We hiked the Pulaski Tunnel Trail yesterday. I’ll have a post up about that soon (tomorrow?) but in the meantime, here’s a primer on what happened in Idaho and Montana on August 20 and 21, 1910.
In the summer of 1910, the entire Pacific Northwest was exceedingly dry—the first forest fires had started burning in Montana by late April. Fires burned throughout the summer but remained mostly small and isolated. Many of these fires were caused by lightning strikes but more were also related to the train traffic crossing the very dry mountains. Fire crews hired by the new US Forest Service (it had only been founded five years earlier) battled the small fires alongside 4,000 Army troops although many fires were left to smolder in remote drainages. (The troops sent to the Coeur D’Alene Mountain region included the all black 25th Infantry, Company G, the “Buffalo Soldiers.”)
On August 20, 1910, high winds hit the region and whipped many of the small smoldering fires into a giant fire that encompassed huge parts of Idaho, Montana, and Washington. Eventually, more than 3 million acres burned in the Bitterroots and surrounding areas. In addition to the 7.5 billion board feet of timber that burned, half of Wallace burned to the ground and the Montana towns of Taft, De Borgia, Haugan, and Henderson were completely lost. The fires killed 87 people including 78 firefighters.
There were some happy endings:Mullan & Avery survived thanks to backfires lit by volunteers. Ed Pulaski (the inventor of the pulaski firefighting tool) saved 40 of the 45 men in his crew by hiding in an abandoned mine tunnel (more on him tomorrow). The Forest Service’s importance to the West was cemented (although it would increase their adherence to a “total suppression” philosophy for decades to come).
Sometimes, when I’m reminded of the fires, I think of being down in these narrow valleys as winds blow flames around, I think of the descriptions of the sky glowing red, I think of the firefighters out attempting to halt the progress of the blaze without the support of helicopters and roads, and I’m flabbergasted they even were able to try.
Highly Recommended Reading: The Big Burn by Tim Egan
Related blog post: 1910 Fire Commemoration
The Forest History Society: “US Forest Service History, The 1910 Fires“
Spokane Spokesman-Review: “Forest fire, the largest in US history, left stories of awe, tragedy.”