The Year of the Fires and Pulaski's Saga

The Year of the Fires

 The Great Fires had a disproportionate impact because in 1910 the Forest Service was a raw and inchoate institution.  It was not inevitable that it would respond to the Great Fires as it did or that the agency should preserve the fires’ history.  But the timing was right for something big to have a big impact.  That the Big Blowup provided. Stephen J. Pyne (2001)

The Bureau of Forestry was given the administration of the Forest Reserves in 1905 and its name changed to the USDA Forest Service.  Not only the agency, but also the science of forestry was young. The first chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, was the first native-born forester in the United States. The role of fire in the American’s forest ecosystems was little understood and early on developed two major opposing viewpoints. The Forest Service took the position that total fire suppression was the key to good forestry practices, while local property based groups developed a view that advocated the use of light burning to manage the forests. The fires of 1910 solidified the Forest Service’s viewpoint and gave them the political power to ignore opposing viewpoints for much of the 20th century.  In the latter part of the 20th century a better understanding of fires role in the ecosystem caused the Forest Service and other fire control agencies to develop a combination of fire control and burning to manage forest ecosystems.

The “first task” for the national forests, Graves lectured, was comprehensive fire protection. “The past summer had demonstrated just what could happen” should foresters—should the nation—shirk from that duty.  Stephen J. Pyne (2001)

The Great Fires of 1910 shaped the American fire landscape more than any other fire in any other year throughout the twentieth century.  For ninety years the United States never experienced another such conflagration.  Possibly, it never will again. Stephen J. Pyne (2001)

Image of firestormThe Big Blowup (When the Mountains Roared)

Towering flames burned conifer stands like prairie grass and came over the ridges, as one survivor recalled, with the sound of a thousand trains rushing over a thousand steel trestles.  One ranger said simply, the mountains roared. Stephen J. Pyne (2001)

The dramatic climax of the 1910 fire season occurred on August 20 and 21. On the 20th hurricane force winds blew across northern Idaho and into Montana. On the St. Joe Mountains, winds caught nearly 400 firefighters by surprise and whipped the existing fires into a giant firestorm. Crews scrambled out of the way of the flames the best way they could. How much land burned during this conflagration known as the “Big Blowup” is not certain. Official estimates stated that 2,595,635 acres of national forest land burned and at least half a million more acres outside of the forest reserves. But most authors acknowledge that these figures are low. Another ballpark estimate by the District Forester at the time, calculated that a billion dollars’ worth of merchantable timber went up in smoke. 

The epicenter of the Big Blow up was the Coeur d’Alene National Forest (which then included both the Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe National Forests and which is now the southern two-thirds of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests). The most dramatic and tragic part of the story of the Big Blowup concerns the death of firefighters. Officially 78 men died while fighting the fires.  Seventy-two of those who died, did so in the St. Joe Mountains between Wallace and Avery on August 20-21. 

Then came the fateful 20th of August. For two days the wind blew a gale from the southwest. All along the line, from north of the Canadian boundary south to the Salmon, a gale blew.  Little fires picked up into big ones. Fire lines which had been held for days melted away under the fierce blast. The sky turned a ghastly yellow, and at four o’clock it was black dark ahead of the advancing flames. One observer said the air felt electric, as though the whole world was ready to go up on spontaneous combustion. The heat of the fire and the great masses of flaming gas created great whirlwinds which mowed down swaths of trees in advance of the flames.  In those terrible days many fires swept thirty to fifty miles across mountain ranges and rivers. Elers Koch, Lolo Forest Supervisor, 1940.

Pulaski’s Saga

Ranger Edward Pulaski supervised the firefighting along the Big Creek Divide southeast of Wallace during the summer of 1910. On August 19 he returned to Wallace to gather supplies for his crews.  He was pessimistic as to the ability of the fire crews to contain the fires and told his wife that, “Wallace will surely burn, so be prepared to save yourselves.” 

When he set off on the morning of the 20th, Emma and daughter Elsie went with him up Placer Creek until the road ended.“Mr. Pulaski said good bye I may never see you again, he went up the mountain and we started home.” Ed Pulaski and a packer began their trek up the West Fork to the summits where the smoky thunderheads were building. The drive home was harrowing. The flames were on the mountains, and the smoke caused their eyes to smart.  Stephen J. Pyne (2001)

Read Emma Pulaski's experiences as a Forest Ranger's Wife -->

By the time he reached his crews the situation had become critical. He immediately gathered all the firefighters he could together (45 men) and started back down, the way he had come up that morning, toward Wallace. Having prospected in the area he knew of the mine prospect adits along the route. When it became evident that they could not reach Wallace he guided his crew to the Nicholson adit (after first tying the J.I.C. adit). Along the way one man lagged behind and was overtaken by the flames. Pulaski’s crew scampered into the Nicholson adit just as the crown fire raced over the top of them.  They spent the next five hours in the mine and all apparently passed out from the heat and smoke.  

Image of adit after firestormWhen they came to, they discovered five of their number had suffocated (or drowned in the mine seepage) and the two horses with them were in such bad shape that they were shot. Two members of the crew were able to stumble down the creek to Wallace and alert the Forest Supervisor of what had happened. A rescue party was immediately gathered and set off after Pulaski crew. They met the survivors coming down the valley. All had burns and suffered from smoke inhalation. Some, including Pulaski, were temporarily blind. Pulaski spent the next two months in the hospital but regained his sight.

In the end the story belonged not to Joe Halm [another Forest Service five crew leader]but to Ed Pulaski. It was Pulaski’s account that, rightly or wrongly, the public first and most strongly remembered. It was he who lived most directly with the Great Fires’ consequences. It was Pulaski who tended the graves and quietly insisted that the dead deserved better memorials; who stayed on the Wallace district, near ground zero of the Big Blowup, for an additional twenty years; who oversaw the salvage of the burned timber, the replanting of seedlings, the reconstruction of the trails and telephone lines, the eventual, hard-slogged suppression of fire. His doting daughter had prompted the bureaucratic lurch to a fiftieth-anniversary commemoration. The Forest Service’s inability to locate the Nicholson adit [in 1960], universally known as Pulaski’s tunnel, measures both the self-serving limitations of that exercise and the degree to which, perhaps unrivaled by any wildland fire before or since, the quest mattered.  The last word on the Great Fires was Pulaski’s. Stephen J. Pyne (2001)