On a hot, dry August afternoon of 1910, as the great fires burning in the Idaho panhandle were about to blaze over the Bitterroot Divide, nine-year-old May Pierson was hiking with her mother, father and sister Helen along Mill Creek, just a few miles northwest of Hamilton.
The memory of that hike, and of her family’s step-by-step escape from the canyon, was still vivid to May decades later, when she was in her 90s. The sky turned so dark, she remembered, it was as if night had fallen in mid-day. Large hunks of burning timber rained down on her frightened family. With her father in the lead, the Pierson family lined up, holding on to the clothing of the person in front, and followed him out of Mill Creek. A pall of black smoke obscured the sky and the going was slow as May’s father inched his way forward, one foot out front in a hesitant search for the trail’s guiding edge.
Aug. 20-21, 1910. Two days of hell on earth in which the already great fires blew up to three times their size. When rain and snow finally quenched the blazes on Aug. 24, 85 firefighters were dead and some three million forested acres had been torched.
Though the loss of life was tragic and the amount of burned land shocking, the most lasting fallout from the fires of 1910 may lie in the firefighting policies that were developed in their wake, and the manner in which those policies still affect us, nearly a century later.
“If there was a date that changed everything, it was 1910,” says Greg Greenhoe, deputy director of fire aviation for the Northern Region of the U.S. Forest Service.
Devastating forest fires weren’t unknown before 1910. More land burned in the fires of 1889 than in 1910’s Big Blowup, for instance.
The difference between fires then and fires now is people, says Greenhoe. More specifically, the Homestead Act of 1862 altered not only the social fabric of the American West, but the ecology as well.
Prior to the Homestead Act, the large forest fires that swept through the Rockies and the West drew little attention from officials in Washington D.C. Settlers in the West were few and the tribes had long learned to live with fire without bureaucratic help.
Throughout the 1880s, the military was periodically called in to fight fires in Yellowstone National Park, which had been established in 1872 and was beginning to draw its first intrepid visitors from the east.
The Forest Service was created in 1905, and by 1910 the West was filling with people arriving in great numbers to tame and civilize land subject to drought and the western weather phenomenon known as dry lightning. And then, in a matter of hours, people who had been lured west with the promise of free land learned that the price of “free” land could be higher than anyone had imagined.
“That’s when things really started to change,” says Greenhoe. The Big Blowup inspired the phrase “moral equivalent of war,” first used by a regional forester to describe the Forest Service response to devastating forest fires.
That response translated into a post-1910 policy that called for the suppression of all fires to the smallest possible acreage.
Over much of the 20th century, this policy grew and changed with technology, as firefighters figured out better ways to suppress fires blazing in remote backcountry areas. The year 1934 saw the birth of smokejumping, with about 60 actual jumps. Also in the 1930s, the Forest Service began its fire lookout program. The Great Depression created a huge labor pool of potential lookouts, and by the 1950s, hundreds of pre-fabricated lookout cabins had been packed to the tops of western mountains.
By the 1960s, though, land managers and fire experts had begun to understand that fire played a vital role in western forests. Where moist, eastern forests relied on decaying fallen trees to regenerate, the forests of the west were dry; a fallen tree can take decades to decay into humus. What the western forests needed to regenerate themselves, fire experts were learning, was fire.
The first “let-it-burn” experiments launched on western public lands were enacted in 1969 in California’s Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, and three years later in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest.
Then came 1988 and the roaring blazes in Yellowstone, and bigger but less attention-grabbing fires in the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas. Letting lightning-sparked fires burn in some remote Montana wilderness wasn’t likely to stir public outcry, but when the blaze threatened Old Faithful, the same public demanded action.
“People didn’t understand [that] the way it burned in Yellowstone was completely natural,” says Greenhoe. “It was a normal thing for that ecosystem.” Even so, the hue and cry over Yellowstone proved a setback for firewise let-it-burn advocates.
The 2000 fire season, the costliest in U.S. history to date, prompted the establishment of the National Fire Plan, a multi-pronged effort aimed at returning fire to the landscape and reducing fuels.
But in 2000 as in 1910, the public’s willingness to tolerate forest fires was extremely limited. “Political pressure and the demand for protection drives our fire policy,” says Greenhoe.
Jonathan Oppenheimer says the only thing that’s changed as a result of the National Fire Plan is the amount of money invested in firefighting. Oppenheimer has been following the fire money for years, first with Taxpayers for Common Sense, and more recently with the Idaho Conservation League. What the National Fire Plan does is shift money from logging to firefighting, he says. “For a long time the Forest Service [budget] was primarily dominated by timber and logging.” Now fire is the big money-maker within federal land management agencies. The result, Oppenheimer says, is that tax money ends up being diverted from important forest health programs like stream and habitat restoration and trail maintenance and towards wildland firefighting.
Last year, the Forest Service spent $1.2 billion on fire suppression. Non-fire-related programs were put on hold as a result.
“Because fire suppression costs have skyrocketed and funds have been diverted to other accounts, needed restoration, recreation and even fire prevention projects are at risk of being abandoned again this year,” says Oppenheimer.
Greenhoe has more confidence in the efficacy of the National Fire Plan, but with more and more people moving into wildland interface areas, and with growing public demand for fire suppression, he worries that fire will never be given a chance to reclaim its natural place on the western landscape. “When I drive between Missoula and Coeur d’Alene, I wonder how we’re ever going to get fire back on the landscape.”
But Greenhoe has no doubt that fire will return, welcomed or otherwise.
And “When it goes,” he says of the next Big Blowup, “it’s going to go big time.”