Lessons in firefighting
WALLACE – Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, was a young recruit when he first heard the stories of the 1910 fire.
Fresh out of college, he’d been hired as a seasonal firefighter on the Boise National Forest. Within a week, “I heard the story of Ed Pulaski,” he said.
The tale of how Pulaski, an assistant ranger, saved the majority of his 45 crew members by leading them into an abandoned mine shaft near Wallace is one of the enduring stories of the fire, which also includes narratives of crews hunkered down in creek bottoms while hurricane-force winds howled overhead.
The fire scorched 3 million across the Northern Rockies, razed frontier towns and took the lives of 78 firefighters. Its influence on the Forest Service can’t be overestimated, Tidwell told about 200 people Friday at a Society of American Foresters meeting in Wallace.
The fire rallied public support for the newly minted Forest Service, which was under attack from timber and mining interests. Tales of courage and sacrifice from the fire inspired generations of agency officials, perpetuating firefighting as a key Forest Service mission.
“For many years, we used the 1910 burns as a rallying cry for putting out fires,” Tidwell said. “We put them out, we put them all out and we put them out fast.”
The mantra changed in the 1980s, when the agency acknowledged that fires can benefit ecosystems. The Forest Service now lets some fires burn to benefit wildlife habitat or clear out brush. But it remains a firefighting agency, Tidwell said, extinguishing 98 percent of the wildfires that originate on federal forests each year.
In 1910, the idea of national forests was still controversial. Many Westerners were skeptical of federal forest reserves, considering them a “land grab” by the federal government, Tidwell said.
Wildfires were also an accepted part of the American landscape, said Stephen Pyne, an author and fire historian at Arizona State University, who also spoke at the conference. Farmers and miners set fires intentionally to clear land and expose mineral outcroppings, while sparks from railroad locomotives and logging slash piles set off accidental blazes.
“In many ways, the U.S. was like Brazil today,” said Pyne, comparing the fires to the burning of the Amazon rainforest.
The sheer destruction of the 1910 fire changed public attitudes toward wildfires and the Forest Service. The fire caused nearly $14 million worth of damage, killed seven civilians and burned 7.5 billion board feet of timber, including valuable white pine intended for East Coast markets.
Smoke from the fire drifted north to Saskatchewan, east to Denver and west to San Francisco.
“It was a disaster of such a scale that it grabbed the nation’s attention,” Tidwell said.
Congress doubled the Forest Service’s budget the next year. The agency developed a military-style approach to fighting wildfires, including tankers and lookouts. Fires reported the night before were supposed to be out by 10 the next morning.
“We created this perception that firefighters could save your house – even when your house was in an area that was naturally programmed to burn,” Tidwell said.
Bigger burns over the past three decades have challenged that thinking. Fire suppression has led to high fuel loads and higher rates of catastrophic burns.
In addition, climate change is “adding weeks to the fire season,” Tidwell said. The average acreage of federal, state and private land burned each year shot up 28 percent between 2000 and 2007.
More people also live in the forest or at its edge. Over the past decade, nearly 28,000 homes and businesses have burned in wildfires.
“People ask about the Big Burn – could it happen again? I think it already has, at least today’s version,” Tidwell said.
Better firefighting techniques have helped blunt wildlife’s destruction, and better communication leads to more orderly evacuation.
“When we have these large fires get established on the landscape, we can’t suppress them, but we can get people out of the way,” Tidwell said. “We’ll continue to have these large fires, but they’ll have less of a catastrophic effect.”