Great Fire of 1910

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Great Fire of 1910
St Joe Idaho Fire 1910.jpg
A pine forest on the Little North Fork
of the St. Joe River, Idaho, after the fire
LocationIdaho, Montana, and Washington, United States
British Columbia, Canada
Date(s)August 20–21, 1910
Burned area3,000,000 acres (4,700 sq mi; 12,100 km2)
CauseNot officially determined
Land useLogging, mining, railroads
Non-fatal injuriesUnknown
Great Fire of 1910 is located in the United States
Great Fire of 1910
Location in the United States

The Great Fire of 1910 (also commonly referred to as the Big Blowup, the Big Burn, or the Devil's Broom fire) was a wildfire in the Inland Northwest region of the United States that burned three million acres (4,700 sq mi; 12,100 km2) in North Idaho and Western Montana, with extensions into Eastern Washington and Southeast British Columbia, in the summer of 1910.[1] The area burned included large parts of the Bitterroot, Cabinet, Clearwater, Coeur d'Alene, Flathead, Kaniksu, Kootenai, Lewis and Clark, Lolo, and St. Joe national forests.[2]

The fire burned over two days on the weekend of August 20–21,[3][4] after strong winds caused numerous smaller fires to combine into a firestorm of unprecedented size. It killed 87 people,[5] mostly firefighters,[6][7] destroyed numerous manmade structures, including several entire towns, and burned more than three million acres of forest with an estimated billion dollars' worth of timber lost.[2] It is believed to be the largest, although not the deadliest, forest fire in U.S. history.[8] The extensive burned area was approximately the size of the state of Connecticut.[2]

In the aftermath of the fire, the U.S. Forest Service received considerable recognition for its firefighting efforts, including a doubling of its budget from Congress. The outcome was to highlight firefighters as public heroes while raising public awareness of national nature conservation. The fire is often considered a significant impetus in the development of early wildfire prevention and suppression strategies.[2]


A number of factors contributed to the destruction caused by the Great Fire of 1910. The wildfire season started early that year because the winter of 1909–1910 and the spring and summer of 1910 were extremely dry,[9][2] and the summer sufficiently hot to have been described as "like no others."[1] The drought resulted in forests with abundant dry fuel, in an area which had previously experienced dependable autumn and winter moisture.[10] Hundreds of fires were ignited by hot cinders flung from locomotives, sparks, lightning,[2] and backfiring crews. By mid-August, there were 1,000 to 3,000 individual fires burning in Idaho, Montana, and Washington.[8]

The Big Blowup[edit]

August 20 (Saturday) brought hurricane-force winds to the interior northwest, whipping the hundreds of small fires into one or two much larger blazing infernos.[6] Such a conflagration was impossible to fight; there were too few men and supplies. The United States Forest Service (then called the National Forest Service) was only five years old at the time and unprepared for the possibilities of the dry summer or a fire of this magnitude, although throughout the summer it had been urgently recruiting as many men as possible to fight the hundreds of fires already burning, many of them with little forestry or firefighting experience.[2] Earlier in August, President William Howard Taft had authorized the addition of military troops to the effort, and 4,000 troops, including seven companies from the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Regiment (known as the Buffalo Soldiers), were brought in to help fight the fires burning in the northern Rockies.[6][11] The arrival of the Buffalo Soldiers troops almost doubled the black population of Idaho.[2]

Smoke from the fire was said to have been seen as far east as Watertown, New York, and as far south as Denver, Colorado. It was reported that, at night, five hundred miles (800 km) out into the Pacific Ocean, ships could not navigate by the stars because the sky was cloudy with smoke.[8]

The extreme scorching heat of the sudden inferno has been attributed to the expansive Western white pine forests that covered much of northern Idaho at the time, due to their flammable sap.[12]


Memorial to fallen firefighters
of 1910; at Woodlawn Cemetery
in St. Maries, Idaho
(47°18′56″N 116°35′12″W / 47.3155°N 116.5866°W / 47.3155; -116.5866)

At least 78 firefighters were killed while trying to control the fire, not including those firefighters who died after the fire from smoke damage to their lungs.[2] The entire 28-man "Lost Crew" was overcome by flames and perished on Setzer Creek outside of Avery, Idaho.[13] It remains the second deadliest incident in the history of firefighting in the United States, only being surpassed by the September 11 attacks.[14]

Perhaps the most famous story of survival is that of Ranger Ed Pulaski, a U.S. Forest Service ranger who led a large crew of about 44 men to safety in an abandoned prospect mine outside of Wallace, Idaho, just as they were about to be overtaken by the fire.[2] It is said that Pulaski fought off the flames at the mouth of the shaft until he passed out like the others. Around midnight, a man announced that he, at least, was getting out of there. Knowing that they would have no chance of survival if they ran, Pulaski drew his pistol, threatening to shoot the first person who tried to leave. In the end, all but five of the forty or so men survived.[15][16] Pulaski has since been widely celebrated as a hero for his efforts; the mine tunnel in which he and his crew sheltered from the fire, now known as the Pulaski Tunnel, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Wallace after the Big Blowup

The fire was finally extinguished when another cold front swept in, bringing steady rain and some early snowfall.[2][6] Several towns were completely destroyed by the fire:[17][18][19][20][21][22]

In Idaho, one third of the town of Wallace was burned to the ground,[18] with an estimated $1 million in damage (equivalent to $29,100,000 in 2021).[19] Passenger trains evacuated thousands of Wallace residents to Spokane and Missoula.[17][18] Another train with 1,000 people from Avery took refuge in a tunnel after racing across a burning trestle.[19][23] Other towns with severe damage included Burke, Kellogg, Murray, and Osburn, all in Idaho.[21] The towns of Avery,[2] Saltese (MT), as well as a major part of Wallace, were saved by backfires. The smoke from the fire went as far to the east as New York City, and as far south as Dallas.


The Centennial commemoration in Wallace, Idaho

The Great Fire of 1910 cemented and shaped the U.S. Forest Service,[20] which at the time was a newly established department on the verge of cancellation, facing opposition from mining and forestry interests.[2] Before the epic conflagration, there were many debates about the best way to handle forest fires—whether to let them burn because they were a part of nature and were expensive to fight, or to fight them in order to protect the forests.[24]

The Forest Service had instituted a policy of extinguishing all fires as quickly as possible in 1908. That strategy was called into question after the Great Fire, but Fire Chief Henry Graves, the second Chief Forester for the Forest Service, doubled down following the Big Blow Up, calling for a more aggressive fire prevention policy. He launched a campaign to remove fire from the landscape. His efforts would lead to the creation of the Weeks Act, which called for cooperation among federal, state and private agencies to address fire protection. The Weeks Act has been credited with saving nearly 20 million acres of forestland.[25]

One of the people who fought the fire, Ferdinand Silcox, went on to become the fifth chief of the forest service. Influenced by the devastation of the Big Blowup, Silcox promoted the "10 a.m." policy, with the goal of suppressing all fires by 10 a.m. of the day following their report.[26] It was decided that the Forest Service was to prevent and battle every wildfire.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Teddy Roosevelt And The Fire That Saved The Forests". NPR. October 29, 2009. Retrieved 2014-05-26.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "The Big Burn-Transcript". American Experience. PBS. 3 February 2015. Retrieved 23 January 2019.
  3. ^ "More than seventy die in forest fires". Spokane Daily Chronicle. (Washington). August 22, 1910. p. 1.
  4. ^ "Find twenty more dead near Big Creek". Spokane Daily Chronicle. (Washington). August 24, 1910. p. 1.
  5. ^ Egan, Timothy. - "Ideas & Trends: Why Foresters Prefer to Fight Fire With Fire". - The New York Times. - August 20, 2000.
  6. ^ a b c d "1910 Fire Season". Inferno. Archived from the original on 23 October 2013. Retrieved 1 July 2013.(78 firefighters, 8 civilians)
  7. ^ "Deadliest incidents resulting in the deaths of 8 or more firefighters". National Fire Protection Association. February 2012. Retrieved 1 July 2013.(86 firefighters)
  8. ^ a b c Jim Petersen. "The West is Burning Up!". Evergreen Magazine. Idaho Forest Products Commission (Winter Edition 1994–1995). Archived from the original on 2000-10-31. Retrieved 2014-04-26.
  9. ^ Idaho Spring/Summer Precipitation; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  10. ^ Idaho Autumn/Winter Precipitation; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  11. ^ Lewis, Edson E. (September 7, 1910), Report of the Commanding Officer of G Company, 25th Infantry Regiment in Fletcher, Marvin (Summer 1972). "Army Fire Fighters" (PDF). Idaho Yesterdays: 12–15. Retrieved July 16, 2014.
  12. ^ Peattie, Donald (1950). A Natural History of Western Trees. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. pp. 45–47. ISBN 978-0395581759.
  13. ^ Pyne, Stephen J. (2008). Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910. Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company. pp. 155–157, 175–176. ISBN 978-0-87842-544-0.
  14. ^ "Incidents resulting in the deaths of 8 or more firefighters | NFPA". Retrieved 2023-01-22.
  15. ^ The Source
  16. ^ The Big Burn: Idaho and Montana, August 1910 part two "Big Burn - Big Blowup - Idaho and Montana - 1910 - Detailed History - Aftermath - Fire Fighting - Popular Mechanics". Archived from the original on 2009-04-28. Retrieved 2009-10-09.
  17. ^ a b Kavenaugh, Laurie. - "On the Scene: Senior Artist Shares Hometown Tragedy". - Chico Enterprise-Record. - August 10, 2000.
  18. ^ a b c Geranios, Nicholas K. - "Current Fires Share Similarities with Fires of 1910". - Associated Press. - (c/o Lewiston Morning Tribune. - August 16, 2000.
  19. ^ a b c Kramer, Becky. - "A Region's Baptism of Fire". - The Spokesman-Review. - August 21, 2000.
  20. ^ a b Kramer, Becky (August 22, 2010). "Examining the legacy of the 1910 fires". Spokesman-Review. (Spokane, Washington). Retrieved June 21, 2017.
  21. ^ a b Landers, Rich. - "Wild Lands in Waiting". - The Spokesman-Review. - September 26, 2004.
    —Landers, Rich. - "1910 Forest Fires Sparked Pulaski's Fame". - The Spokesman-Review. - July 2, 2006.
  22. ^ Kershner, Jim (August 20, 2010). "Great fire wiped out wild towns of Taft, Grand Forks". Spokesman-Review. (Spokane, Washington). Retrieved June 21, 2017.
  23. ^ Gidlund, Carl (March 21, 2010). "Rail route tunnels saved lives in big fire". Spokesman-Review. (Spokane, Washington). Retrieved June 21, 2017.
  24. ^ a b The Big Burn: Idaho and Montana, August 1910 part three
  25. ^ "The Weeks Act". Forest History Society. Retrieved 2022-01-06.
  26. ^ Roberts, Jacob (2015). "The Best of Intentions". Distillations. Chemical Heritage Foundation. 1 (2): 38–39. Retrieved 23 March 2018.

Further reading[edit]

  • Cohen, Steve, and Donald C. Miller (1978). The Big Burn: The Northwest's Forest Fire of 1910. Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company. 4493723
  • Egan, Timothy (2009). The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 0-618-96841-5
  • "When the Mountains Roared: Stories of the 1910 Fire". Forest History Society.[1]
  • Spencer, Betty Goodwin (1956). The Big Blowup. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers. 2994642
  • Pyne, Stephen (2001, 2008). Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910. New York: Viking; Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Co. ISBN 978-087842544-0

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 47°18′N 116°00′W / 47.3°N 116°W / 47.3; -116

  1. ^ Lewis, Edson E. (September 7, 1910), Report of the Commanding Officer of G Company, 25th Infantry Regiment in Fletcher, Marvin (Summer 1972). "Army Fire Fighters" (PDF). Idaho Yesterdays. Retrieved July 16, 2014.