The Great Fire of 1910—Largest in U.S. History, 100 Years Ago
BY THOMAS CLARK
It was called the 1910 Holocaust, the Big Blowup, or simply the Great Fire. Whatever the appellation, today it is still difficult to comprehend its dimensions.
Simply put, it was the largest forest fire in U.S. history. The fire consumed vast timberlands in Montana, Idaho and Washington, an area roughly equivalent to the size of Connecticut. Smoke reached New England and soot traveled to Greenland. And it happened in just two days, racing over one hundred miles in several directions.
“The whole country is a fire,” wrote Harry Kaufman in his daily account of the conflagration. Kaufman, a Forest Ranger in the Absa-roka National Forest, was dispatched from Livingston to Noxon, Mont., at the Idaho border, to help fight the horrendous fire.
But defining the disaster in terms of square miles and board feet obviously ignores the human toll. At least 78 firefighters and 9 civilians lost their lives. Eight towns were completely destroyed, six in Montana. Thousands of men and women were displaced, most never able to return to their homes.
The Great Fire’s devastation upon the forest and those families who lost loved ones seems remote a hundred years later—both have recovered somewhat. But its most significant effect is still felt today. The 1910 disaster reconstituted the U.S. Forest Service and influenced policies for fire-setting and fire-suppression. The fire was respon-sible for changing our collective view of the American forest and how best to manage those resources.
The wet Rocky Mountain winter of 1910 gave way to a hot, dry spring and summer, creating the worst drought in two decades. The forest teemed with dry underbrush and tangles of fallen timber—tons of reserve fuel awaiting an ignition source.
On July 26, the Bitterroots erupted in flames after a series of dry electrical storms. They joined twenty-one other national forests aflame in the northern Rockies. Thousand of discreet fires burned across the region. The National Forest Service, then 5 years old, had neither the manpower nor the funding to address the seriousness of the developing situation. Thirty three companies of the U.S. Army were summoned for assistance. Two hundred troops alone were deployed to fight an outbreak in Yellowstone, where favorable winds and a natural fire break, Yellowstone Lake, arrested the fire’s rampage.
No matter, smoke and ashes continued to blanket the region.
A smoky July gave way to a still drier August with no rain in the offing. Rain had not touched the earth since May, excepting some “light drizzles” in mid-August, wrote Stephen Pyne in the Year of the Fires (Viking Press, 2001). Large fires burned in the Flathead, Blackfeet (now Kootenai) and Kaniksu National forests.
But September was less than two weeks away, and with it mild optimism that cooler days and early snowfall might dowse the flames. Next year would be better.
Then the unexpected happened.
Around 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, August 20, as reported in U.S. Forest Service History (Reminisces of Edward G. Stall), several air masses collided over the Rockies. A cold front from the north converged with winds issuing from the southwest. The winds came in search of smoldering embers, inhaling their energy and consolidating them into one massive, swift and unstoppable conflagration. Flames hundreds of feet high were “fanned by a tornadic wind so violent that [they] flattened out ahead, swooping to earth in great darting curves, truly a veritable red demon from hell.”
Walls of flame roared over the mountains, through canyons and across valleys. Fiery hurricane-like storms reached sustained speeds of over 70 miles per hour. “Perhaps 75 percent of the total burn occurred during a single 36-hour period,” according to Pyne.
Both man and beast fled the flames. Authorities herded thousands of residents onto trains heading east and south to escape the onslaught. It was a race against time and the elements, as the fire quickly burned out ten trestles of the Chicago, Milwaukee & Puget Sound Railroad, stranding refugees.
Endangered firefighters valiantly challenged the flames but were soon ordered to retreat. Many were newly recruited immigrants untrained in firefighting techniques. Some found shelter in caves or creek beds. Seventy eight either succumbed to the smoke or were cremated in 2,000 degree heat that incinerated the ground to bedrock.
Other firefighters, ill equipped and ill prepared, simply gave up. “Six men quit this morning, being as they were out of shoes and very near out of clothes,” Harry Kaufman wrote in his daily record.
Joining the casualties were Montana towns completely destroyed by the fire—De Borgia, Haugan, Henderson, Saltese, Taft, and Tuscar.
By Sunday evening, August 21, the fire died as winds abated and a gentle rain doused the flames, followed by a steady downpour. The rain turned creeks and gullies black as it lifted soot and ash from the forest floor.
It was time to find and bury the dead.
For days after the tragedy, squirrels and chipmunks stunned by the ordeal could be picked up by human hands. Bear, deer, elk and mountain lions lingered near makeshift camps, their fear of man overcome by the greater terror they had endured.
Closer to home, disaster had been narrowly avoided. “Serious fire is raging seven miles from Bozeman” announced the Anaconda Standard. Great clouds of smoke had smothered the town on Saturday and Sunday. Every breath reminded residents of the potential threat to their way of life.
The greatest concern had been the neighboring Gallatin Forest. Eventually, 55 square acres would be burned, a modest loss in comparison to the devastation north and west. These fires though would be extinguished by rain and a week later by the season’s first snowfall.
In the aftermath of the Great Fire, for a select few, life went on. Unlike other towns, Bozeman could go forward with late summer plans. The annual Sweet Pea Carnival was a true cause for community celebration that year. Charles Dunlap, chairman of the carnival committee, had invited a delegation from Liv-ingston and its band to attend the festivities, and the invitation was accepted. Miss Eva Cline reigned as carnival queen and the announcement was met with general approval by residents.
Lessons from the fire were many. The disaster shifted the political tide in Washington. After Teddy Roosevelt left office 15 months earlier, the new Congress sought to further marginalize the National Forest Service by slashing its funding and repealing Roosevelt’s conservation reforms. “Not one cent for scenery,” said Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon, echoing the prevailing attitude prior to the calamity.
After the Great Fire, though, Gifford Pinchot, head of the Forest Service, finally had his voice heard. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and the experience of the past few weeks should be sufficient to convince anyone that money spent for a stronger and more effective forestry service would be of more benefit to the country than that spent for more battleships.” (The country got both.) The Weeks Act passed in March 1911, strengthening the Forest Service and providing fire coordination between federal and state authorities. Ominously, another conflagration lurked on the horizon, World War I, just four summers in the future.
Sources: The Great Fires of 1910 by Joe B. Halm, American Forests, vol 36 (July 1930); Year of the Fires, Stephen J. Pyne, Viking Press; 1910 Fire Diary, Absaroke National Forest, July-September, 1910, by Harry S. Kaufman, Forest Ranger; Reminisces of Edward G. Stall, deputy forest supervisor on the Pend Oreille Forest (Idaho), 1910; U.S. Forest Service History; The Source, lecture by Dr Stephen Pyne, 2001 Lynn W. Day Distinguished Lectureship in Forest and Conservation History.
Thomas Clark, a historian of the American West, lives and writes in New Jersey. He can be emailed atThomasClark1234@gmail.com.