"Investigating the ... arid lands, I passed through South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho by train. Among the valleys, with mountains on every side, during all that trip a mountain was never seen. This was because the fires in the mountains created such a smoke that the whole country was enveloped by it ... "
This squinty-eyed report came from
Major John Wesley Powell back in 1889. The fires that year were so
widespread and fierce, they greatly impressed Powell, who had
already faced the rigors of Civil War combat and Grand Canyon
rapids. But pioneer-era fires like those Powell saw are seldom
mentioned today amid all the sensational stories about the recent
wildfires, which are said to be unnaturally large. That’s
probably because they put the lie to the "unnaturally"
"Fire in an ordinary year passes over the ground and
burns the leaves and cones, etc., only," Powell, the director of
the U.S. Geological Survey at that time, reported to Congress. "But
there come critical years ... of great drought ... and the fire
starts and sweeps everything away."
The 1889 fires burned
even more land than the famous 3-million-acre Big Blowup of 1910.
Other huge fire years in the Northern Rockies and Northwest include
1869, 1846, 1823, 1802, 1784, 1778 and 1756, says a leading fire
ecologist, Steve Arno. In the Central Rockies and Southwest, huge
fire years include 1879, 1851, 1847, 1785, and 1748.
fact, fire ecologists say that far more land burned each year
during the 1800s and earlier, than in recent years. In the
preindustrial era, from 1500 to 1800, an average of 145 million
acres burned every year nationwide — about 10 times more than
the nation’s recent annual burns. In the West, Arno estimates
that 18 to 25 million acres burned each year, as recently as the
1800s. Lightning strikes ignited some fires, while others were
started by accident. Indians and settlers set many fires
deliberately, to drive game, make room for their homes, stimulate
their crops, or fight enemy tribes. Many of the burns were in grass
The total burned acreage dropped after the
federal government launched the war on wildfires, and after much of
the burnable land was converted to farms and settlements.
There is disagreement about the impacts and severity of the fires
in the old days, but there is "strong consensus," Arno says, that
smoky skies were more of a fact of life back then — and that
we’re heading that direction again.