The big burn of 1910: ‘A thousand year event’

Historic fires shaped federal policies for fire-fighting

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This historic photo by R.H. McKay shows the fire aftermath in the Coeur d’Alene National Forest in Idaho near the Little North Fork of the St. Regis River. While the 1910 fire was devastating to parts of Idaho, it also burned large sections of forest land in Western Montana, including the Flathead Valley.

Most photos show just the aftermath and witnesses have long passed away, but the U.S. Forest Service’s fire policy still reflects the many lessons learned from the disastrous wildfires of 1910.

As the agency and the many communities impacted commemorate the 100th anniversary this month, Mariah Leuschen of the Forest Service said the goal first and foremost is to honor those who lost their lives. The agency also points to the pivotal role the disaster played in developing modern approaches such as interagency cooperation in fire-fighting.

“Today, we’re in a position to live with fire on the land,” Leuschen said.

Commemoration films, documentaries, reprints of publications and museum exhibits describe the shortages of men and materials and lack of communication and transportation that hamstrung fire-fighting efforts of the 5-year-old Forest Service in 1910.

Even the newly created Glacier National Park, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, had no money to fight the fires that burned through 19,000 acres. But that was a fraction of the 7 to 8 billion board feet of marketable timber laid waste by what some have called “a thousand year event.”

Biblical proportions

Steven Pyne, in his “Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire” captures the almost Biblical proportions of the Big Blow- up on Aug. 20 and 21, 1910, that cremated three million acres in Idaho and Montana, taking the lives of 78 Forest Service firefighters and at least seven civilians.

“Winds felled trees as if they were blades of grass: darkness covered the land; firewhirls danced across the blackened skies like an aurora borealis from hell; the air was electric with tension, as if the earth itself was ready to explode in flame. And everywhere people heard the roar, like a thousand trains crossing a thousand steel trestles.”

Several witnesses, such as Anna Sestak Lukens and Elers Koch, recorded the images seared on their memories. Lukens, videotaped at age 98 in 2000 by Libby Langston, was 8 years old on Sunday, Aug. 21, 1910.

“I came out of Sunday school and the whole west side of the Bitterroot was red,” she recalled. “I thought ‘Good heavens, is the whole world coming to an end?’ There were cinders a foot and a half long coming through the canyons.”

People may watch her interview on the Forest Service Centennial website as well as find maps and learn about the people involved in fighting the fires such as Elers Koch.

Koch, superintendent of the Lolo Forest at the time, wrote a history of the 1910 fires. According to his account, a long period of drought began in March and became more critical with passing months as springs dried up and fuels in the forest turned tinder dry.

By June, dry lightning ignited numerous fires in the wilderness of North Idaho and Western Montana. Forest Service crews fought some back, but other fires grew until the climax came on Aug. 20 and 21.

A gale-force wind known as a Palouser blasted out of the Snake River desert for two days, whipping together hundreds of small fires into a raging conflagration. Koch wrote that the fire roared out of the forests of the Clearwater, St. Joe and Coeur d’ Alene country in Idaho, across the Bitterroot Mountains into Montana for a distance of 40 or 50 miles.

“The sky turned first a ghastly, ominous yellow then darkness shut down in the middle of the afternoon,” Koch recalled. “When all was over, a large part of the town of Wallace had burned. Saltese, Haugan, Deborgia and numerous ranches and ranger stations were left in ashes. Game animals were killed by the thousands and stream bottoms were white with the bellies of dead trout.”

Koch vividly remembered a phone call from Ranger Kottke in Wallace on the night of Aug. 21. Kottke said the fires had “all gone wild” and flames were breaking into Wallace and he didn’t know where his family was.

“My men and pack strings are all out in the path of the fire, and I am afraid many of them can’t escape alive,” Kottke told Koch.

Not long after, Ranger Haun called from Saltese to say flames were eating down from the surrounding hills and he had 200 firefighters trying to save the town. Then, ominously, the line went dead as fire incinerated the telephone lines.

Heroic actions

Government publications, like “When the Mountains Roared: Stories of the 1910 Fires,” recall the many heroic actions by fire-fighting crews and their leaders. Ranger Ed Pulaski, one the most celebrated leaders, saved a crew of about 40 men.

An account of that harrowing experience was contained in a report of W.G. Weigle, a supervisor headquartered in Wallace. Surrounded by fire, Pulaski took charge of his panic-stricken men and led all but one of them as well as horses to an old prospect mine 10 miles from Wallace.

The intense heat of the fire drew the cold air out of the tunnel while smoke and hot air rushed inside. Pulaski ordered the men to lie on their faces where they fell unconscious as he continued to battle the blaze.

“The timbers supporting the tunnel caught fire and Pulaski stood as near to the mouth of the tunnel as he could, and from a little stream that flowed from the bottom of the tunnel, dipped water with his hat to dash upon the burning timbers until he was badly burned and fell unconscious.”

When the firestorm passed, one man recovered enough to get help for the injured crew. The one man who had fallen behind their group was found half consumed by the fire.

As a result of his 1910 fire experience, Pulaski invented the combination ax and mattock that bears his names and remains standard equipment for firefighters today.

Fire in the Flathead

Although Idaho suffered the most loss of life and none died on Flathead fires, four of a crew of 25 perished on the Swamp Creek division of the Tuscor fire in the Cabinet Mountains. It happened on Aug. 21 as fire swept in from the St. Joe and Clearwater, across the Clark Fork Valley and beyond to the Kootenai Forest.

Other destruction in Montana included a railroad station burned at Tuscor and a mill at Trout Creek, along with 25 horses, pigs in a pen and 13 million feet of white pine lumber.

 Kathryn McKay, in “Trails of the Past: Historic Overview of the Flathead National Forest, Montana 1800 to 1960” noted a narrow escape of a 30-man fire crew led by Ranger Peter DeGroot from flames west of Olney on Aug. 23, 1910.

“The fire camp burned, but the men managed to find an escape route by wading through hot ashes of a burned area,” McKay wrote.

In the Flathead and Blackfeet National Forests, the great majority of the fires started in remote locations by lightning strikes while sources in other areas included the railroad, slash burning, campers, prospectors and perhaps arsonists. Officials in the newly created Glacier National Park,  blamed “hoboes and others who want work” for starting 75 percent of the park fires.

National forest firefighter crews supplemented their numbers with men from Missoula, Spokane and Butte. Kalispell’s two militia companies were put under the jurisdiction of the state forester and the Forest Service received help from the U.S. Army.

A front page headline of The Daily Inter Lake of Aug. 20, 1910, announced “Three Fires and Five Companies Troops for Flathead.” The story reported fires coming over the hills north of Whitefish Lake, another northwest of Tally Lake and yet another crossing the divide between Summit and Lubeck.

By Aug. 23, the Inter Lake reported President Taft ordering 30 companies to Montana. The story reports less than professional civilian firefighters arriving from Great Falls, requiring the Forest Service to “place among them a few burley fellows” to see that they attended to business.

“Many of those who detrained last night were drunken and others carried full bottles with them, making it difficult for the forest officials to handle them.”

In the same issue, the Inter Lake praises the African American troops of Companies L and M of the Twenty-fifth infantry who cleared trails and dug fire trenches near Nyack.

“The men are doing heroic work and enduring the hardships and arduous labor with the utmost cheerfulness.”

In the end, weather shut down the disaster it had begun with a sudden change of humidity and wind on Aug. 22 followed by a light rain and snow at the higher elevations on Aug. 23. Fires made some advance the next week but a good general rain ended the historic fire season on Aug. 31 of 1910, according to Koch’s historic account.

Joe B. Halm, a ranger and deputy supervisor on the Coeur d’Alene National Forest at the time of the tragedy, tied up his personal account in 1940 with a sentiment that dominates the collective memory within the Forest Service on the 100th anniversary.

“More than three decades have passed through the hour-glass of time and nature has long since reclothed  the naked landscape with grass, shrubs and trees, but the great sacrifice of human life is not, can never be, replaced or forgotten.”

Reporter Candace Chase may be reached at 758-4436 or by e-mail at


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