Today, we can imagine the smoke – thick and suffocating.
We can fathom the flames – causing mountains and towns to glow red at midnight.
We can even imagine the heat, enough to peel paint off boxcars.
Yet there’s one thing the survivors said was impossible for anyone to imagine: The roar.
A forest the size of Connecticut was exploding in a fearsome whoosh – generating, with fire and oxygen, its own tornadoes and cyclones. One survivor called it “the sound of a thousand trains rushing over a thousand steel trestles.” Another said it could be compared only to the “roar of Niagara Falls.”
The noise was a deafening combination of 60 mph gales, colossal fire-driven updrafts, and the clamor of hundreds of trees cracking, snapping and slamming against earth. One witness said it sounded like being in the midst of “heavy cannonading.”
Some came to call it The Big Blowup. Others called it the Big Burn. By any name, it was easily the biggest forest fire in the Inland Northwest’s history – actually the biggest forest fire in U.S. history
A century ago this week, 3 million acres of North Idaho, Montana and Washington forest were turned to charcoal in two wind-whipped days. The towns of Taft, Haugan, DeBorgia in Montana, and Grand Forks and Falcon in Idaho, were destroyed. One-third of Wallace was obliterated. At least 85 people died.
One hundred years after the fact, the fire still burns in the nation’s imagination. The event has recently spawned a mini literary genre, with two excellent books published in the past decade alone, Stephen Pyne’s “Year of the Fires” in 2001 and Timothy Egan’s best-selling “The Big Burn” in 2009 (see related interview). Before that, the story was told in Betty Goodwin Spencer’s “The Big Blowup” in 1956, Ruby El Hult’s “Northwest Disaster: Avalanche and Fire” in 1960 and Sandra A. Crowell and David O. Asleson’s “Up the Swiftwater” in 1980.
(Much of the information in this story is derived from those books, along with newspaper archives and U.S. Forest Service records.)
In this centennial year, the Forest Service, in particular, has lavished new attention on what Pyne calls the agency’s “Ur-Fire.”
No witnesses survive today, but we have good reason to keep the story alive. For one thing, the 1910 trauma continues to shape the way America fights wildfires, according to Pyne. Also, the fire guaranteed the continued existence of the public lands and national forests we enjoy today, according to Egan.
And there’s a third, more compelling reason: The Big Burn was, quite simply, a monumental human drama.
Elbert Dow would no doubt agree. This was a man who had survived the Great San Francisco Earthquake four yours before. Yet when he stumbled out of the St. Joe country, burned and dazed, here’s what he said: For sheer “horror and suffering,” the Big Burn was worse.
Months in the making
1910 began with a disastrously snowy winter and then turned into an ominously dry spring and summer.
The first wildfires in the Northern Rockies flared up in the unheard-of month of April. The drought persisted into summer and by late June and early July crews already were patrolling the forest “reserves,” as the national forests were then called, putting out dozens of spot fires. By late July and early August thousands of fires were smoldering deep in the mountains of Idaho, Montana and Washington.
The smokiest areas of all were in the vast St. Joe River drainage and the more thickly settled Coeur d’Alene River drainage of North Idaho.
The fires had three main sources. Lightning strikes (including hundreds on July 26 alone); people, mainly farmers, prospectors and loggers who were clearing land and burning slash; and railroads, including one of the most audacious and expensive rail lines ever built, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific line (called The Milwaukee Road) completed a year earlier over the Bitterroots.
“Locomotives threw sparks like a Roman candle chugging down the tracks,” wrote Pyne.
The forest rangers at Wallace acquired a small fleet of velocipedes, or “speeders,” which were like bicycles that could be used on railway tracks. The rangers scooted along behind the trains and put out the fires alongside the tracks.
By mid-August, thousands of firefighters — including thousands of Army troops — were out in the mountains. Most were already exhausted from cutting fire lines (essentially, trenches) for miles through wilderness. The rangers were only too aware that hundreds of small fires were still alive, creeping along through brush and smoldering in the duff. The rangers’ biggest fear was that a big wind would whip all of these fires into flame simultaneously.
On Aug. 20, 1910, that’s exactly what happened.
Fire crews deep in the forests noticed with apprehension that the wind was freshening from the southwest. By mid-day it was a full-blown gale on the mountain ridges — the dreaded “Palouser,” named for the Palouse country to the southwest.
The crews knew the winds boded ill, but it wasn’t until that afternoon that they looked up to see a truly horrifying sight: Huge black clouds, like giant inky thunderheads, blotting out the sun. These were clouds of smoke, ash and cinders, carried high aloft by giant, roaring updrafts. It meant that those hundreds of small fires across the Clearwater, St. Joe, Coeur d’Alene and Bitterroot regions had flared, marched and in many cases, joined up together and created a massive chain reaction of fuel, flame and oxygen. It was a true firestorm, massive enough to create its own roaring vortexes. Witnesses estimated clouds of smoke and ash 2,000 feet in the air.
Down on the ground, these winds and updrafts created crown fires that moved faster than a man could run – faster than a locomotive could steam, said some witnesses. Entire mountainsides of trees were blown down like matchsticks.
The scale was immense. Telegraph operators sent out desperate messages describing the approach of a solid line of flame 30 miles wide, and that was no exaggeration. Today, you can drive Interstate 90 east from Wallace, Idaho to just short of St. Regis, Mont. — about 45 miles — and be within the old burn zone every mile of the way. And this was by no means the only burn zone in the Northern Rockies – just the biggest.
The remainder of Aug. 20 was consumed in a thousand different varieties of panic. Many fire crews realized instantly there was no stopping the fire. Their only job now was to find some way to hunker down while the maelstrom blasted through. If the heat didn’t kill you, the falling timber would.
There were dozens, if not hundreds, of desperate flights to safety. Several have gone down in Big Burn lore because they were either more heroic – or tragic – than most.
Ed Pulaski and the mine shaft
Ranger Ed Pulaski was already a well-known figure patrolling the forests around Wallace. On Aug. 20, when the Palouser blew in, Pulaski was riding out to check on a large fire crew on the West Fork of Placer Creek. When he found them, scattered and terrified, it was obvious they had only one choice.
“Boys, it’s no use,” Pulaski told the crew. “… We got to try to make Wallace, that’s our only chance.”
Pulaski led them down the creek, but the fire was already catching up with them. The smoke was thick, trees were crashing everywhere and flames cut them off from the creek. Darkness set in, but the world still glowed orange.
One man lagged and died, possibly hit by a falling tree. At one point, the band of 45 men was joined by a dark companion – a bear, also fleeing the fire.
Finally, in desperation, Pulaski led the men into the Nicholson Tunnel, an old mine shaft. Tunnels and mine shafts were dangerous refuges, since a fire, voracious for oxygen, could suck all of the oxygen out in minutes.
But it was better than staying outside and roasting.
Pulaski herded them in. The fire swept over, setting the timber-framed opening on fire. Men tried to hold wet blankets over the opening, but their hands started to blister.
Oxygen grew short and men collapsed in the trickle of water on the tunnel floor. One said he was “nearly crazy with the heat.” A few screamed that they could take it no more. One man tried to run out.
Pulaski pulled his pistol and said he would shoot any man who left.
Every man, including Pulaski, passed out. Pulaski’s hair, skin and eyes were burned.
At predawn, it looked like a death camp. One survivor raced down to Wallace, and reported everyone dead, including Pulaski. It may have looked that way, but slowly, men groggily stumbled out of the tunnel. One said, “The boss is dead.” Pulaski raised his head and replied, “Like hell he is.”
Five men died in the tunnel, probably from suffocation, smoke inhalation and heat. But the others managed to join Pulaski in a painful march back to Wallace. They staggered into Wallace the next morning, limping and half-blind.
The Bullion Mine tragedy
A crew of 60 firefighters was working a fire near the Bullion Mine, along the Idaho-Montana line, when the firestorm exploded.
The crew boss ordered all 60 into the Bullion Mine tunnel and then into a relatively safe side shaft. In the darkness, desperation and confusion, eight men became separated and continued down the main shaft.
As the fire roared outside, the men in the side shaft held up blankets across the opening to keep out the smoke. They lighted little stumps of candles and wrote postcards to their loved ones.
“Mother dearest, this is my last,” wrote one British firefighter. “We are trying to hold out the smoke, but chances are slim for all of us.”
He survived, but the eight separated men did not. They were overcome by heat and smoke. The next day, their compatriots dejectedly buried all eight outside the mine opening.
The tragedies near Big Creek
Nowhere were crews so suddenly and completely overwhelmed as in the Big Creek and Trout Creek drainages, in the St. Joe country.
When the inferno appeared, a crew on Big Creek retreated frantically to a homesteader’s two-acre clearing. Men dived into the shallow creek. Then the trees started crashing into the creek, killing two and smashing the legs of one man and pinning him down as flames licked at him.
Seven others panicked and raced toward the settler’s tiny root cellar. They fought desperately to burrow into the tiny space, but it proved to be no refuge. Flaming logs rolled down the hillside on top of the opening. Their screams, as they burned, were heard by the men who stayed in the creek. All seven died, along with the man trapped by the log.
Just over a ridge, another large crew beat a frantic retreat. A group of 40, led by Lee Hollingshead, a 22-year-old forest service employee, ran through fire to reach one of the few safe places – a spot already burned over.
However, a group of 19 had split off and taken another route. When they arrived at a tiny cabin they all jammed into it in their desperation for any kind of shelter. When the roof ignited and caved in, they fled blindly out the front door – none of them made it more than a few paces before collapsing from the heat.
The next day, Hollingshead arrived and found the charred corpses of 18 men and two black bears at the cabin. The 19th man had twisted his ankle at the doorway, collapsed and crawled to a creek. By keeping his nose close to the ground, he found fresher, cooler air and eventually crawled 16 miles down the creek to safety.
Joe Halm and his resurrection
Ranger Joe Halm, 25, was a former star athlete at Washington State College (now University), and the leader of a fire crew of 70, which had just mopped up a fire near the headwaters of the St. Joe River.
On Aug. 20, when the winds hit and the flaming embers began to drop all around their camp, his terrified crew wanted to run. Some did, but he drew his gun and told the rest that they would stay put and ride it out. He led them to a sandbar where Bean Creek meets the St. Joe River. They draped wet blankets over their heads and stretched out in the creek.
A few days later, the Spokane Daily Chronicle ran a front page story headlined: “Athlete A Fire Victim – Joe Halm, Formerly Football and Baseball Man, With His Party, Lost in the Fire Saturday Night at Big Fork.”
Nobody knew the truth yet – Halm and his entire crew were still alive. That first terrible night, one man had been knocked underwater by a falling tree, but was rescued. When the firestorm passed, they spent a wet night on the sandbar, warmed by the burning snags. Every man was accounted for.
Then they began to pick their way downriver, over a charred landscaped.
“The virgin trees, as far as the eye could see, were broken or down – devoid of a single sprig of green,” Halm later reported.
They emerged about a week later. The Chronicle ran another, happier, front page headline, “Joe Halm Is Safe.”
From earthquake to firestorm
The Big Burn was especially hard on fire crews, but the fire also caught and sometimes killed trappers, prospectors, hunters, railroad workers, settlers, loggers and miners.
The story of Elbert Dow, the man who had survived the Great San Francisco Earthquake, is particularly harrowing, as told in the Aug. 25, 1910 edition of The Spokesman-Review.
He was working as a commissary man (cook, perhaps) for a contractor along the Milwaukee Road line. He fled into a railroad tunnel above Avery when the inferno engulfed him. He and about 60 other refugees spent Saturday and Sunday night in two different railroad tunnels.
Their predicament was especially terrifying because the tunnels contained two abandoned railcars, one holding black powder, the other gasoline, lubricating oil and dynamite. The flames were licking over a neighboring bridge toward the tunnel and its lethal cargo. Dow and his companions, in desperation, took some of the dynamite and blew up the bridge, halting the advance of the flames.
Dow, “out of his head from hunger and exposure to heat,” eventually stumbled down the tracks to Avery, where he was treated for numerous burns and blisters.
Meanwhile, the cities and towns in the path of the Big Burn endured a different kind of trauma, a mass panic fed by hundreds of people jammed together by heat and flames. The story of Wallace, the “metropolis” of the area (at least, that’s what the newspapers called this town of 3,000) is told in an accompanying story. The demise of the railroad-camp towns of Taft and Grand Forks will be the dealt with in an upcoming story.
Yet for sheer drama, it’s hard to top the stories of Mullan and Avery, two stories with happy endings.
Backfire saved Mullan
When the firestorm swooped around Mullan on Aug. 20, the afternoon became so black that people reported bats flying through the murk. When townspeople heard that nearby Wallace was evacuating, many Mullan residents jumped on the evacuation trains as well. Yet enough people stayed to man a backfire, which created enough room to stop the flames racing in from the south.
On Aug. 21, however, fire surrounded Mullan from the north, east and west. Another evacuation commenced. But a number of volunteers stayed, convinced they could save the town. That night, they lined up with torches on the edges of town and lit an even more massive backfire.
Witnesses said the little town looked like it was in the bottom of “a deep bowl, completely lined with seething flames.” The town glowed red at midnight, but the backfires worked. An all-night bucket brigade hauled water from the river to douse every ember and spark. When morning came, Mullan was saved, without a single loss of life.
Avery’s last stand
Avery, the Milwaukee Road rail yard town on the St. Joe River, was in an even more precarious situation. Fire raged upstream and downstream; on the north bank of the river and on the south bank; up the Milwaukee road tracks and down the tracks. Refugees from the entire drainage were huddled in town.
On Aug. 21, the rangers ordered all women and children evacuated by train. It was an orderly evacuation because it was supervised by the 53 enlisted men of the all-black 25th Infantry, Company G (also known as Buffalo Soldiers) and their one white officer, who had been sent in from Fort George Wright in Spokane. They kept the able-bodied men from elbowing their way onto the train and made sure the windows were securely shut against the heat. It was the last train to escape west.
Only the men and troops remained in Avery. Martial law had been declared but there was little the troops could do against flames advancing on several fronts. That night, indecision reigned. At one point, everyone walked to the river in hopes of finding safety in the water. Once they got into the river, they were forced to confront an awful question. Which was worse? Being trapped by falling trees and drowning? Or being roasted by fire? They got out of the river and walked back to town.
They decided to try one last desperate escape on a train. Everyone piled onto flatcars and a locomotive began steaming west – the only option since most of the bridges and trestles were down in the Taft Tunnel direction. The flames burned the varnish off the cars. The tracks were hopelessly blocked by fallen trees, rockslides and flame.
The flames, said the lieutenant, “seemed to be over a mile and a half high.”
So they had to chug back to Avery for one last stand. On the morning of Aug. 22, out of options, the Buffalo Soldiers and residents decided to set a backfire and pray that it would be sucked toward the main fire and exhaust the fuel near the town.
The moment the backfire hit the onrushing main fire, the wind miraculously died down. Avery was saved.
“If I hadn’t gone through it, I wouldn’t believe human endurance could be so great,” said one Avery fire crew member. “But we got our reward when we knew that we had won the battle, overwhelmingly against us.”
The Spokane Daily Chronicle ran a photo of some of the Buffalo Soldiers with the headline, “Troops Are Good Fighters.”
‘The completeness of the destruction is indescribable’
The winds finally calmed. In the high country, a trace of snow fell. The Big Burn was over; refugees trickled back into Wallace, Mullan and Avery. The railroad immediately started rebuilding its trestles and bridges – trains would be rolling again in a month.
But the forest and the land could not be repaired so easily.
“Not a living thing can be seen for a distance of 20 miles; not a green spot greets the eye where a week before stood one of the finest bodies of white pine timber in the world,” wrote a correspondent for The Spokesman-Review, filing from Wardner, Idaho. “… The completeness of the destruction is indescribable … even the fishes in the streams were killed and are seen floating on the water by thousands.”
One Avery survivor had what seemed to be the last word.
“Forest fires around Avery will not cause trouble, for there are no forests to burn,” he said. “The country is wiped clean.”
But not entirely. One homesteader, gazing forlornly over the black landscape, suddenly noticed a solitary tuft of green: A lone, living pine on a hilltop.
From such survivors, the forest would eventually return.