Great Fire of 1910

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Great Fire of 1910
St Joe Idaho Fire 1910.jpg
Little North Fork of the St. Joe River, Idaho
Location Washington, Idaho, Montana
Date(s) August 20–21, 1910
Burned area 3,000,000 acres (1,214,000 ha)
Cause not officially determined
Land use logging, mining, railroads
Fatalities 87

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 that burned about three million acres (1,214,057 ha), approximately the size of Connecticut) in northeast Washington, northern Idaho (the panhandle), and western Montana.[1] The area burned included parts of the Bitterroot, Cabinet, Clearwater, Coeur d'Alene, Flathead, Kaniksu, Kootenai, Lewis and Clark, Lolo, and St. Joe National Forests. The firestorm burned over two days (August 20–21, 1910), and killed 87 people,[2] mostly firefighters.[3][4] It is believed to be the largest, although not the deadliest, forest fire in U.S. history.[5] The outcome was to highlight firefighters as public heroes while raising public awareness surrounding national nature conservation.


There were a great number of problems that contributed to the destruction caused by the Great Fire of 1910. The fire season started early that year, because the spring and summer of 1910 were extremely dry[6] and the summer sufficiently hot to have been described as “like no others”.[1] The drought resulted in forests that were teeming with dry fuel, which had previously grown up on abundant autumn and winter moisture.[7] Fires were set by hot cinders flung from locomotives, sparks, lightning, and backfiring crews, and by mid-August, there were 1,000 to 3,000 fires burning in Idaho, Montana, Washington, and British Columbia.[5]

The Big Blowup[edit]

On August 20, a cold front blew in and brought hurricane-force winds, whipping the hundreds of small fires into one or two blazing infernos.[3] The fire was impossible to fight; there were too few men and too little 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 this dry summer. Later, at the behest of President William Howard Taft, the U.S. Army, 25th Infantry Regiment (known as the Buffalo Soldiers), was brought in to help fight the blaze.[3][8]

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, 500 miles (800 km) out into the Pacific Ocean, ships could not navigate by the stars because the sky was cloudy with smoke.[5]


The entire 28-man "Lost Crew" was overcome by flames and perished on Setzer Creek outside of Avery, Idaho.[9]

The most famous story of survival was that of Ed Pulaski, a U.S. Forest Service ranger who led a large group of his men to safety in an abandoned prospect mine outside of Wallace, Idaho, just as they were about to be overtaken by the fire. 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.[10][11]


Wallace, Idaho, after the Big Blowup

The fire was finally extinguished when another cold front swept in, bringing steady rain.[3] Several towns were completely destroyed by the fire:[12][13][14][15]

Additionally one third of Wallace, Idaho, was burned to the ground,[13] with an estimated $1 million (calculation 1910), approximately $25 million in 2014 dollars, in damage.[14] Passenger trains took thousands of Wallace residents to Spokane, Washington, and Missoula, Montana.[12][13] Another train with 1,000 people from Avery took refuge in a tunnel after racing across a burning trestle.[14] Other towns with severe damage included: Burke, Kellogg, Murray, and Osburn, Idaho.[15] The towns of Avery and Saltese as well as a major part of Wallace were saved by backfires.[16]

The Fire of 1910 cemented and shaped the U.S. Forest Service, which at the time was a newly established department on the verge of cancellation. Before the epic event, there were many debates on how 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.[17] One of the people who fought the fire, Ferdinand A. Silcox, went on to become the fifth chief of the fire service. Influenced by the devastation of the Big Blowup, Silcox promoted the "10 a.m." policy, the goal of suppressing all fires by 10 a.m. of the day following their report.[18] It was decided that the U.S. Forest Service was to prevent and battle against every wildfire.[17] More recently, this absolutist attitude to wildfires has been criticized for altering the natural disturbance mechanisms that drive forest ecosystem structure.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Teddy Roosevelt And The Fire That Saved The Forests". NPR. October 29, 2009. Retrieved 2014-05-26. 
  2. ^ Egan, Timothy. - "Ideas & Trends: Why Foresters Prefer to Fight Fire With Fire". - The New York Times. - August 20, 2000.
  3. ^ a b c d "1910 Fire Season". Inferno. Retrieved 1 July 2013. (78 Firefighters, 8 civilians)
  4. ^ "Deadliest incidents resulting in the deaths of 8 or more firefighters". National Fire Protection Association. February 2012. Retrieved 1 July 2013. (86 firefighters)
  5. ^ a b c Jim Petersen. "The West is Burning Up!". Evergreen Magazine (Idaho Forest Products Commission) (Winter Edition 1994-1995). Retrieved 2014-04-26. 
  6. ^ Idaho Spring/Summer Precipitation; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  7. ^ Idaho Autumn/Winter Precipitation; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ The Source
  11. ^ The Big Burn: Idaho and Montana, August 1910 part two
  12. ^ a b Kavenaugh, Laurie. - "On the Scene: Senior Artist Shares Hometown Tragedy". - Chico Enterprise-Record. - August 10, 2000.
  13. ^ a b c Geranios, Nicholas K. - "Current Fires Share Similarities with Fires of 1910". - Associated Press. - (c/o Lewiston Morning Tribune. - August 16, 2000.
  14. ^ a b c Kramer, Becky. - "A Region's Baptism of Fire". - The Spokesman-Review. - August 21, 2000.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ backfires
  17. ^ a b The Big Burn: Idaho and Montana, August 1910 part three
  18. ^ a b Roberts, Jacob (2015). "The Best of Intentions". Distillations (Chemical Heritage Foundation) 1 (2): 38–39. Retrieved 28 August 2015. 

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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 47°20′N 116°00′W / 47.333°N 116.000°W / 47.333; -116.000

  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.