Bob Clark first glimpsed it a decade ago from the summit of Grave Peak, in eastern Idaho. Looking north, he saw a stretch of jagged forestland with snowcapped peaks, granite cliffs and grand vistas—and asked himself, "What the hell is that?"
He was looking at the Great Burn, a vast and still little known area that Clark calls "a hidden large gem."
"You can't see the high peaks in the wild country from any of the paved roads such as I-90 and Highway 12, which basically you should, because they're fairly close to it," Clark says. "If you weren't into maps, you might not know it existed."
What Clark first saw in the Great Burn were Williams and Rhodes peaks, dominating the horizon. And he knew he had to get in there. He tried to scale Rhodes twice that summer; washed-out roads foiled both attempts. A year later, he accompanied Missoula environmentalist Dale Harris into the Burn, traveling up the west fork of Fish Creek, a tributary of the Clark Fork River, surrounded by forests of red cedar and wide gravel banks, in a drainage prized by some anglers for its bull trout, brook trout and mountain whitefish. Harris ultimately led Clark still higher—to the fire-scarred wilderness surrounding Fish Lake.
Harris first saw the Burn in 1971 and had much the same reaction as Clark: unshakable awe. After their return, Harris and 10 other people from that trip formed the Great Burn Study Group, dedicating themselves to keeping this hidden gem of wilderness intact, a commitment that has lasted his adult life. He still heads the organization.
That first trip, Harris says, "was about wind and water...Going through those cedar forests on the north fork and the west fork, rushing water, crystal clear. I grew up in Michigan, and I'd spent a lot of time in the Beartooths, so I'd seen water like that—but not through cedar forests."
Forty years later, Harris and the study group are celebrating an important anniversary. By many measures they've succeeded beyond their expectations in keeping the Burn intact. But all is not well in paradise.
The Great Burn of 1910, sometimes called the Big Burn or the Big Blowup, torched three million acres of private and federal forestlands in Montana, Idaho and northeastern Washington. More than 1,700 fires erupted in the area that summer, the driest then on record. The fledging Forest Service was overmatched. President Taft sent 4,000 soldiers to assist the civilian firefighters. In August, Wallace, Idaho was overtaken by the flames, which consumed 100 buildings, nearly half the town. Smoke from the fires reached New England. The soot reached Greenland. By the time it was all over, 80 people were dead.
Today, the Great Burn, at 275,00 acres, encompasses just a fraction of the 1910 blaze. Of that, 100,000 acres are within the Lolo National Forest in western Montana, with the balance in eastern Idaho's Clearwater National Forest. The Bitterroot Divide separates the two chunks along the Idaho-Montana border, between Interstate 90 and Highway 12.
Because the 1910 fire burned so intensely, altering the forest's ecology, the Great Burn is touted by both environmentalists and recreationists as one of the most natural, least manhandled swaths of forest in the region. Timber interest in it spiked in the mid 20th Century and has since subsided. The mining industry has turned a blind eye to the area. The Burn is a quarter-million acres of pristine roadless wilderness. But for a network of trails and diligent volunteer management, it's untouched by the modern world.
That the fires of 1910 saved the Burn from the kinds of industry encroachment seen in some other wilderness areas seems an ironic twist. The same fires spawned an aggressive Forest Service firefighting policy that most now blame for the rash of megafires in recent decades.
By 1935, the Forest Service had adopted a fierce approach to wildland fires known as the "10 a.m. policy," which dictated that all fires be controlled no later than the morning after the day the blaze was discovered. Fire was viewed as a serious threat to the nation's thriving timber industry, with the memory of 1910 and subsequent hot summers spurring the agency to start a public awareness campaign that led to the creation of Smokey the Bear. Meanwhile, deadfall and undergrowth that normally succumbed to uncontrolled fires stacked up.