ENGULFED. RAGING, WHIPPING, BOILING. A HURRICANE OF FIRE.
BY JESSIANNE CASTLE
These are the descriptions, written on the pages of history, when dry weather met with fierce wind and mortal hubris to cause the great fire of 1910, commonly known as the Big Burn. Violent flames torched some three million acres in northern Idaho and western Montana during the wildfire’s 36-hour peak on August 20 and 21, 1910, transforming the green hues of white pine, tamarack, larch, aspen, fir and cedar—all virgin timber—into a darkened, singed and gnarled skeleton of a forest.
For the men charged with protecting the country’s newfound pride that were the national forests at a time when Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot were writing the definition of conservation and public land, stopping the fire was unthinkable.
“Many thought that it really was the end of the world,” wrote “Big” Ed Pulaski, a Forest Ranger stationed between the St. Joe and Coeur D’Alene rivers in northern Idaho at the time of the Big Burn. The words of Pulaski, after which the famed and eponymous firefighting tool was named, were published in a 1923 article he penned for the magazine American Forestry. “Under such conditions, it would have been worse than foolhardy to attempt to fight the fires. It was a case of saving our lives.”
The situation leading up to the August blowup was a perfect storm. A good snow year yielded way to severe drought that summer, sucking every drop of moisture from the forest, turning the mountains into stands of tinder. Timothy Egan, author of 2009’s The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, described from his research that the desiccated forest was akin to walking on potato chips.
Rainless thunderstorms, new forest settlements and red-hot cinders thrown by coal-powered trains bringing progress to the West added insult to the already injured forest, igniting flareups throughout the summer months. According to one report by the U.S. Forest Service, the largest single contributor to the Great Fire was the new Chicago, Milwaukee and Puget Sound Railway, which sent trains from Tacoma, Washington, into Idaho along the St. Joe River and into the dense Bitterroot Mountains along the Idaho-Montana border en route to Chicago.
Miraculously, forest rangers, many of whom were working their inaugural season with the five-year-old fledgling government agency, were able to hold their own for a time, stymieing the scattered flames just a little longer in hopes the fall rains would come early and bring salvation. They were to protect the national forests at a time in land-management history when wolves and grizzlies had been eliminated and the only thing left in the woods to fear were the fires. And it was thought wildfires would be eliminated, too.
“In a matter of hours, fires became firestorms, and trees by the millions became exploding candles.”
But wind slammed into the Northern Rockies on the afternoon of August 20, 1910, stirring the summer’s accumulation of residual smoke, embers and flickering flames until the very mountains themselves were fueling the force. Canyons and valleys became funnels for the fire-choked air, and suddenly a wall of flame was on the run. “In a matter of hours, fires became firestorms, and trees by the millions became exploding candles,” reads the Forest Service report from the disaster. The fire killed enough timber to fill a freight train 2,400 miles long.
The Big Burn ran from central Idaho east into Montana, west into Washington and north into British Columbia. On August 21, the sky was so dark ships 500 miles off the Pacific Coast couldn’t navigate by the stars. Smoke reached east into New England, and soot fell on the ice in Greenland. Light rain and snow checked the flames overnight on August 23.
ENDURING THE FLAMES
For those caught in the tinderbox 11 decades ago, surviving the wildfire was largely a matter of circumstance. The Big Blowup killed 78 firefighters and nine civilians directly, and more succumbed to smoke inhalation and flame exposure in the weeks and months that followed.
Many residents of Idaho and Montana’s mountain towns evacuated at the last hour and were saved. The Forest Service called in men from far reaches of the U.S. on the promise of regular pay in exchange for fighting forest fires alongside some 500 rangers employed nationwide. Untrained and underequipped, the crews would never be enough.
On August 7, President William Howard Taft sent 2,500 Army troops to aid the desperate Forest Service; among them were the African American 25th Infantry, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. The men of the 25th saved the town of Avery, Idaho, and successfully evacuated women and children from Wallace, Idaho, while other mining towns burned to the ground.
While the 25th hauled water buckets, set backfires and endured a mad dash inside a scorching-hot train, fire crews grasped for life on the front line. Some firefighters sought refuge in mine shafts and creek beds and survived. Others were pinned by burning trees, trapped in the same creek beds that gave salvation to their comrades. Others still were burned beyond the point of recognition or suffocated in the wave of flame.
Those who lived, hunkered in tunnels, creeks and the white ash of backfires, were next faced with making it home. They wandered in a singed wasteland, knowing each footfall could land on hot coals or sink into ash, and they clambered over still-smoldering logs.
Their survival became a victory call for the Forest Service. The rangers were American heroes and if they had just had more the forests might have been saved. More men, more money, more training. And so launched an era of intense fire suppression in America.
GHOSTS IN THE FOREST
The field of fire ecology has since expanded management practices and the Forest Service no longer embraces dousing every wildfire. Researchers now understand that some fire is actually good for the ecosystem. It recycles nutrients and aids in developing plant communities, says Yellowstone National Park fire ecologist Becky Smith. Pointing to stands of trees in Yellowstone that experienced more recent wildfires in 1988 and 2016, she says, “You can see how diverse the landscape will be.”
Today, the mark of the 1910 burn is still apparent in northwest Montana, even 110 years later. Ghosts of the trees that survived the fire are gray-backs—no longer living but still standing in memory—in a regrown forest of lodgepole, larch, white pine and spruce. And the tales of those who lived through the Big Burn continue to shape our understanding of fire, in fact fueling a surge of support for the National Forest System and the conservation ideal.
Certainly, those who stride today through mountain land, those who admire the wild heart of the Northern Rockies, are beneficiaries of that great wildfire, for of the flames and ashen forest was borne newfound passion for wild land. Perhaps we are here today because of it.
A freelance writer and Bozeman native, Jessianne Castle enjoys telling the stories of the West.