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Fire From the Sky

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Japanese fire balloon of mulberry paper reinflated at Moffett Field, CA after it had been shot down by a Navy aircraft January 10, 1945 US Army photo A 37180C. Balloon now owned by the National Air and Space Museum. WikiCommons photo Japanese fire balloon of mulberry paper reinflated at Moffett Field, CA after it had been shot down by a Navy aircraft January 10, 1945 US Army photo A 37180C. Balloon now owned by the National Air and Space Museum. WikiCommons photo

in the Valley of Shadows

This month, nothing really spooky or supernatural, just an alternate theory that proposes something outside the conventional box of explanations for the great fire of 1910 in the St. Maries, St. Joe River area of Idaho.

As most buffs of the history of the Second World War know, over about a ten-month period from late 1944 through the spring of 1945—before the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the Japanese, in a last ditch attempt to inflict damage on the United States proper, launched as many as 9,000 fire balloons to start forest fires and hopefully inflict as many causalities as possible.

Of these, approximately 300 were recovered, most here in the Northwest with some in British Columbia. A few even reached as far as southern Ontario and Michigan. 

Constructed of five or six glued-together layers of mulberry paper, they were durable enough to carry a 200-pound, self-destructing flash bomb payload that floated up to 36,000 feet in the jet stream, taking approximately seventy hours to cross the pacific.

The question is: could this technique have been used prior to WW II?

Remnants of the balloons continued to be found within the last couple of decades in remote parts of northwest forests. Their lift was provided by highly flammable hydrogen, (which is what inflated the Hindenburg and led to the disaster in Pinehurst, NY in May of 1937 because we wouldn’t sell them the mostly inert Helium).

As far as is known, the only casualties of the fire balloons were in Oregon in early May of 1945. Five children and an adult on a hiking trip found one which exploded, killing all of them when they investigated the strange looking device. 

This brings us to the possibility of the events 35 years earlier; the great 1910 fire before the known fire balloons.

The period beginning in the late 1880s through around 1910 had seen a number of reports from around the country of mysterious airships, most blimp or cigar shaped. A few reports had them landing, a human looking crew stepping out and speaking an unusual or unknown, (to the witnesses), language. Could they have been speaking German or even Japanese?

Lighter than air balloons were first launched, unmanned, then manned in the 1780s in France and Germany, so it is not that great a stretch of the imagination that they existed in 1910 or that the Japanese may have dabbled in lighter than air devices. 

Most books and reports of the 1910 fire, from what I’ve seen, seem to quickly brush over or lack any explanation for what started the fire. Most focus on the tales of terror and the fire’s aftermath.

There are some clues though, that something other than lightening or a conventional human cause may have been responsible.     

A couple of eye witnesses related the seemingly spontaneous combustion at one or more points which would start on one side of a gully for no apparent reason, then another point of fire would mysteriously appear on the other side. True, an unseen brand from an initial fire could have floated through the air, landing many yards or miles away.

One obscure account however, reported that a point of ignition just before dawn near St. Maries seemed to have started just after what appeared to be a roundish dark object descended slowly from the sky and disappeared in the trees, and with no other fire around.

There were several accounts a few years before 1910 of unusual things having been occasionally seen in the sky. Round objects like small, grayish-white coins floating over and descending in Oregon, and the Central Idaho panhandle.

Could these things have been early Japanese hydrogen balloons? Perhaps launched against their then threat, Russia? Could some have gone astray over the Pacific, winding up here in 1910 Northwest United States, causing an unintentional first strike in a war that wouldn’t continue for another three decades at Pearl Harbor?  Until next time, give conventional explanations their due, but don’t hesitate to think outside the box.

NEXT TIME: “Tommy Knockers” in a failed North Idaho mining town.

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Author info

Lawrence Fury Lawrence Fury is an inveterate letter-to-the-editor writer, and a conservative conscience for this area of North Idaho. He's also an expert on local ghost stories, and is compiling a group of them for future book publication. You can read more about him in a Love Notes feature for the River Journal

Tagged as:

Valley of Shadows, Great Fire of 1910, fire balloons, World War II

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