The Blaze that Raced Across the Sky

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On Friday, August 20, 2010 the USFS Nine mile pack string, local fire fighters Forest Service Honor Guard and many other members of the forest service rededicated at the Woodlawn Cemetery in St. Maries, Idaho to commemorate those fire fighters that lost their lives in the fires of 1910. The ceremonial bell was ringed, guest speakers came to address the crowd and a wreath was placed down on the graves. It was a time of remembrance; and a time to reflect upon the history of wild land fires.

The blaze raced across the sky

The long days of heat starting out in early spring caused the land to dry completely, and by mid-August; the forest lay vulnerable to a fire outbreak. The forests were full of growth with lush blankets of green as far as the eyes could see; now they lay waste, succumbed to the overwhelming summer heat. One crew near the St. Joe creek was fighting to contain a blaze not far from the Montana-Idaho border. It was August 18th, 1910 and the haze from the fire Joe’s crew was fighting at the time, seemed to hang in the air everywhere; the worst part about this particular fire was the crew had to pack in 65 miles from the railroad tracks just to reach it.

Approximately August 20, 1910 the weather patterns shifted and two major weather systems had merged over eastern Washington; causing gale force winds reaching as far as northern Idaho and Montana. The unsuspecting crew fighting the fire up by St. Joe creek had the fire contained; The winds seemed to come out of nowhere; breathing life into the dying fire. Instantly, the air filled with smoke and fire brands flew across the sky; out from the fire’s edge. The winds were blowing in from the northwest out of the massive frontal boundary; causing the flames to leap in the air and crown the forest as the crew ran for their lives.

Some terrifying accounts from those firefighters surviving the fire spoke of horrific scenes that far surpass the stretches of the imagination. Haim’s crew in a race for their lives found themselves stranded on a sand bar in the middle of a small creek, with the forest engulfed in flames all around. The men threw water from buckets at the burning trees at a feeble attempt to keep the dragon at bay. A log jam near their location seemed to burst into flames and roared like a furnace; but the winds blew away from the men, keeping them out of the huge inferno’s reach.

Devastation lay in the fire’s path

Ed Thenon, the Ranger on the Selway district of the Clearwater Drainage, gave detailed accounts of what happened in the Moose creek in Idaho Clearwater drainage. A total of thirty men lost their lives at that drainage; as the fire storm overtook their position. Trapped in the small creek near the drainage; the firefighters lay prone waiting in fear for the fire storm to pass; huge trees succumbed to the fire and fell around them killing three men. One man was pinned by a fallen tree until death, while his fellow firefighters were feet away, powerless to help him. At Setzar Creek, an entire crew of 29 was overtaken before they could outrun the flames.

A time of change

The once small fire raced across the northern Idaho timberland reaching into the forests of northwest Montana, leaving devastation in its path.The death toll included 86 firefighters; some of whom suffered unspeakable pain before the fire overtook their positions. Following the massive fire, the public outcry was to extinguish all fires at any cost. Lookouts, forest service roads, smoke jumpers and skilled firefighters on the forest service were trained to spot, contain and extinguish all fires. But this policy of extinguishing all fires started a severe chain of events within the forest. Huge patches of forest began choking off; overrun with new and old growth; large areas were full of fuel ripe for the next fire. The cycles of low intensity fires had changed over to high intensity fires despite the good intentions of the nation.

Making modifications to save the forests

The forest service implemented a new strategy with fire suppression. With the slow introduction of “let it burn”; the forests began to build new life and vegetation. This policy did not come without scrutiny from the public, partly due to the resources destroyed by the fires when allowed to burn out in a controlled setting. Many years were spent in with public fear and public opinion on preservation, not conservation; clouding the true idea of controlling the huge blazes. With the fires of 2000, the overall impact on the forests hit home; fire management techniques needed modification. While the fire of 1910 may have not be the largest fire known in U.S. history, the changes made impacted and forever changed how we view forest fire management.