August 20, 1910. Wallace, Idaho. An advancing wall of flame and destruction about a mile wide, traveling up to 70 miles per hour, is headed for this tiny town. The only thing standing between the fire and the town’s demise are the fledgling firefighters of the newborn US Forest Service, who are completely unprepared for a disaster of this magnitude and are armed with only buckets of water. Most of them have never even seen a forest firej, and have no idea how to fight one. Many of them are new to the United States, drawn to the Forest Service by the promise of a paycheck during economically tough times. The townspeople begin to panic as the fire closes in. Only women and children are allowed on the only train headed out of town. Men are expected to stay and help defend the town from the conflagration, yet it’s the foremost members of the town who try to sneak their way onto the train. Cinders and firebombs begin to drop onto the wood-shingled roofs of the town. Will Wallace survive?
The intense and heartbreaking story of the Great Fire of 1910 is chronicled in Timothy Egan’s book, The Big Burn. The fire was the first challenge of Teddy Roosevelt’s US Forest Service, created in 1905 to protect and conserve forest land. Roosevelt was outraged at the greediness of the lumber barons, who wanted to cut down acres of the most beautiful wilderness our country had to offer, and his answer was to protect these vast lands as national parks, where everyone could go to enjoy the beautiful views and peace of nature, while also protecting these areas from any future logging. He named his good friend and fellow conservationist, Gifford Pinchot, to the position of Chief Forester. The fledgling Forest Service was not respected by people in industry and the railroad companies. Although these lands were protected by law, Pinchot did not have enough rangers to keep an eye on all of the lands put aside (and their miniscule budget barely had enough to pay even the rangers they had), and loggers continued to sneak into some areas and cut down trees. Congressmen did not pass legislation to help support the new Forest Service, thanks to the railroad and lumber companies putting big money in their pockets to turn a blind eye. It seemed to be a losing battle. Yet Pinchot and his “Little GPs” soldiered on the best they could.
1910 was the driest summer in recorded history to that time. Pinchot did not believe in deliberately setting controlled fires to burn off the driest areas, and he worked hard to get his rangers to squelch even the smallest fires caused by lightning strikes or a stray spark from a railroad car’s wheel on a track, thereby preventing Mother Nature from naturally maintaining the state of the forest. Thanks to Pinchot’s misguided intentions, this resulted in acres upon acres of bone-dry wilderness, a veritable tinderbox for what was to come.
In August 1910, several wildfires spread out over Washington and Idaho were whipped into a frenzy by a Palouser, a rare hurricane force cold front rolling off the Pacific Ocean. The Palouser put wings behind the wildfire, and its high powered winds drove the fire through the dry woods like a train at high speed. It was unstoppable. Pinchot’s rangers were barely given time to run for their own lives, much less protect property and citizens, and most of the rangers would either die or quickly improvise. Ed Pulaski, one of the braver rangers, forced his men into an abandoned mineshaft and forced them all at gunpoint to lay down in the mud until the fire was over, saving all of their lives except for the two that panicked and ran back into the fire. Several immigrant rangers would have the same idea, squeezing into a small cave. They were not so lucky when a large burning tree fell, blocking the mouth of the cave and cooking them alive. The wildfire would eventually burn more than 3 million acres of protected forest in Washington, Idaho and Montana, completely destroying several towns (Wallace would survive only partly burned) and killing 85 people, many of them the brave forest fighters who tried to stop it. Luckily for people in other states, another cold front brought rain, which smothered the fire, preventing further death and destruction.
Ironically, it was the inability of the Forest Service to stop this catastrophic wildfire that ultimately brought it the attention and respect it deserved. When Congressmen toured the smoking ruins of cities and saw the charred hulks of dead horses and men, they realized the powerful destruction of fire, and how important it was to be protected in the future from similar situations. The Big Burn influenced passage of the Weeks Act in 1911, which allowed for better cooperation between the Forest Service and state authorities for fire control.
This was a really good book. I enjoyed the stories about Teddy Roosevelt wrestling everyone who came to his house, and I was angry and frustrated by the government’s inability to see the importance of protecting our natural heritage. Roosevelt and Pinchot were pioneers ahead of their time. We have them to thank for the beauties of Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Yellowstone National Park. Think of them the next time you visit one of our gorgeous parks.
And only YOU can prevent forest fires.