Friend or foe? Instrument of destruction or renewal? Natural cycle or unwelcome force?

Over the decades, the American perception of wildfire has roared from one extreme to another. Our battles over whether to fight it fast or let it burn stretch back 100 years to what is viewed as a seminal moment in fire management and Forest Service history—the “Big Blowup” of August 20-21, 1910.

Long before European settlers landed in North America, American Indians intentionally used fire to their advantage. Fire enabled them to alter and improve wildlife habitats, manage for agriculture, and clear travel routes, among many other suspected uses. So, in addition to the natural fires that shaped the continent’s forest landscapes, human-set fires further controlled forest fuels and perpetuated fire-adapted ecosystems.

But as new settlers spread across the land—living within and depending upon the resources of the nation’s forests—fire posed a threat to homes, livelihoods and lives. Wildfire was soon viewed as a beast to be tamed, like much of the wildness that was the West.

That was certainly the case by mid-August 1910. In a drought-ridden year, hundreds of small fires were burning across the Northern Rockies of Idaho and Montana. The Forest Service had pulled out all the stops to subdue the blazes, deploying 4,000 troops to supplement the thousands of civilian firefighters already at work.

But nothing could prepare them for what August 20 would bring. Hurricane force winds blasted into the region, inciting embers and low flames into a conflagration of shocking proportion. Forester Edward Stahl described flames hundreds of feet high that were “fanned by a tornado wind so violent that the flames flattened out ahead, swooping to earth in great darting curves, truly a veritable red demon from hell.”

In the short two days that the great blowup’s life spanned, more than 3 million acres burned. Smoke from the fire reached New England and soot floated as far away as Greenland. Small communities were obliterated and more than 85 lives were lost. The absolute devastation left not only scars on the land, but also lasting and fervent opinions about how forests and wildfire should be managed.

At the time of the 1910 fires, the Forest Service was a fledgling agency—just five years old—and struggling to establish its purpose and identity. The fire’s timing solidified support, funding and a mission for the new Forest Service, but it also laid a misdirected course for fire management that unwittingly set up the country for more extreme wildfires in the future.

In the short two days that the great blowup’s life spanned, more than 3 million acres burned.

“The young U.S. Forest Service had the memory of the conflagrations spliced into its institutional genes, shaped as profoundly by the Great Fires as modern China by the Long March,” wrote fire historian and expert, Stephen J. Pyne, in Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910. “Not for more than thirty years, until its founding generation had passed from the scene, would the trauma of the 1910 fires begin to heal and would the nation’s leading agency for administering wildlands consider fire as anything but a hostile force to be fought to the death.”

In the aftermath of the 1910 fires, a double-edged sword of sorts arose from the ashes. The Forest Service gained the stature it needed to elevate the concept of “the greatest good” of our National Forests—an important moment in conservation history. Yet the rigorous policy of fire suppression that accompanied this turning point set up decades focused on extinguishing every wildfire at all costs. Fire suppression policy reached its extreme in 1935 with the 10 a.m. rule—mandating that any fire spotted in a given day must be controlled by 10 o’clock the following morning.

In its own way, the new fire suppression policy was effective—for many years fires like those that simmered prior to the big blowup were quashed. But over time, the exclusion of fire from forested landscapes resulted in accumulating and dried-out fuels; denser, less diverse forests; and a recipe for catastrophic blazes once more. Add in a changing climate—with longer, hotter, drier summers—and it’s clear that the “fight at all costs” approach to wildfire couldn’t be sustained.

Recent decades have seen some of the worst fire seasons on record and astronomical firefighting budgets, but also a more tempered attitude about dealing with fire. In the early 1990s, Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas backed away from the blanket fire suppression strategy, declaring that some fires should be fought, but others allowed to burn. “Fire is neither good nor bad,” Thomas said. “It just is.”

Today, the approach to fire combines suppression with preventative measures like fuels reduction and prescribed burning. Communities are more actively engaged in protecting their perimeters and caring for surrounding lands at risk from wildfire. Fire science is teaching us more everyday about how fire behaves under various conditions so that a fire’s path and impacts can be better predicted. And in some cases, forest and fire managers have decided that it’s just okay to let the flames run their course.

While the loss and devastation that wildfire can bring will always garner headlines, we see more positive attention paid to the renewal that comes out of fire— particularly those blazes moderated by fuels treatment and stewardship. The horror of watching Yellowstone burn in 1988 has been erased by images of new young forests and verdant meadows filled with grazing elk 20 years later.

With Smokey Bear still one of America’s most recognizable advertising icons, our relationship with wildfire remains tense and dynamic. “Humans are a uniquely fire creature on a uniquely fire planet, so fire has a lot to say about the character of each,” Stephen Pyne said in a 1994 interview. “Fire history shows people—humanity at large—facing questions and making choices about who they are and how they should behave.”

In Their Own Words

The great blowup of 1910 certainly left its mark upon American history—but it also impacted thousands of lives and generated many fascinating and terrifying individual stories. To help understand the war with fire that came out of 1910, here are a few of those stories from those who endured the fire firsthand.

Excerpts courtesy of U.S. Forest Service Northern Region Archives

Edward C. Pulaski

Forest ranger, Coeur d’Alene National Forest

Note: Edward Pulaski earned legend status during the blowup of 1910 when he led his men to safety and held them there in an abandoned mine shaft while the fire passed. Today, many will recognize his name in association with the axe-like “Pulaski” tool he invented for digging and chopping—often used on fire lines.

The whole world seemed to us men back in those mountains to be aflame. Many thought that it really was the end of the world. Under such conditions, it would have been worse than foolhardy to attempt to fight the fires. It was a case of saving our lives. I got on my horse and went where I could, gathering men. Most of them were unfamiliar with the country, and I knew that if they ever got out they would have to be led out … I finally collected forty-five men … Had it not been for my familiarity with the mountain trails, we would never have come out alive, for we were completely surrounded by raging, whipping fire.

My only hope was to reach an old mine tunnel which I knew to be not far from us.

We raced for it. On the way one man was killed by a falling tree. We reached the mine just in time, for we were hardly in when the fire swept over our trail.

My experience left me with poor eyes, weak lungs, and throat; but, thank God, I am not now blind.

-Edward C. Pulaski

The men were in a panic of fear, some crying, some praying. Many of them soon became unconscious from the terrible heat, smoke, and fire gas. The wet blankets actually caught fire and I had to replace them with others soaked in water. But I, too, finally sank down unconscious. I do not know how long I was in this condition, but it must have been for hours. I remember hearing a man say, “Come outside, boys, the boss is dead.” I replied, “Like hell he is.”

We counted our number. Five were missing … As the air outside became clearer, we gained strength, and finally were able to stagger to our feet and start toward Wallace. When walking failed us, we crawled on hands and knees.

How we got down I hardly know. We were in terrible condition, all of us hurt or burned. I was blind and my hands were burned from trying to keep the fire out of the mine. Our shoes were burned off our feet and our clothing was in parched rags … My experience left me with poor eyes, weak lungs, and throat; but, thank God, I am not now blind.

Betty Goodwin Spencer

North Idaho Author

The forests staggered, rocked, exploded and then shriveled under the holocaust. Great red balls of fire rolled up the mountainsides. Crown fires, from one to 10 miles wide, streaked with yellow and purple and scarlet, raced through treetops 150 feet from the ground. Bloated bubbles of gas burst murderously into forked and greedy flames …

Fire brands the size of a man’s arm were blasted down the streets of towns 50 miles from the nearest fire line. The sun was completely obscured in Billings, 500 miles away from the main path of the fire …

You can’t outrun wind and fire that are traveling 70 miles an hour. You can’t hide when you are entirely surrounded by redhot color. You can’t see when it’s pitch black in the afternoon. There were men who went stark raving crazy, men who flung themselves into the on-rushing flames, men who shot themselves.

What was left of Wallace, Idaho after the fire.

Elers Koch

Forest Supervisor, Lolo-Bitterroot National Forest

July 30, 1940

No one can claim to be a real old timer in the Forest Service unless he went through the 1910 fire season … I was supervisor of the Lolo Forest at the time. In the night of August 21 the telephone bell at my bedside awakened me. “Mr. Koch, the fires have all gone wild. The flames are just breaking into Wallace. I don’t know where my family is, and my men and pack strings are all out in the path of the fire, and I am afraid many of them can’t escape alive.”

… In the morning I went out with a special Northern Pacific train to see what could be done. About three in the afternoon we pulled into Deborgia. The head of the big fire had just reached the town, and some of the buildings were afire. It was black dark and everybody was carrying lanterns. We loaded the residents of the town on the train and started back down. Between Henderson and St. Regis the whole canyon was afire on both sides and the train had to run through it. The heat was so great that we couldn’t stand in the open door of a box car … It is possible that such burning conditions might again occur, but with the present organization of the Forest Service it is not likely that sufficient fires will ever again be un-controlled at one time to build up such a widespread conflagration.

Mr. Swaine

Idaho Resident

For days the air had been laden with smoke, flying embers, ashes, singed twigs and moss—some pieces as large as a hand or foot falling promiscuously about. Needles from the fir and pine trees rained profusely through the air, falling like showers upon roofs and the ground. The sound was identical with that of rain. It was evident that fires were raging in almost every direction and that day by day, they were drawing nearer to us. Our constant prayer was for rain …

We had all been one united in a single cause, that of saving our all, be it a pocket knife, a home or a fortune.

-Mr. Swaine

You will wonder what we were doing all this time. Our guest, Mrs. Swaine, the children and I spent our time serving meals to the firefighters who could not leave their posts except in small relays. However, there came an hour when we bade farewell to the little home, the heat and smoke forcing our departure, and sought a place of safety each with a blanket for protection, quite reconciled to the loss of everything if only our lives might be spared.

We took refuge in the schoolhouse—a brick structure situated on a roomy cleared space near the river. This we thought would be the last place to burn although there was danger of suffocation. We remained only about three hours when we returned duly and truly thankful for the tableful of dirty dishes which greeted us, and truly thankful for a sink in which to wash them. We all felt very benevolent after the ordeal and allowed the vagrant livestock, driven as we had been from their homes, to graze unmolested upon our lawns. And we realized as never before, how affliction reduces us to a common level. We had all been one united in a single cause, that of saving our all, be it a pocket knife, a home or a fortune. And I echo Mrs. Swaine’s remark: “It was a terrible ordeal, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

National Forest Foundation