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The Big Burn

Physical evidence a hundred years old is sometimes hard to uncover, so we are fortunate that there are written accounts of the 1910 Fires. Eighty-seven lives lost, three million timbered acres burnt, creeks, “white with the bellies of dead trout.” Elers Koch’s day-by-day account is gripping. The Big Burn by Timothy Egan retells the story and demonstrates how those two days of hellish fires rescued a struggling Federal agency. Egan does a great job explaining how Teddy Roosevelt, the conservationist, Pinchot, the forester, and Muir, the environmentalist conspired to create the Forest Service. However, in 1910, Teddy Roosevelt was no longer President, and the timber barons appeared to be regaining the upper hand in the rape of public resources. Big business was gnawing at government regulation that had been put in place by that wild Republican, Teddy.

The horrific fires caught the public’s attention and gained support for an agency that would protect national resources. Egan, a long-time observer and reporter of resource extraction in the Northwest, painted the grim picture of mining, timber and railroad interests controlling state newspapers and lawmakers to gain access to public land, timber and minerals. Egan contends that the 1910 big burn reinvigorating the Forest Service became “the fire that saved America.”

The big burn also created a fire mind set—a way (that seems the only way) to think about fires. Forest fires are bad, bad, wasteful, wasteful and bad. The Forest Service decreed that every fire should be put out by noon. A network of roads was built to allow access to regions that in August 1910 fire fighters had to hike two days to reach. Lookouts were erected and manned during the season with fire spotters. This ‘out before noon’ policy has been so successful that the Forest Service now faces the problem of hazardous fuel buildup through our mountains.

The big burn extended from the region around Riggins, Idaho, north into British Columbia, and east even beyond the Continental Divide to burn portions of Montana’s Big Hole Valley and Blackfoot Indian Reservation. The droughty 1910 summer followed a wet winter. Vegetation grew lush before it cured as dry as tinder. Intense dry lightning storms and cinders from railroads had started thousands of small fires by mid August. Then on the 20th, hurricane force winds blew across the Palouse Hills, fed the flames and created incredible firestorms that ripped huge white pine from the ground and hurled logs like flame throwers. Almost instantly, the small fires joined and raged across the mountains. The smoke effected sunsets world-wide. One of the deadly effects of a big fire like this would not be understood until WWII. The allies carpeted Dresden with incendiary bombs and the surprisingly large death toll of 40,000 resulted mostly from suffocation. Large fires consume large amounts of oxygen.

Fire maps of the 1910 burn indicate that the region along the west shore of Lake Pend Oreille burned, as did most of the Green Monarchs. Hope didn’t burn, Clark Fork did. The fire missed Heron (the date above the door of the Community Center says it all –1904). A child, living with her parents on the north side of the river, recalled the smoky skies, the spot fires and her family’s rush to the south side of the river near Heron where there was more cleared land. The burning jumped the Vermillion and Prospect Creek drainages, leaving them green and growing in a sea of black.

There is physical evidence of the big burn throughout the three million acres. On our place there are at least two living trees that survived the fire. One, a two-and-a-half foot DBH Douglas fir, has a large fire scar. The other, a four foot DBH cedar is growing in a wet, protected site. Our barns were built using burnt larch, and there are still a few standing, blackened snags. The most compelling evidence of the extent of the fires is the lack of ‘old growth,’ the big trees described by every visitor to the lower Clark Fork. Even though the railroads had been mowing down white pine and shipping them to the Butte mines, uncountable amounts of valuable timber were toasted. The surviving trees that didn’t burn provided the basis for our region’s timber business. Just about all those big, accessible, profitable trees have been harvested.

In The Big Burn, Egan clarifies how natural history—in this case, the fires—continues to influence our cultural history. We are part of our landscape.

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Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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