|Burned area 12,141 km²|
|Start date 1910|
|Location Northern Washington, North Idaho, Northwest Montana|
Cause not officially determined
Land use logging, mining, railroads
Similar Peshtigo Fire, 1825 Miramichi Fire, Yellowstone fires of 1988, Yarnell Hill Fire, 2015 Washington wildfires
Great fire of 1910
The Great Fire of 1910 (also commonly referred to as the Big Blowup, the Big Burn, or the Devil's Broom fire) was a wildfire that burned about three million acres (1,214,057 ha), approximately the size of Connecticut) in northeast Washington, northern Idaho (the panhandle), and western Montana. The area burned included parts of the Bitterroot, Cabinet, Clearwater, Coeur d'Alene, Flathead, Kaniksu, Kootenai, Lewis and Clark, Lolo, and St. Joe National Forests. The firestorm burned over two days (August 20–21, 1910), and killed 87 people, mostly firefighters. It is believed to be the largest, although not the deadliest, forest fire in U.S. history. The outcome was to highlight firefighters as public heroes while raising public awareness surrounding national nature conservation.
Great fire of 1910
There were a great number of problems that contributed to the destruction caused by the Great Fire of 1910. The fire season started early that year, because the spring and summer of 1910 were extremely dry and the summer sufficiently hot to have been described as “like no others”. The drought resulted in forests that were teeming with dry fuel, which had previously grown up on abundant autumn and winter moisture. Fires were set by hot cinders flung from locomotives, sparks, lightning, and backfiring crews, and by mid-August, there were 1,000 to 3,000 fires burning in Idaho, Montana, Washington, and British Columbia.
The Big Blowup
On August 20, a cold front blew in and brought hurricane-force winds, whipping the hundreds of small fires into one or two blazing infernos. The fire was impossible to fight; there were too few men and too little supplies. The United States Forest Service (then called the National Forest Service) was only five years old at the time and unprepared for the possibilities of this dry summer. Later, at the behest of President William Howard Taft, the U.S. Army, 25th Infantry Regiment (known as the Buffalo Soldiers), was brought in to help fight the blaze.
Smoke from the fire was said to have been seen as far east as Watertown, New York and as far south as Denver, Colorado. It was reported that at night, 500 miles (800 km) out into the Pacific Ocean, ships could not navigate by the stars because the sky was cloudy with smoke.
The extreme scorching heat of the sudden blowup can be attributed to the great Western White Pine forests that blanketed Idaho. The hydrocarbons in the resinous sap of the Western White Pine boiled out of the sap and created a cloud of highly flammable gas that blanketed hundreds of square miles, which then spontaneously detonated dozens of times, each time sending tongues of flame thousands of feet into the sky, and creating a rolling wave of fire that destroyed anything and everything in its path.
The entire 28-man "Lost Crew" was overcome by flames and perished on Setzer Creek outside of Avery, Idaho.
The most famous story of survival was that of Ed Pulaski, a U.S. Forest Service ranger who led a large group of his men to safety in an abandoned prospect mine outside of Wallace, Idaho, just as they were about to be overtaken by the fire. It is said that Pulaski fought off the flames at the mouth of the shaft until he passed out like the others. Around midnight, a man announced that he, at least, was getting out of there. Knowing that they would have no chance of survival if they ran, Pulaski drew his pistol, threatening to shoot the first person who tried to leave. In the end, all but five of the forty or so men survived.
The fire was finally extinguished when another cold front swept in, bringing steady rain. Several towns were completely destroyed by the fire:
Additionally one third of Wallace, Idaho, was burned to the ground, with an estimated $1 million (calculation 1910), approximately $26 million in 2016 dollars, in damage. Passenger trains took thousands of Wallace residents to Spokane, Washington, and Missoula, Montana. Another train with 1,000 people from Avery took refuge in a tunnel after racing across a burning trestle. Other towns with severe damage included: Burke, Kellogg, Murray, and Osburn, Idaho. The towns of Avery and Saltese as well as a major part of Wallace were saved by backfires.
The Fire of 1910 cemented and shaped the U.S. Forest Service, which at the time was a newly established department on the verge of cancellation. Before the epic event, there were many debates on how to handle forest fires; whether to let them burn because they were a part of nature and were expensive to fight, or to fight them in order to protect the forests. One of the people who fought the fire, Ferdinand A. Silcox, went on to become the fifth chief of the fire service. Influenced by the devastation of the Big Blowup, Silcox promoted the "10 a.m." policy, the goal of suppressing all fires by 10 a.m. of the day following their report. It was decided that the U.S. Forest Service was to prevent and battle against every wildfire. More recently, this absolutist attitude to wildfires has been criticized for altering the natural disturbance mechanisms that drive forest ecosystem structure.