May … June … July … barely any rainfall and unprecedented heat turned the great forests into gigantic tinderboxes. By early August, scores of fires burned in the Coeur d’Alene National Forest and across the border in western Montana. Lacking manpower, despite the recruitment of thousands of new firefighters, the Forest Service asked for, and received, help from the Army.
|High winds leveled some trees before they could burn.|
Library of Congress.
Depending upon your definition of what constitutes a separate fire, the area still had two to three thousand blazes burning by August 17-19. Yet, after weeks of brutal effort, officials felt they were finally turning the corner.
All that changed on the 20th when an eruption of hurricane-force winds roared in from the west. Within minutes after the blast hit, sparks turned into flames, thickets of smoldering brush became boiling infernos, and burning trees virtually exploded. Crown fires roared up hillsides and over ridges in seconds, it seemed.
Within no more than hours, all those separate fires in northern Idaho and western Montana became one monstrous conflagration – “the Big Burn.” Walls of flame engulfed vast expanses of forest that had hardly been touched before.
Firefighters armed only with hand tools – shovels, axes, hoes, crosscut saws, and perhaps a few buckets – could do little to affect their own fate. Fickle wind shifts killed blocks of men by the dozen, by the score, or horrifically alone. Sometimes men desperately fighting the inevitable won: a providential blast turned the flames aside and spared them. Men threw themselves into the streams; better to drown than be burned alive.
Where there was no fire, ash and black smoke created a surreal landscape and darkened the sky. Reportedly, smoke blocked the sun a hundred miles into Canada, in Denver, and even as far east as New York state.
|Wildfire devastation in Wallace. Library of Congress.|
By most accounts, 85 people died in the flames: seven “civilians” and 78 firefighters. No one even tried to count the toll levied on the animals living in the forest. Some three million acres of forest burned. Thousands upon thousands of tree that escaped the flames died from the intense heat and loss of foliage. Loggers salvaged perhaps ten percent as lumber, the rest was slowly cleared and burned.
A full discussion of the aftermath of the Big Burn is beyond the scope of this article. However, to this day, experts are still debating how to best manage fires in our national forests.
|References: John Galvin, “The Big Burn: Idaho and Montana, August 1910,” Popular Mechanics (July 30, 2007).|
|Javi Zubizarreta, “August 20: The Day the Fires Burned,” Outdoor Idaho, Idaho Public Television (2010).|