What have we learned a century after the Big Blowup?

by Tim Lydon

This summer marks the centennial of the Big Blowup of 1910, America’s most devastating wildfire. It’s being commemorated throughout the Northern Rockies, where it killed scores of firefighters and torched 3 million acres. But as a seminal event for the Forest Service, it shaped a much broader swath of our landscape.

The fire was the culmination of a hellish summer. In the Bitterroots, a rainless spring left emaciated streams and withered understory. Dry lightning arrived early and passing locomotives tossed candle-sized flames, sparking dozens of fires. They crept through the understory, at first, but grew as the drought persisted. In July, lightning storms crashed through the mountains, igniting hundreds of new fires.

The five-year-old Forest Service, its funding slashed by Congress, was not prepared for the disaster. Rangers assembled ragtag teams of lumberjacks, railroaders and miners in the smoky streets of Missoula, who emptied stores of shovels and axes, then marched into the woods. With few trails to follow, the flames spread before the men could contain them, and in early August, the Army was dispatched to help.

By mid-August, firefighters were battling thousands of blazes along a 250-mile front, from the Salmon River to Canada, and hoping for rain. But on Aug. 19, gusty weather barreled into the mountains. It was like opening a flue. Flame raced through treetops as hundreds of fires combined. The inferno created its own wind, ripping trees from the ground. The skies went black in Missoula and into Wyoming, and a gust blanketed Denver with Bitterroot soot. The men in the woods had no warning. They doused falling embers with wet blankets and their hats, but when the flames whirled to hundreds of feet and raced over ridges, they ran for their lives.

The Big Burn lasted two days. At least 78 firefighters died, crushed by trees or incinerated while running or hiding in cabins and mines. The lucky ones stumbled from the woods with melted shoes and burns they would wear the rest of their lives.

The Forest Service -- born of the enthusiasm of Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt -- was also deeply scarred, its young rangers routed by the fire. Waving photos of melted saddles and charred shovels, the agency claimed it could have beaten the fires with proper funding from Congress. Pinchot and Roosevelt thundered their support, converting skeptical lawmakers. And so, the war on fire was declared. Overnight, the Forest Service became the nation’s leading firefighter and swiftly developed a fixation with fire suppression. The Park Service soon followed suit.

In the Bitterroots, foresters blamed the area’s remoteness for the Big Blowup. From Missoula, rangers led mule teams into the mountains to improve access. They forced trails as wide as boulevards along wild rivers, then fanned out to open the wilderness with ranger stations, lookouts and more trails.

Trails became roads. As trucks rattled into the mountains, the Forest Service promoted logging, lodges and more roads to further open the forests, a defense against fire. During the Depression, the agency led an army of Civilian Conservation Corps men into the woods to cut fire breaks and carve roads, a pattern repeated across the West.

But more fires burned, and the Forest Service’s response grew ever more militaristic, using surplus bombers to stomp out every fire the day after its report. Some recognized fire’s ecological role and the futility of total suppression. But the Forest Service, traumatized since 1910, stayed the course even as the Park Service broke ranks in the 1960s.

The agency eventually let fire back in the woods, but on a short leash, in a rehab program that continues today. Meanwhile, we all live with the legacy of 1910: Suppression has left millions of acres of overcrowded, fire-prone woods susceptible to the hot whims of our changing climate.

But there’s another legacy. Bob Marshall worked for the Forest Service in Missoula nearly 20 years after the Big Blowup. Aghast at the taming of the Bitterroots, he convinced his agency to leave over a million acres in the Selway-Bitterroot area roadless. After the CCC hit the woods, amplifying development, he created The Wilderness Society with Aldo Leopold and others. It became the force behind passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which permanently protected the Selway-Bitterroot and created today’s wilderness system, free of roads and motorized traffic.

Where I used to live in northwestern Montana, a few big cedar snags stand among dog-hair fir thickets like pale ghosts. They’re wider than their living neighbors and still blackened by the flames of 1910. I like to think of them as ambassadors from an earlier age, with a heck of a story to tell.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the op-ed service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes from Juneau, Alaska, where he works as a wilderness ranger.

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