Sunday, August 20, 2017

Wildfire -- "The Big Burn" -- Ravages North Idaho [otd 8/20]

On August 20, 1910, serious forest fires in and around Northern Idaho “blew up” into arguably the worst wildfire in U. S. history. More than anything else, weather conspired to set the stage for this catastrophe, starting as winter rolled into spring. April brought record temperatures to the Bitterroot Range along the Idaho-Montana border.

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.
Finally, after perhaps 36 hours of aptly-named Hell, the wind relented and light rain began to fall. Residents of Wallace could hardly believe their luck; relief came in time to save all but a third of their town. A number of other villages weren’t so fortunate.

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).


  1. because of the fires here in the bitterroot in 2000, there were several news articles that ran about the big burn of 1910, all of which were the type of stories that have your teeth clinched sitting on the edge of your seat. one such story was of a fire crew with horses that sought safety in an old mine shaft with a roaring crown fire bearing down on them they put as many animals as they could in the shaft along with the fire fighters, only one horse was killed close to the entrance and all the mean were scorched but alive. Truly remarkable, I think each fire season a tribute to those who gallantly tried in vain to turn those historic events should be run each august, as a reminder to us that life is so very fragile and to the men,women,and animals that lost their lives.

  2. I TOTALLY agree that we need a "reminder" day.
    BTW, the book "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America" by Timothy Egan is supposed to be THE best comprehensive account of the fire (and, for better or worse, its effect on forest policy). I did not use it as a reference because it goes well beyond the scope of my blog item.