Filed Under The Environment

The Big Burn of 1910

The summer of 1910 was very dry in the northwest United States, with absolutely no precipitation May through July. The resulting fire was so destructive that Americans named it “the Big Burn.”

In the summer of 1910, every step through the forests in the Bitterroot Mountains between Idaho and Montana could meet with a resounding crunch from the arid twigs and leaves. The season had been extremely dry, with no rain at all from May through July.

On the night of July 26, a lightning storm swept across the Bitterroots. Thunder roared through the valleys, but there was no rainfall. By the following morning, nearly a thousand fires had sprung up around the region, sparked by the lightning. In the following weeks, even more blazes emerged. Sparks, thrown by trains rumbling through the dense forest had no trouble lighting the desiccant woodland, adding to the crisis. By the middle of August, there were 2,500 separate fires burning in Idaho and Montana.

On the morning of August 20, a breeze picked up through the Coeur d’Alene National Forest and the St. Joe Mountains. The wind gradually intensified throughout the day. Before the firefighters knew it, they were dealing with gusts of up to 70 mph. Hurricane-like winds pushed together hundreds of fires. By this point, there was virtually no hope of containing the fire. The Big Burn had started.

The dry wilderness was like an endless source of fuel, and he giant blaze devoured everything in its path. Flaming trees were pulled from the ground and tossed like mere sticks while dry timber caught fire and instantly exploded into a ball of sparks. Firefighters that survived reported that it was near impossible to outrun the heat because the inferno moved at the speed of a charging horse. Those with a head start had a chance of survival; most others did not. Over the course of two days, the Big Burn torched three million acres of land. A third of Wallace, Idaho—a town of three thousand people—burned to the ground. The fire almost completely leveled the mining towns of Grand Forks, Idaho and Taft, Montana. Eighty-six people died, seventy-eight of whom were firefighters.

It was soon clear that the Big Burn was the most destructive fire the United States Forest Service had ever seen. The fire would also be recognized as the most significant wildfire emergency because of its deep impact on future forest policies. The disaster inspired a wave of priority and policy concerning national land. The incredible loss of life and forest showed the Forest Service needed serious recognition from the people. Donations poured in, and Congress doubled the organization’s budget. Parks and forest stations hired more staff and established resources in preparation of another wildfire catastrophe. The disaster of 1910 imprinted on the nation how dangerous fire could be; it was a lesson learned at incredible human cost.

Images

Scars of Wallace, ID
Scars of Wallace, ID The east portion of Wallace burned to the ground. Source:

Barnard Studio, 1910. In the Big Burn Collection. Courtesy of the University of Idaho Library Special Collections and Archives. https://www.lib.uidaho.edu/digital/bigburn/items/bigburn15.html.

No business today
No business today The burnt remains of the bank and train depot. Source:

Barnard Studio, 1910. In the Big Burn Collection. Courtesy of the University of Idaho Library Special Collections and Archives. https://www.lib.uidaho.edu/digital/bigburn/items/bigburn32.html.

Black out the sun
Black out the sun Thick smoke darkens the sky above Wallace. Source: N.a., 1910. In the Big Burn Collection. Courtesy of the University of Idaho Library Special Collections and Archives. https://www.lib.uidaho.edu/digital/bigburn/items/bigburn41.html.
Forest fire
Forest fire Mangled and burnt trees after the blaze. Source:

N.a., 1910. In the Big Burn Collection. Courtesy of the University of Idaho Library Special Collections and Archives. https://www.lib.uidaho.edu/digital/bigburn/items/bigburn43.html.

Remembering the dead
Remembering the dead In the wake of the Big Burn, the Forest Service, and newspapers nationwide, honored the firefighters who lost their lives as American heroes. This memorial in Wallace, Idaho honors five of the firefighters. Another memorial in Saint Maries, Idaho is dedicated to about fifty others. Source:

“Pulaski Tunnel Memorial - Wallace Idaho.” Ian Poellet, May 27, 2015. Via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pulaski_Tunnel_memorial_-_Wallace_Idaho.jpg.

Location

9 Mile Cemetery Road, Wallace School District 393, ID | This pin marks a Wallace, Idaho memorial to five firefighters who died at Pulaski Tunnel in the Big Burn.

Metadata

Brennen Donahue, College of Idaho, “The Big Burn of 1910,” Intermountain Histories, accessed February 24, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/623.