Friday, August 21, 2015

The Big Blowup Of 1910: A Forest Fire Like No Other

Wallace, Idaho, after the Big Blowup of 1910

The Northwestern U.S. is in the midst of an extreme fire season that has already claimed the lives of several firefighters. On this day in 1910 the fire season was equally bad if not worse. High winds merged almost two thousand small forest fires across Washington, Idaho and Montana into a massive area of fire that burned 3 million acres of timber. This fire, known as the Big Blowup, destroyed several towns, miles of transportation infastructure, and took the lives of 87 people, 78 of them firefighters. It still ranks as the largest forest fire in U.S. history.

Result of wildfire "hurricane" at St. Joe River, C'oeur d'Alene, Idaho 

At the time of the fire the U.S.Forest Service (USFS) was a new and struggling agency in the federal government. This fire not only enhanced the agency's purpose but also gave it focus on the strategy and tactics of forest fire fighting. It also produced the USFS's first legendary character, Ranger Ed Pulaski. An article by the Forest History Society tells the story:

Fighting a fire about ten miles southwest of Wallace, Idaho, Ranger Pulaski order his crew of forty-three men to follow him to a mineshaft to escape the inferno. They barely outran the fire. Pulaski ordered his men to lie down on the tunnel floor while he hung blankets over the entrance, threatening to shoot any man who tried to flee. He threw water onto the blankets until the smoke overwhelmed him. When the men awoke the next day, all but five had survived. Pulaski’s decisive actions and his courage in the face of death made for great copy. But it was his simple desire to get home to his wife and daughter in Wallace that struck a universal cord with the public and helped elevate him into Forest Service myth almost before the fires had stopped burning. It was not long before Pulaski became a hero—though he never comfortably wore that mantle—and his story legend. His legend was further cemented when he was credited with inventing the firefighting tool that bears his name. He received no compensation for either his wounds or his invention. The only compensation came in 1923 when he won $500 in an essay contest for the account of his actions in the Big Blowup.

Pulaski's eponymous invention, a combination grubbing hoe and ax

As you read this today, there's a good likelihood thousands of pulaskis are at work across the Northwest. Behind each one stands a firefighter risking life and limb to protect our resources and populations at almost any cost. Historic fires like the Big Blow led to policies that in the past gave them no options. In the last generation or so the USFS policy of total fire suppression has been questioned given our research in fire and forest ecology and our persistent settlement in what is called the wildland-urban interface. Essentially fire can be thought of as another tool under the right conditions. With new science and news tools, decision making for fire managers is certainly more complex today but it does make what will always be a dangerous job somewhat safer.

On this historic day, and every day we have men and women assigned to forest fires, we need to keep them in mind and more. It's a risky job whether you make the decisions, fly the aircraft or most certainly dig the fire lines, and we want every one of them to come home safe.



National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress) REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., Pulaski photo

Text:, The 1910 Fire, Great Fire of 1910, The 1910 Fires, Forest fire, the largest in U.S. History, left stories of awe, tragedy

No comments: