The 1910 Fire was the largest forest fire in American history, perhaps in the history of the world. Now, almost one hundred years later, the blackened ghosts of giant cedars stand in silent witness to the devastation and death that rode the wild winds of August.
In just over 48 horrific hours, starting in the late afternoon of Saturday, August 20th, the raging inferno devoured more than 8 billion board feet of virgin timber on 3 million acres in western Montana and northern Idaho, caused the deaths of 78 firefighters and 8 civilians and decimated 13.5 million dollars of personal property. Other forest fires have been more deadly, but none moved as savagely or swiftly across such a vast timbered wilderness as did the massive fire of 1910.
Accounts of the firestorm mention Edward Stahl, a forester, who wrote of flames that shot hundreds of feet into the night sky “fanned by a tornadic wind so violent that the flames flattened out ahead….swooping to earth in great darting curves, truly a veritable red demon from hell”.
Hurricane velocity winds turned canyons into crematoriums. Of the 86 who perished, 28 or 29 firefighters – history is unclear – attempted to outrun their deaths only to be trapped in a vertical canyon.
Hysterical, in a state of confusion and shock, men fled for their lives, the caustic smoke searing lungs and obstructing vision. The fires, the dense smoke, the intense, blinding heat and the crackling flames were inescapable. Many men, too terrified to face death by fire, took their own lives by gunshot. One man jumped from a burning train. Two firefighters surrendered to their fate and simply walked into the flames as their companions watched in horror from where they had sought refuge in the overhang of a creek bank.
Eyewitness accounts describe the terror experienced by those who fought the 1910 fire and lived to tell about it. One survivor told a newspaper reporter, “The fire turned trees and men into weird torches that exploded like Roman candles”.
Excerpts from Ranger Edward Pulaski’s accounting of the fire on Placer Creek near Wallace, Idaho. Pulaski was a Ranger on the Coeur d’Alene National Forest in 1910.
His personnel file included this evaluation, written by his boss, Forest Supervisor, W. G. Weigle: “Mr. Pulaski is a man of most excellent judgement; conservative, thoroughly acquainted with the region, having prospected through the region for over twenty five years. He is considered by the old-timers as one of the best and safest men to be placed in charge of a crew of men in the hills”.
“True to form, Ranger Pulaski guided his crew through darkness and a raging inferno driven by hurricane-force winds, to the safety of the War Eagle Mine tunnel. In the years following the fire, he was lionized for his heroism, perhaps in part because he was everyone’s vision of what a hero ought to took like. He bore a remarkable resemblance to the actor, Gregory Peck, stood six-foot three, had steel-blue eyes, and struck a commanding presence everywhere he went”.
“Some crying, some praying” – The mine timbers at the mouth of the tunnel caught fire, so I stood up at the entrance and hung wet blankets over the opening, trying to keep the flames back by filling my hat with water, which fortunately was in the mine, and throwing it on the burning timbers. The men were in a panic of fear, some crying, some praying. Many of them soon became unconscious from the terrible heat, smoke and fire gas … I, too, finally sank down unconscious. I do not know how long I was in this condition, but it must have been for hours. I remember hearing a man say, ‘Come outside, boys, the boss is dead.’ I replied, “Like hell he is.” I raised myself and felt fresh air circulating through the mine. The men were all becoming conscious. It was five o’clock in the morning… “
“Shoes burned off we had to make our way over burning logs and through smoking debris. When walking failed us we crawled on our hands and knees. How we got down I hardly know. We were in a terrible condition, all of us hurt or burned. I was blind and my hands were burned from trying to keep the fire out of the tunnel. Our shoes were burned off our feet and our clothes were in parched rags… “
Another survivor of the fiery holocaust described the devastation – “The green, standing forest of yesterday was gone; in its place a charred and smoking mass of melancholy wreckage. The virgin trees, as far as the eye could see, were broken or down, devoid of a single sprig of green. Miles of trees – sturdy, forest giants – were laid prone… Men, who quenched their thirst from small streams, immediately became deathly sick. The clean, pure water running through miles of ashes had become a strong, alkaline solution, polluted by dead fish, killed by the lye. Thereafter we drank only spring water”.
Blueprint For Disaster
The winter of 1909-1910 was bitter cold with little snow cover. East bound weather fronts from the Pacific that normally buried the area in tens of feet of snow, instead vented their fury on the Cascades. Only a small percentage of that moisture was carried inland as far as northern Idaho and western Montana. The area received less than a half inch of precipitation from January to June and was the driest in anyone’s memory.
The temperature soared and late evening thunder and lightening storms, bereft of moisture, sparked wildfires across the wilderness. By mid May Glacier National Park was already under siege. Multiple fires broke out across the high county of northern Idaho and northwestern Montana, as men and pack teams rallied to battle the outbreaks. Reports came in daily from the Blackfoot, Cabinet, Clearwater, Flathead, Lolo and Kaniksu forests of new wildfires that swelled to triple their size at a speed faster than a man could move.
In 1910 Timber management was still a new idea in the United States. In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt established The United States Forest Service to manage the national forests with the goal of providing the county with a consistent supply of quality water and timer. At that time the focus was on conservation and policy mandated that the best way to conserve the timber reserves was to protect them from forest fire.
Although newly formed and inexperienced, the US Forest Service clearly recognized the immediate danger of the situation and recruited thousands of men to fight the ever growing numbers of remote forest fires across the northwestern states.
Prospectors packed up their gear and moved out of the high country, settlers and ranchers buried equipment or removed it from harms way and moved families and animals closer to the river. Town and camp residents up and down the trail were encouraged to relocate to areas of safety in Spokane or Missoula.
As the fire season progressed, so did the number and size of fires that raged across the wilderness. Equipment, experience and manpower were in short supply. Joe Haim, a graduate from Washington State College in 1909, was employed as a surveyor in the Coeur d’ Alene National Forest and described the hardships and handicaps faced by the fire fighters. “There were no trails or roads and we had to go in 65 miles to get to the fire when we were first sent out . . . it took more time getting into the country than to put out a small blaze.” Joe Haim reportedly held his terrified crew at gunpoint to keep them from fleeing a fire they could not possibly escape. His decisive and heroic action saved many lives.
The drought continued into the summer and the many inches of rain that annually blessed the area failed to arrive. Hot dry winds wicked moisture from the forest floor, drained creeks and shriveled the usually verdant meadow grasses; crops failed and livestock suffered. All the necessary elements for a catastrophic firestorm were in place.
On August 20th, a fierce cold front spawned hurricane velocity winds that feed fresh oxygen to the many scattered fires. Previously controlled, low intensity fires mushroomed into a gigantic fireball, dormant fires crowned and trees exploded into a blazing inferno several miles wide and hundreds of feet tall. Poisonous smoke blackened the countryside as day instantly turned to darkest night. In Denver, 800 miles away from the epicenter of the firestorm, the temperature dropped 19 degrees in 10 minutes and at 5 PM a roaring wind descended upon Denver, obliterating it with toxic smoke from the fires to the northwest.
Firefighters scattered throughout the forest were caught unaware. Impeded by the intense heat, blinding smoke and hazardous terrain, many were trapped and unable to flee the conflagration. Some survived by crawling into caves or mine shafts or by drenching themselves with water and laying down in creeks and streams. Residents of the small towns fled the area by train or stayed and desperately lit back fires against the terrifying wall of flame racing towards them.
By the morning of August 21st the devastation was evident and mind boggling. Over a third of the town of Wallace, Idaho was incinerated. Nearby Grand Forks lay in ruins. On the other side of the Lookout Pass the towns of DeBorgia, Taft, Haugen and Henderson were destroyed. Dense smoke filled the sky as far east as New York State and south to beyond Denver, Colorado. Sailors navigating in the Pacific reported that they could not see the stars through the smoke veil.
Two days later, on the 23rd, a secondary cold front swept in from the Pacific dropping a deluge of heavy rain. The “Big Burn” was finally extinguished, however not before lives were lost and lives were changed forever by the experience. It will be centuries before a normal forest is restored.