August 20: The Day the Fires Burned

- By Javi Zubizarreta, Research Assistant, Outdoor Idaho

Fighting fire at nightFrom the time that snow packs finally melt from mountaintops to the time that snowflakes must cover them once again, the wildfire season is full of long and brutal days. For weary firefighters day and night can easily blur into each other as smoke and flames darken the sky. However, of the many days that fire crews work to put out forest fires, history has seemingly established August 20 as the most devastating date in wildfire history.

On August 20, 1886, the army, under command of Moses Harris, arrived at Yellowstone to extinguish a fire threatening 25,000 acres – establishing the use of military tactics to combat wildfire.

On August 20, 1988, Yellowstone was again threatened on what has been called “Black Saturday” as 150,000 acres were destroyed in a single day of devastating flames.

On August 20, 2007, Idaho was at the center of forest fires in the nation and one glimpse at the fire map would show that the state was consumed by record-setting wildfire.

However, this brief history of wildfires on August 20 is woefully incomplete without mention of the massive wildfire of 1910. The fire has come to earn such titles as “The Great Fire” and “The Big Blowup”. It remains the largest forest fire in U.S. history and quite possibly the largest in the world. Most of all, it is the fire that would define August 20 as a day of unbelievable fire devastation and go on to influence fire policy for years to come.

Blown down trees in 1910.In the months leading up to the disaster, drought had ravaged Idaho and rain clouds were nowhere to be seen. The forest lands were teeming with dry fuel, just waiting for a spark. Several smaller fires had been burning throughout the area of months, but it wasn’t until the wind picked up that the fire truly turned into a devastating force. A cold front from the north brought terrible gusts of wind that whipped flames to dangerous heights. As forester and eyewitness Edward Stahl described, it was, “truly a veritable red demon from hell.”

As the fire grew in size and speed like never before, the scene in Northern Idaho was truly apocalyptic. With flames erupting into a blackened sky, it seemed the four horsemen were fast approaching. Once-living trees quickly became charred skeletons, animals caught in the blaze were left smoldering on the ground, and firefighters – those who survived – were left with blackened lungs and melted skin. As one first hand account described the ghastly scene, “The fire turned trees and men into weird torches that exploded like Roman candles.”

Destroyed Wallace foundry in 1910The small town of Wallace, Idaho, soon found itself at the center of the blaze with the fire line only five miles away. For hours, firefighters fought with all their might to protect the residents of Wallace and the surrounding areas. Any attempt to combat the flames was futile, however, as the flames raged beyond the scope of human control.

With hellfire fast approaching, a break in the weather brought salvation to those thousands of people trapped by the flames. The winds eventually died down as the rain clouds finally arrived, providing some precious and desperately needed rain. The forests were once again quiet as relief swept through the residents of Wallace. The Apocalypse had passed them by.

Even though the fire raged for only two days, unbelievable damage was wrought. More than three million acres of land were burned, and over three billion feet of timber were lost. The town of Wallace was left with little more than smoldering remains. As the death toll reached 85, the forest showed its potential for devastation at an unbelievable cost.

Injured firefighters in 1910To those who fought this beast of flame, it seemed as if they were at war with the fire itself. This perception would go on to shape U.S. policy on wildfire suppression for decades to come. With the 1910 fire fresh in their minds, the newly formed U.S. Forest Service set out with the belief that every wildfire was a threat that needed to be immediately suppressed and put out as quickly as possible. The 10 a.m. policy quickly became the law of forest lands. Upon ignition, forest fires were to be extinguished by 10 a.m. the following morning. The rigorous policy was highly effective. For decades, fires the likes of 1910 were erased from the American landscape.

Rocky BarkerDespite having the best of intentions, the Forest Service’s suppression policy paved the way for fire to become ever more ferocious. Forest fuels that were historically removed by wildfire were allowed to build up and dry out. Forests became thicker with trees that competed for a limited amount of water and soaked moisture out of the ground. It was only a matter of time until the forests struck back in the war on wildfire.

On August 20, 1988, the forest once again flexed its muscle, delivering a statement that the war on wildfire was by no means over. Over the course of Black Saturday, 150,000 acres of land in Yellowstone were destroyed. A blaze like this hadn’t been seen in the American west since 1910, and as author and reporter Rocky Barker puts it, “These were the signal fires of a new way of living with fire in the west.”

Tom BoatnerThere is no doubt that a new chapter in wildfire history is beginning in the American west. After decades of silence, the forests are making noise – and lots of it. According to Tom Boatner, chief of Fire Operations for the Bureau of Land Management, “We have records on acres burned going back to 1960, and if you measure the ten busiest years by acres burned going back to 1960, seven of them have happened since 1999 and that includes this year [2007].”

The 2007 Idaho fire season will not soon be forgotten by those who experienced the fire first hand. Across the state, communities like Yellowpine, Ketchum, Dixie, and others were severely threatened by ferocious fires. As temperatures heated up and forests dried out, it didn’t take long for the parallels between 2007 and 1910 to appear.

Burned trees on the riverThe Clearwater Forest suffered some of the greatest devastation of the 1910 fire. During the 2007 season, Clearwater Forest Supervisor Tom Reilly was quick to notice some frightening similarities: “When I started hearing that Missoula was breaking temperature records that were set in 1910… I’ve been thinking more and more about the scenario that those fires played out in, and it must have been very similar.”

The potential for the summer of 2007 to turn into a summer like 1910 seemed imminent. Temperatures were high, forest fuels were dangerously dry, humidity was low and fires were already burning throughout the state. Conditions were perfect for disaster. However, luck was on our side as weather conditions eased up. According to Reilly, “I think one of the differences between this year and 1910 is we actually did have a break in the weather last weekend; it cooled off and we got some moisture. They didn’t have that in 1910.”

Idaho was spared from the devastation seen on August 20, 1910, but the devastation of August 20, 2007 served as a reminder that fire policies of the past need to be reconsidered, lest this seminal day once again display its potential for disaster.

Firefighters hosing down hot spots.Today, the 10 a.m. policy has been retired in favor of a more nuanced policy that recognizes the important role fire can play in forests. Rather than extinguish every wildfire upon ignition, forest management will take multiple factors into account, allowing some fires to burn through dry fuels. Recognizing the human cost of fighting forest fires so aggressively has also changed management response. As Tom Reilly puts it, “These days, fire fighters and public safety is our top priority. We’ll fight fires aggressively but only when it’s safe to do so. And so when we see extreme fire behavior we back off until we can size up and let that fire calm down a bit before we engage the fire.”

The story of August 20 in the American West is an ongoing saga of man attempting to combat the wilderness that surrounds him. It is an evolution from outright war to understanding and cooperation between civilization and the wild. While wildfire management and suppression remains a controversial issue throughout the West, understanding the story of August 20 – from the Great Fire of 1910 to current fire seasons – is essential for developing an appropriate fire policy.

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