Huge Western Fires in 1910 Changed US Wildfire Policy. Will Today’s Conflagrations Do the Same?

Known as the Big Blowup, the 1910 fires helped birth the Forest Service, but so far, climate change and the burning West have spurred little action.

Sep 11, 2020
In August 1910, hundreds of wildfires exploded over an area the size of Connecticut in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and Montana. Credit: U.S. Forest Service

In August 1910, hundreds of wildfires exploded over an area the size of Connecticut in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and Montana. Credit: U.S. Forest Service

As vast and fast wildfires continue to spread almost unprecedented destruction across America's three Pacific states, fire scientists, meteorologists and journalists have begun comparing the conflagrations to one firestorm 110 years ago.

"Nationally, this is probably the biggest wildfire event since the Big Blowup of 1910," Nick Nauslar, a meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center, told the Washington Post, "and it rivals the past fire season in Australia."

Stuart Palley, a photographer who specializes in covering California wildfires, tweeted:  "I agree with other fire reporters and behavior analysts that this event will exceed the Big Blowup Of 1910 in terms of severity and acreage. Seen a lot of fire but surreal to witness this."

The story of the Big Blowup is as iconic to the founding of the U.S. Forest Service as Paul Revere's ride is to the birth of the nation. 

But while comparisons to that historic fire are inevitable as wildfires burn out of control in California, Oregon and Washington, what's less clear is whether those blazes will bring about the same lasting change in the way the nation fights wildfires. That would require focusing far more resources on prescribed burns, as well as controls on development and a concerted national and global effort to make forests more resilient to climate change. 

"If California moves, the rest of the American wildland fire establishment will move with it," said Stephen Pyne, America's preeminent fire historian. "Will it happen now?  The fires are big, but so is the pandemic, and the election, and the economic crisis. Will the fires lead to change? It depends on who controls the narrative" and whether the fires have been "hijacked for other agendas."

'The Boss is Dead'

The Big Blowup took place in August 1910: Hundreds of wildfires exploded over an area the size of Connecticut in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and Montana. Roiling waves of flames hundreds of feet tall trapped Big Ed Pulaski, a ranger with the fledgling U.S. Forest Service, and the 43 men he was leading in the fight against the inferno. With minutes to save his crew from incineration, Pulaski led the men into a mine shaft in the woods.

He ordered them to lay on the floor of the tunnel and hung wet blankets at the entrance to keep out the flames. When smoke filled the shaft, some of the men panicked and tried to run back out. Pusaski pulled his pistol and held his crew at gunpoint until they all fell unconscious in the smoke. When they came to, one of the firefighters saw Pulaski lying at the mouth of the shaft and announced "the boss is dead."

"Like hell he is," was Pulaski's famous response.

All but five members of Pulaski's crew survived, but a third of the nearby town of Wallace, Idaho, where he and much of his crew lived, burned to the ground.

After the fire, Pulaski's injuries prevented him from working the woods as he once had, but that didn't prevent him from making another lasting contribution to the nation's firefighting efforts. Recognizing that there were no specialized tools to fight wildfires, he welded an axe to a hoe. The "Pulaski" remains the cornerstone tool on any fireline in the United States, including those currently burning on the West Coast. 

But with the current wildfires, other aspects of the Big Blowup's legacy loom even larger. 

The '10 a.m. Policy' for Fighting Wildfire

More than any other blazes in the nation's history, the fires of 1910 determined the future of wildland firefighting and forest management in the United States, to some degree because it was the first such disaster to dominate national news. 

The smoke from the more than 1,700 fires darkened the skies as far away as New England and peppered glaciers of Greenland with soot. The blazes burned more than three million acres of land, killed at least 85 people and destroyed entire towns.

It isn't surprising that the conflagration would lead the nation to see the fight against wildfires as a battle between good and evil—part of what American philosopher William James called "the moral equivalent of war" when he suggested that the nation's youth be conscripted into an "army enlisted against nature." What is surprising is how the changes brought about by the Big Blowup can still be seen in the nation's forests and policy, even today.

A charred vehicle is seen in the parking lot of the burned Oak Park Motel after the passage of the Santiam Fire in Gates, Oregon, on September 10, 2020. Credit: Kathryn Elsesser/AFP via Getty Images

A charred vehicle is seen in the parking lot of the burned Oak Park Motel after the passage of the Santiam Fire in Gates, Oregon, on September 10, 2020. Credit: Kathryn Elsesser/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Forest Service, just five years old when the Big Blowup ignited, was widely reviled throughout the West for its efforts to impose order on what had been a free-for-all of logging, mining, hunting and development in the nation's forest reserves. Opponents of the service in Congress left it underfunded and understaffed.

The vast fires of 1910, and the heroic forest rangers who fought them, provided an opportunity to reform the service's reputation. Three consecutive chiefs of the Forest Service had served on the front lines of the fight against the 1910 conflagrations, and they pursued an increasingly aggressive effort to eradicate wildfire in the nation's woodlands, culminating in the "10 a.m. policy" of 1935, which decreed that every wildfire should be put out by the morning after it was sighted. Even Smokey Bear and his message of fire prevention is rooted in the aftermath of the Big Blowup.

But the zero tolerance approach toward wildfire that dominated U.S. forest policy throughout the 20th century had unintended and devastating consequences in many western forests. In some that historically burned with low severity ground fires as often as every two years, the lack of fire allowed trees and vegetation that would normally have burned off to flourish. 

A century after the Big Blowup, some western forests had more than 20 times as many trees as they did before the nation's attempt to eradicate fire from its forests. The lack of flames in previously fire-prone forests encouraged housing and other development to encroach ever deeper into the thickening forests, just as the warming and drying climate left those heavy loads increasingly primed to burn. Yet efforts to thin overgrown forests with prescribed burns—fires intentionally set to reduce the fuel load—have repeatedly been stymied by lack of funding and public resistance, even after disastrous wildfires have emphasized the need to "reintroduce" fire to the West's woodlands to return them to health. Last month, California agencies signed an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to jointly thin a million acres a year of the state's forests by 2025. But far less ambitious forest thinning projects have failed in the past.

Will California Lead the Nation? 

There are other parallels between the current firestorms and the Big Blowup, aside from their size, speed and vast spread. Both devastated countless isolated communities and created their own weather systems that challenged firefighters. 

In 1910, trains rescued fleeing residents from the flames of their burning towns. During the current firestorms, National Guard helicopters extracted trapped campers from the burning woods in flights the pilots said were more difficult than those they made while being shot at in combat zones.

But it remains to be seen whether the current blazes can have an impact on U.S. policy comparable to that of the fires of 1910.

"It's not the size of the fires, it's the size of their impact on society," said Pyne, the fire historian, emeritus professor at Arizona State University and author of more than a dozen books about wildfire around the world, including "Year of the Fires" about the blazes of 1910. 

Pyne said the current fires follow a series of disastrous blazes that failed to change U.S. forest, fire and climate policy.

"After the 2017 season, and the fire into Santa Rosa, it was assumed that a switch had flipped.  It didn't. After the 2018 fire burned Paradise, again it was assumed that something big must result. It didn't.," Pyne said, referring to two devastating wildfires in California. 

Even a fire in Yarnell, Arizona, that killed 19 of the nation's most elite wildland firefighters in June 2013 and was recounted in a star-studded Hollywood movie failed to lead to substantial efforts to make communities and landscapes more resilient to wildfire and firefighters safer, or to slow climate change.

"The Yarnell Hill fire that burned over the Granite Mountain Hotshots did not, so far as I can tell, change policy or practice," Pyne said.

If change is to come, Pyne said, it's likely to begin in California, which has not only endured the worst of the last several years' fires, but is second only to the federal government in the size of its firefighting operation. 

If the Golden State can prioritize preparing for the inevitable blazes by thinning forests with prescribed burns, axes and chainsaws, rather than putting all of its resources into snuffing fires, the rest of the nation would most likely follow, Pyne says. 

Truly changing the nation's approach to fighting wildfires would also require the state to hold back development from the most flammable landscapes and, more broadly, chart a course to reduce forests' vulnerability to climate change. 

In the end, Pyne believes that the nation needs another Pulaski. Not the hero or the axe he invented, but a narrative that can change the nation's relationship with wildfire and the drivers of the current conflagrations.

"What's the story?" he asked. "We have great narratives of fire as disaster and the firefight as battlefield. We have nothing that galvanizes the responses currently before us. I know we'll have arrived when Hollywood makes an action movie about prescribed fire. We're not there yet."

And if this year's blazes, with their comparisons to the Big Blowup, fail to affect the nation's forest, fire or climate policies, it may be unlikely that we ever will get there.

"If four years of serial conflagrations don't move the needle," Pyne said, "we might want to think about bunkers."

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