Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "A losing battle."
"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" part.
"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.
In 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 or sagebrush.
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.