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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Fighting fire with history

Wallace was severely damaged by a 1910 fire that burned millions of acres. Photo courtesy of the United States Forest Service
 (Photo courtesy of the United States Forest Service / The Spokesman-Review)

New Orleans had Katrina. Wallace had 1910.

Ninety-seven years ago tomorrow, much of this Idaho Panhandle town was wiped out by a hurricane-force wildfire.

Although charred cedar stumps can still be spotted near Wallace, little evidence remains of the fire, which killed at least 85 firefighters – some were never accounted for – and torched 2.5 million acres in just over a day’s time.

The mountains around Wallace are again carpeted by forest. Thick forest. Perhaps thicker than any other time in modern history, according to Ron Roizen, a resident of Wallace and an organizer of the Pulaski Project, a nonprofit group that aims to raise awareness of the fires and honor the men who battled the blazes.

“There’s a lot more fuel around Wallace now than in 1910,” Roizen said.

Although North Idaho was a much wilder place back then, the forests had been substantially thinned to supply lumber for houses and timbers for the region’s booming mining industry, Roizen said. Forest fires were also more common then, thanks to hot embers tossed out by steam locomotives, no summertime fire restrictions and relatively primitive firefighting technology.

New Orleans had the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers overseeing the flood-protection dikes around the city. Wallace has the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in charge of thousands of acres of surrounding forest. The agencies are now planning to thin portions of the Placer Creek drainage south of Wallace, which served as the pathway into town for the 1910 blowup.

Using a computer model to study prevailing weather patterns and forest fuel conditions, the Forest Service determined the Placer Creek drainage again poses a major fire risk for Wallace. The drainage “is shaped like a funnel, with Wallace right at the bottom,” said Sarah Jerome, a fuels planner with the agency’s Coeur d’Alene River Ranger District.

The Forest Service is now looking at a combination of tree thinning and prescribed burning on portions of 7,000 acres in the drainage. The work includes widening existing fuel breaks, removing aging lodgepole pine and controlled burns, according to agency documents. The project is aimed at creating “multiple lines of defense” against fire, Jerome said.

“I don’t know if we could prevent another 1910. That was such a huge event,” she said. “But even a fire on a much smaller scale could have huge consequences for Wallace.”

Forest Service officials expect to award a multi-year contract for the project next month. Work could begin as early as this winter, though the exact timetable has not yet been determined, said Randy Swick, ranger for the agency’s Coeur d’Alene River district.

The Bureau of Land Management is also looking to thin portions of the 1,790 acres it controls along the southern edge of town. Shoshone County Commissioner Jon Cantamessa said local residents are anxious for the so-called Placer Project to get under way.

“We’ve been very supportive of any kind of thinning they can do,” Cantamessa said. “It’s so thick you can’t even walk through it. … The conditions of the forest right now pretty much parallel 1910.”

Although the forests are again thick and dry, the ability to fight wildfires has much improved in the last century. In the days leading up to the 1910 blowup, firefighters had little more than hand tools and horses to battle the numerous, smaller fires burning in the backcountry. Their maps were often unreliable, and no meteorologists were around to predict the onslaught of gale force winds beginning the afternoon of Aug. 20. The weather prompted the fires to combine and explode in size. They “swept with the roar of a thousand freight trains,” according to Ranger Ed Pulaski’s account of the fire.

Today, firefighters are helped by weather satellites, air tankers and portable laptops, which can help predict the path and intensity of fires. But even with these tools, the lightning and wind could again produce fierce fires that would be tough to stop, said Roizen, with the Pulaski Project.

“If we run into another hurricane wind situation, we’re toast,” he said.

Swick, the district ranger, said the project should help boost Wallace’s odds of survival. “Certainly it would be better buffered.”