Aug. 20, 1910, was a night of terror for isolated settlers, prospectors and fire crews scattered in the mountains of North Idaho, Western Montana and Eastern Washington. Without radio communication or Weather Service bulletins, the nation’s largest fire storm caught many by surprise.
Eyewitnesses described the fearsome power of the swift-moving flames. “….We saw a wall of bright red flame leap from the west ridge to the east ridge of Thomas Creek, a mile wide jump, in a moment of time,” recalled Orlando Scott of St. Maries. “Acres of timber went down in flash and no power on earth could save it…”
People caught in the fire’s path survived by huddling in creeks with wet blankets over their heads, lighting backfires or hunkering down on rocky slopes. Others died horrible deaths, consumed by the flames or gasping for air in the mines and root cellars where they had sought shelter.
Amid the destruction, some survivors described a terrible, but awesome beauty. Nature was unleashed.
The words of James Danielson, 26, leader of the fire crew on Stevens Peak, written in a letter two years after the fire, as quoted in “Year of the Fires,” by Stephen J. Pyne:
Try if you can to place yourself at the head of twenty green men …
Picture yourself holding up a courage which was superficial to yourself, but to the followers made you their leader. Now picture yourself rushing at 11 p.m. to a shallow rock cut, continually warning the men that there was no need for alarm, when you knew that you might never see the break of the coming day. I say picture again twenty men at the only haven for miles around, gazing on a fire thirty miles wide, approaching at times with the speed of a train, and as it came near men half mad with fright wishing to leave the place in order to reach some fancied security, but the worst has not yet come.
Imagine, if you can, the wind suddenly changing, the rock cut filled with sparks more dense than any skyrocket that could be shot off in your face, with a temperature that in an instant cooked every exposed part of one’s body, with only a moment to realize your condition and then fall down unconscious, and then, as if this were not enough misfortune, awake to find your clothes half burned off, men crazy with pain, some wanting to commit suicide, some wishing to leave through fire and smoke and darkness for Mullan, others throwing their arms around you begging for God’s sake that you better their condition.
This I say with the three hours’ wait until daylight came and the long tramp to Mullan over burned debris is enough to weaken any man’s mental as well as physical conditions. Many times I could hardly withhold the cries of pain which came from my whole system. Many times men nearly parted from the rest of the crew, but with my utmost power was able to keep the crew together.
One man died, but Danielson and the rest of his men were able to stagger into Mullan the next morning. Danielson was scarred from his burns.
The words of a correspondent for the Daily Idaho Press (printed Aug. 27, 1910), describing the scene in Mullan, Idaho on Aug. 21, when James Danielson and his crew arrived:
The most pitiful sight ever witnessed in Mullan occurred Sunday morning when the fifteen survivors of the Boulder Creek (Stevens Peak) fire limped into town.
All were staggering and all carried their arms in the air. They were badly burned and the only relief that could be obtained was by holding their arms up. Some of the men were blind from the flames that had burned them, and they held on to the men in front of them. They walked in single file and made a most distressing spectacle. They were so overcome they could not at first give a coherent account of what had happened.
Deputy Ranger Ed Thenon was in charge of a fire crew on Moose Creek in the Clearwater National Forest. His account is from “When the Mountains Roared,” a Forest Service publication.
… I heard someone outside my tent calling, “Ed.” I recognized the voice as Louie Fitting’s. I said: ‘Hello, what’s the matter?’ He said: “Come out here, I just saw a star fall on the hillside across the creek and it has started a fire.” I was outside at once and sure enough he pointed out a small fire starting well up on the hill across the creek from our camp. I knew it was out of reason to think a star could have set this fire, and in looking around to the west, the direction the gale of the wind was coming from, I saw the sky aglow with pink color spread across a width of several miles. I knew at once all about Fitting’s star and where it came from.
The fire was coming at a high rate of speed. Already it was beginning to throw shadows in our camp and we were right in the middle of its path.
Thenon and his men took shelter in the creek. All the firefighters survived, though one had a mental breakdown and was later sent to an asylum.
The words of Vic Grantham, a fire crew member with Ed Pulaski, after emerging at dawn from the Pulaski Tunnel:
We were all paralyzed and couldn’t use our limbs so we floundered along on the ground. Someone helped me into the water of the creek. I remember there was a big snag just above me that was burning and threatening to fall on me. I didn’t care at the time whether it fell or not. I just sat and looked at it.
From Joe Halm, who was in the headwaters of the St. Joe River with a fire crew, as quoted in “When the Mountains Roared.”
Evening found our little party many miles from camp. We saw the remains of an elk and several deer; also a grouse hopping about with feet and feathers burned off – a pitiful sight. Men who quenched their thirst from small streams immediately became deathly sick. The clear, pure water running through miles of ashes had become a strong, alkaline solution, polluted by dead fish, killed by the lye. Thereafter, we drank only spring water.
From William W. Morris, a 29-year-old ranger, who was in charge of firefighters on the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, as quoted in “When the Mountains Roared.”
On the night of September fourth raindrops on our faces awakened us. First only a few fell, and then, increasing, it soon began to come down quite heavily. We lay there and enjoyed it. We were glad to get wet, for we knew our long fight was over. The next day the rain continued, so we broke up our camp, and I bid an affectionate farewell to the faithful crew, the men going on their various ways, most of them never to see each other again. I returned to Wallace, where the people were just recovering from the effects of the fire, which had burned a large part of the town. The hills surrounding the city, which formerly had been so green and beautiful, were now bare and black.