A Brief History Of Fire In The West

by Malcolm Macdonald, November 8, 2017

When I was a youngster in the late 1950s a series of thick foggy evenings meant my father would usually conclude supper with the comment, “Good night to burn.”

My older sisters and I armed ourselves with green redwood branches while Dad picked a section of the hillside that needed burning. Often the burn areas were located between switchbacks in the dirt road that meandered uphill and away from the Albion River. The switchbacks provided fire breaks as the road twisted its way northward toward what my father called the prairie road, today's Littleriver Airport Road. I almost wrote that the switchbacks provided “natural” firebreaks because that winding swath of dirt, clay, and rock had been in use at least back to the 1860s. The 1860s marked its first documented mention, but it likely was there as some sort of trail even earlier. Not too far to the east, a more circuitous path cut through the hillside. It, and branch trails off of it, had been used by indigenous folk for quite some time before “white” people arrived on the scene.

Those evening burns were small affairs, with my siblings and I ordered to employ our redwood branches to beat down the flames not long after they ignited. The fires were contained between one pair of switchbacks, something of a family-run “controlled burn,” in part aimed at minimizing the spread of noxious brush such as poison oak. Back then a fire lookout existed only a couple of miles away at the top of Mathison Peak. Small burns like this were often called in ahead of time or occasionally the person “manning” the lookout (Emma Mathison in most of my recollections) called us to make sure, in a friendly manner, that the smoke seen from the lookout was nothing more than a tiny control burn.

I should add that fire lookout Emma Mathison had known my dad since he was born, having been a close childhood friend of one of his older sisters.

In today's hyper-regulated landscape we would probably be arrested for such actions. The debate about fire suppression is pretty much age-old. In the western United States it is clear that the people native to these lands performed their own burns, some of them quite large in comparison to the switchback to switchback method of the Macdonald clan of the Albion River and its environs.

Though the recent fires in Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa, and Lake counties were devastating, in terms of sheer volume of acreage nothing in modern times compares to the Big Burn of 1910. That wildfire swept over three million acres in eastern Washington, the panhandle of Idaho, and in Montana. At its peak during August 20-21, 1910, what came to be called the “Big Blowup” burned through all of the following national forests: Bitterroot, Cabinet, Clearwater, Couer d'Alene, Flathead, Kaniksu, Kootenai, Lewis and Clark. Lolo, and St. Joe.

The firestorm arrived when the National Forest Service was in its infancy and only months after President William Howard Taft had fired the Forest Service's inspirational leader, Gifford Pinchot. The dismissal of Pinchot was part of Taft's overall dismantling of Teddy Roosevelt's plan of wild land conservation. The Forest Service was so under funded by Taft and corrupt members of Congress that Pinchot, at times, paid for his rangers' supplies out of his own pocket.

When fires flared up in Idaho, Montana, and northeastern Washington as early as April, 1910, many blamed the young rangers for not quelling the blazes and tried to use the fires as an excuse to completely break the Forest Service. The drought like conditions that persisted for the next few months combined with winds and lightning strikes in late July and early August created a firestorm that consumed an area as large as Connecticut. In the blowup of August 20-21st a twenty-eight man fire crew simply disappeared from existence all at once. Telegraph operators sent out messages describing a wall of tumbling flame thirty miles wide. The evidence of burn marks discovered afterward proved that to be no exaggeration.

Another 45 man crew would have met a grisly fate except for the quick thinking of its leader, Edward “Big Ed” Pulaski, who ordered his men into an abandoned mine shaft about five miles south of the town of Wallace, Idaho, minutes, if not moments, before flames could engulf them. Timbers near the mine entrance smoldered, sucking oxygen out of the shaft. Pulaski wrapped wet blankets around the timbers and used his hat to scoop muddy water from puddles on the mine floor. His hands and hair burned. The fire seared his eyes. For the next five hours the inferno raged. Many of the men inside screamed, moaned, convulsed and retched. One even tried to strangle a fellow firefighter. Some of them tried to race out, but Pulaski drew his revolver and threatened to shoot anyone who dared to cross him. The men lay prone on the floor of the mine tunnel, one by one passing out from the effects of the smoke seeping in. At dawn one man rose and raced out, heading toward Wallace, which was at least half burned to the ground. To everyone he met the survivor screamed that all were dead inside the mine. However much that might have appeared true in the smoky haze of that dawn, one after another, men stumbled from the mine's entrance. One bleary-eyed firefighter told a stranger, “The boss is dead.” Behind him, Pulaski raised his head and hollered, “Like hell he is.”

In total, 40 of Pulaski's forty-five man crew survived, one man had been killed by a falling tree not far from the mine, four others died from smoke inhalation inside the mine as did two of Pulaski's horses. Many more stories of heroism, narrow escapes, and tragedy marked the 1910 conflagration, including a train pulling out of Wallace designated for women and children only, but with the usual infiltration of cowardly menfolk pushing their way on board in the final minutes.

Smoke from the fire hovered as far away as New England, soot floated all the way to Greenland.

In the aftermath the Forest Service gained positive recognition, but that entity's reaction to the great fire of 1910 was to adopt an absolutist view in favor of fire suppression, though some of those involved in the actual firefighting opposed the concept. Elers Koch, one of Pinchot's hand picked district rangers, who had battled the Big Blowup in Lolo National Forest was a vocal proponent of letting back country fires burn themselves out. Pinchot, though relieved of duty, took a public stand in favor of suppression and that mindset ruled the day for nearly a century.

Yes, “Big Ed” Pulaski was the inventor of the tool (axe on one side, mattock on the other) that bears his surname. One of the finest accounts of the 1910 fires, that places the events within the context of the battle over Teddy Roosevelt's fight for conservation of public land, is The Big Burn, written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Timothy Egan.

(Readers won't get burned at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com)

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