What have we learned a century after the Big Blowup?

A devastating wildfire leaves its marks on the West.

  • 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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • WILDLAND FIRE INSTRUCTOR
    Needed: instructor with 5 years *documented* instruction experience, current qualifications, M-410 or equivalent, and able to work as-needed for NM non-profit working with at-risk youth.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • COLORADO PROGRAM MANAGER
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.