In July 1910, a firestorm of unimaginable proportions ripped through the wildlands of Montana and Idaho, burning three million acres in less than two weeks. Fire behavior was extreme beyond anything we’ve witnessed since, with fires crossing watershed after watershed and finally burning themselves out on the plains.
Anyone working in wildland fire has some sense of the importance of the firestorm of July 1910 as the inspiration for many formative wildland fire policies. Yet the larger role that firestorm had on the history of public lands had not been detailed until New York Times writer Timothy Egan recently released The Big Burn.
If you come to The Big Burn hoping for a book in the tradition of Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire which examined the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949 in painstaking detail, or the books of his son John, such as Fire on the Mountain (the South Canyon Fire), or the Thirtymile Fire, that examine individual fires in a more journalistic style, you will be pleasantly surprised that Egan’s book goes well beyond the fire investigation perspective and puts the 1910 fires in a broad and deeply relevant historical perspective.
Pulitzer Prize winner journalist Timothy Egan won the National Book Award for his 2006 The Worst Hard Times about the Dust Bowl. The Big Burn is an ambitious book that takes on a regional topic but effectively weaves a national history narrative around it which ranges from forest fire fighting practices to the history of conservation ethics in the Republican party.
This centennial year of the 1910 firestorm will likely bring other commemorations, but Egan’s book may well end up being the finest. His narrative is more about the early history of the Forest Reserves and the US Forest Service than it is about the fires, though the fires provide the excitement and the glue for a deeper tale. His research is impressive as he weaves many small stories together to tell a large one.
In particular, Egan focuses on two men, Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, describing their meeting, their friendship over thirty years, and the profound impact both had on the formation and the philosophical roots of the Forest Service and the basic idea of conservation in America. This relationship of two powerful, charismatic, and deeply committed men made the national forest system possible. Without them, America may have emerged from the 1800’s with only a few national parks and the lands now contained in national forests in private hands.
It was Teddy Roosevelt who set aside 180 million acres for Forest Reserves, after he first set aside Pelican Island as a national wildlife refuge in 1903. Roosevelt was a serious outdoorsman who brought his love of the outdoors to the presidency and was known for his private camping trip into Yosemite in 1903 with John Muir who considered him a friend. While Muir championed the national parks, it was the relationship between Pinchot and Roosevelt that brought about the national forests, with each man inspiring the other to an ever-larger vision of a public commons devoted to all Americans and the conservation of resources for the long term.
“Leave it as it is, you cannot improve upon it,” Roosevelt famously said while overlooking the Grand Canyon from his winter campsite.
Egan then develops a subtext which has been playing itself out in the politics of public lands for a century. The conflict between the large industrialists like Senator Weldon Heyburn who did all he could to destroy the Forest Service and the idea of public lands on behalf of those who wanted unfettered access to trees and minerals in the frontier West. This fight between Pinchot/Roosevelt and Heyburn and his industry allies manifested itself, in part, as a grossly underfunded Forest Service when the 1910 fires erupted. Subjected to ridicule in the Northwest newspapers owned by Heyburn and his friends, USFS rangers went about their work with little or no pay, thanks to Heyburn’s budget cuts, while timber theft abounded, land claim fraud was rampant, and towns full of drink and prostitution sprouted illegally in the national forests.
In this context, the 1910 blazes ignited in a drought-stricken year of intense winds that joined numerous dry lightning and coal locomotive spawned blazes into huge crown fires that swept across an area the size of Connecticut. The fires exhibited behavior rarely if ever seen since, with spot fires starting ten miles in advance of flame-fronts and crown fires killing old growth cedar and fir across numerous mountain ranges. The fires finally burned themselves out in the grasslands of eastern Idaho and Montana but not until they burned through Glacier National Park and continued into Alberta, Canada.
The underfunded Forest Service did its best to protect towns like Wallace, Idaho from these firestorms at a time when trails were few, fire tools consisted only of shovels, and air attack, fire shelters or even the Pulaski and McCloud hand-tools had yet to be invented. Consequently fire crews burned to death huddled in cabins, root cellars, or on slopes where the fire rushed over in minutes with flames hundreds of feet high. Some like Ranger Joe Halm’s crew survived by lying down in diminished streams with wet blankets over them. Ranger Ed Pulaski led his crew into an abandoned mine tunnel near Wallace and forced the panicked men to stay put at gunpoint, saving all but five of them while his wife and daughter huddled on mine tailings while nearby Wallace burned to the ground.
Ed Pulaski’s story forms one of the main threads of Egan’s book, illustrating the real life of a ranger in the Service’s first years. His heroism in the fire was little acknowledged at the time and his severe injuries receive inadequate treatment since the Forest Service had no provision to compensate for on-the-job injuries, extended hospitalization, or needed medical leave. Though Pulaski is immortalized on the fire-line by the axe/hoe he invented, he died deeply bitter about the federal government’s lack of support for the Forest Service and its treatment of the dead and injured from the 1910 fires.
In subsequent years, Gifford Pinchot used the 1910 firestorm to create a convincing public narrative which rescued the Forest Service from the industrialists bent on legislating its destruction in the US Senate and those who would abuse the lands in the backwoods of the Northwest. Pinchot’s campaign succeeded in finally winning the funding needed to fortify the Forest Service and allow it to pay its rangers, build lookouts and stations and recruit staff even after the disastrous years of the Taft administration. Yet even as Pinchot saved the Forest Service, his greater vision of largely protected lands with only small-scale logging and resource use was changed from within by his successor Bill Greeley, a man Pinchot had hired decades earlier, who threw the national forests open to industrial scale logging and clear-cutting that continues today.
Like Aldo Leopold, Gifford Pinchot underwent a steep learning curve with regard to fire management and fire suppression on the national forests. Greeley and others openly advocated cutting down forests wholesale after the 1910 blazes to starve future fires of fuels. Pinchot understood too well that natural ignition fire would always be in the national forest system and he advocated a flexible approach to fire, similar to today’s AMR policy. Greeley on the other hand, advanced a zero tolerance policy toward fire and instituted the 10 o’clock policy which many blame for the Mann Gulch and other fatal fires and eventual fuel accumulations that led to the Cerro Grande Fire, Rodeo Chedeski Fire and a decline in forest health across the West.
Egan’s book covers a great deal of ground in a fiction-like, readable, and accessible pace. It is less dense than Stephen Pyne’s (Year of the Fires) on the same general topic. Though Egan leaves a few story lines hanging, his ambitious book should be required reading for all new Forest Service employees, to learn the roots of their agency, American conservation, and the overall history of wildland fire policy.
With climate change exerting unknown and complex changes on western forests, we may again see fires like the 1910 fires. Despite our improved technology, it’s not clear we’ll be any more successful in fighting future fires than the pioneering rangers of the beleaguered Forest Service were in the outposts of the Cour d’Alene, the Payette, the Salmon and the Kootenai in 1910.
Tom Ribe has been working on public lands and public land policy since his college days. He has has MS in Environmental Policy from the University of Oregon, has worked for California State Parks, US Forest Service and the National Park Service where he has worked in prescribed fire at Yosemite and Bandelier National Monument since 1980. He has written on public land policy for magazines like High Country News and National Parks. His new book on the Cerro Grande (Los Alamos) Fire will be out in May. He lives on the edge of the Santa Fe National Forest in Santa Fe, NM. For more information on the book go to http://www.tomribe.com/.