crews were caught when wind whipped fire through the tree tops and leaped canyons and other barriers or when their own back fires got away from them.  An entire 28 man Lost Crew died along Seltzer Creek near Avery.  It was two years before their remains were dug up from shallow graves where they fell and packed out by mule train for re-internment at a firefighters’ grave yard at St. Maries.

Legendary Forest Ranger Ed Pulaski outside of the cave where he sheltered and saved most of his crew as it was over run by a firestorm.
There were some legendary acts of heroism—most notably veteran Forest Ranger Ed Pulaski, who was commanding a crew near Wallace.  Seeing the flames sweeping down the side of a mountain at them, Pulaski shepherded his men into an abandoned mine shaft and ordered them to lie down.  After several minutes of terror, smoke began to enter the shaft and at least one man tried to make a run for it.  Pulaski coolly drew his pistol and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to leave.  All were overcome by unconsciousness.  Five of the 40 man crew and two horses died in the cave, but the rest survived.
On August 21, less than 48 hours after turning into a grand conflagration, a second cold front moved in, this one with heavy rains which quenched the fires to smoldering ruins.  Crews spent weeks mopping up hot spots.

Many of the 1910 Forest Service firefighters were teen age high school and college students recruited as summer employees.
In the fire’s aftermath, the Forest Service was beefed up and it adopted its policy of fighting every fire.  To make that possible, the Service began the construction of Ranger Station towers on remote mountain tops across the west to keep a keen eye out for any tell-tale smoke on the horizon.   And Forest Rangers became a new kind of American folk hero.
Ironically the fight every fire policy resulted in decades of thick built up underbrush that would ordinarily have been kept in check by small natural fires.  With modern temperature rises and prolonged Western drought that bush became the fuel for recent uncontrollable fires.\

A Forest Service historical Marker commemorates the Great Fire of 1910.

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