Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Big Blowup of 1910

(Mouth of tunnel where Ranger Edward Pulaski sheltered his men during the Big Blowup, photo taken September 1910. Photo credit: US. Forest Service History)
In August of 1910 on the Coeur d’Alene National Forest, a group of timber cutters, miners, and assorted individuals looking to make a dollar, found themselves running for their lives down a steep canyon to an unknown end. Ed Pulaski, the Forest Ranger in charge of this group of hastily collected firefighters knew he had some quick decisions to make.

Conditions across the west had been unseasonably dry with below average rainfall since April. Fires, both lightening and human caused, had started in the spring and reached a crescendo in July and again in late August. The group behind the effort to suppress these fires was an organization in its infancy, the newly created United States Forest Service. Forest Supervisors in Idaho and Montana did their best to control the blazes with the resources they had; a handful of recent Forestry graduates, Forest Guards hired from the local populace, and whatever labor could be gathered from the mines, timber camps, and bars throughout the west.

By the time the fires peaked and reached the point known as “The Blowup” on August 20-21, approximately 3 million acres burned across Idaho and into Montana with several towns burned and an estimated 85 people killed both firefighters and public. The impact of this event shaped fire policy and direction within the U.S. Forest Service for decades to come and strongly influenced the public perception of the role of federal agencies in fire suppression and the role of fire within the landscape.

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