Burning Memories

SATURDAY, MAY 15, 2010

Legacy of the devastating 1910 Fire lives on in a resilient Wallace and a duty-bound U.S. Forest Service

Spot fires flared in the streets as families fled Wallace. For days, the city’s residents thought they might escape the forest fires blazing in the mountains around them.

But by the evening of Aug. 20, 1910, gale-force winds were pelting the town with glowing embers.

A third of the city’s buildings were lost in the blaze. When residents returned to survey the wreckage, they also celebrated a seeming miracle.

Assistant Ranger Ed Pulaski had saved the lives of 40 firefighters trapped on the west fork of Placer Creek by herding them into an abandoned mine shaft.

Some of the most vivid stories of the “Big Burn” took place in or near Wallace. So when Russ Graham started organizing a conference about the 1910 Fire, the location was never in question.

“To me, it was a no-brainer to have it right in the middle of the town that exemplifies the fire,” said Graham, who works for the U.S. Forest Service’s research laboratory in Moscow, Idaho.

On Thursday, the Inland Empire Society of American Foresters kicks off its three-day conference in Wallace. Public schools are closed Friday so the 200 attendees can meet in the high school gym.

The 1910 Fire burned an area the size of Connecticut, killed at least 85 people and influenced Forest Service policy for decades to come.

The conference’s guest list underscores the fire’s role in history. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell is speaking at the meeting, along with Dale Bosworth, a past chief.

“The Forest Service was 5 years old in 1910,” said Graham. “The fire was its first big test.”

The agency wasn’t prepared for its baptism by fire. Firefighting was a relatively new endeavor – nothing like the science it is today. Crews were underpaid and thinly staffed. Their tools: shovels and pickaxes.

Graham also finds it interesting that the Forest Service recruited immigrants to work on the fire lines. Few locals wanted the job.

More than 1,700 separate wildfires were burning across the Rocky Mountains before the Aug. 20 windstorm whipped them into a massive blaze. Throughout the long, hot summer, many local residents were indifferent to the danger, he said.

“We had a cavalier attitude about fire back in 1910,” Graham said. “Miners around Wallace lit the woods on fire to expose silver and lead outcroppings. Smoke and fire was sort of an accepted part of the landscape.”’

Graham’s own Forest Service career began more than half a century after the Big Burn. As a teenager in Wyoming, he cleaned outhouses and worked on tree-planting crews. Later, he fought wildfires in the Black Hills to pay for his forestry degree.

In each phase of his career, he saw the 1910 Fire’s influence on the Forest Service.

“It shaped the regimented, duty-bound organization that we became,” Graham said. “Our mission was to make sure we had enough wood for society and to protect the forests from fire.”

The fire also left its mark on Wallace. The tale of how Pulaski saved his crew became one of the fire’s iconic stories.

And the frontier town rebuilt. Many of the gracious brick homes in Wallace’s downtown were constructed within a few years after the fire – expressing residents’ optimism about their town’s future, said Dick Vester, the city’s mayor.

Other towns razed by the fire have become historical footnotes.

“Wallace chose to move on and thrive,” Vester said. “Our ancestors were resilient.”

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