Evan Tibbott

Evan Tibbott

This is a follow-up to George Wuerthner’s article in regard to forest fires that appeared on Sept. 24, and Lynn Kenneth Fuhrman, for his informative response of Oct. 2 on climate. From a similar historical perspective, I will focus on what has been known as the Great Fire of 1910, also commonly known as the Big Blowup, the Big Burn or the Devil’s Broom fire. It was a wildfire in the western United States that burned 3 million acres (4,700 square miles, 12,100 square kilometers in north Idaho and western Montana, with extensions into eastern Washington and southeast British Columbia) in the summer of 1910. The area burned included large parts of the Bitterroot, Kaniksu, Cabinet, Clearwater, Coeur d’Alene, Flathead, Kootenai, Lewis and Clark, Lolo and St. Joe national forests.

The fire burned over two days on the weekend of Aug. 20-21, after strong winds caused numerous smaller fires to combine into a firestorm of unprecedented size. It killed 87 people, mostly firefighters, destroyed numerous manmade structures, including several entire towns. It is believed to be the largest, although not the deadliest, forest fire in U.S. history. In the aftermath, the newly established U.S. Forest Service received considerable recognition for its firefighting efforts.

The outcome was to highlight firefighters as public heroes while raising public awareness of nature conservation. Earlier in August, President William Howard Taft had authorized the addition of military troops to the effort, and 4,000 troops, including seven companies from the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Regiment (known as the Buffalo Soldiers), were brought in to help fight the fires.

Out of this experience came the nearly 100-year policy of attempting to put out all fires, preferably by 10 a.m. the morning following the discovery. The unintended result was to alter the natural fire-related mechanisms that drive forest ecosystem structure. The extreme scorching heat of the sudden blowup has been attributed to the expansive western white pine forests that covered much of northern Idaho at the time, due to their flammable sap.

The extensive Yellowstone fires in 1988, initially regarded as devastating to the park’s ecosystem, served of landscape-wide benefit in helping to renew an aging forest dominated by disturbance-dependent lodgepole pine. Like aspen, lodgepole pine is dependent on natural disturbance for regeneration. A view from practically any elevated point will reveal carpets of new lodgepole pine that started renewal almost immediately following the fires, largely from seed from their cones opened by heat.

Since the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago, when much of Yellowstone Park, as well as the neighboring Absaroka Range and Bear Tooth Plateau, were covered by ice, the climate warmed and became drier, with the resultant expansion of the range of lodgepole pine into neighboring territory. According to what is known from research, repetitions of such fires in the park have been a more or less regular occurrence over hundreds of years.

Out of the 1910 episode came the story of Ed Pulaski, a forest service ranger, who led a large crew of 44 men to safety in an abandoned prospect mine outside of Wallace, Idaho when fire threatened to overtake them. A tool designed both for chopping and for clearing fire lines was named in his honor — the pulaski. It has been used by thousands of firefighters through the decades.

For information on The Big Burn, I relied largely on Wikipedia, with some content related to my own earlier experience in forest work in Montana and northern Idaho, as well as general knowledge gained over the years from various reliable sources.