Top 50 Stories: 1910 - The Big Blowup

Fire darkened skies from Canada to Colorado, made wildfire suppression a national priority

sberg@idahostatesman.comJune 12, 2014 

Statesman front page from the fire of 1920
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    To celebrate 150 years of producing this newspaper, we are reprinting one of our Top 50 stories each day through July 6. Then you can vote for your Top 10 stories, which will appear in our commemorative special section on July 26.

The stories that came out of the 1910 fire are as impressive as the statistics it accumulated.

More than 3 million acres and some 7.5 billion board feet of lumber burned in North Idaho and western Montana. Somewhere between 85 and 92 people died; at least 78 of those killed were firefighters.

Survivors told stories of skies darkened all day, of flames jumping across half-mile chasms, of trees ripped from the ground, roots and all, and sent flying like flaming witches.

Forest Ranger Ed Pulaski emerged from the blaze a legend. On Aug. 20, with a line of fire overwhelming his crew of 35-45 men, Pulaski ordered a retreat into an abandoned mine shaft. He told his men to lie face-down in the dirt and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to flee. He hung blankets over the entrance and threw water on them until he blacked out from smoke inhalation.

Five of those men died. Pulaski's courage and decisiveness helped save the rest.

The 1910 fire redefined the mission of the U.S. Forest Service. Suddenly, putting out fires became an agency priority, one that would cost taxpayers billions.

To some extent, that philosophy prevails in the Forest Service. But the cost - in money and lives at risk - has caused the agency to rethink its strategy and consider fire management as an alternative to extinguishing every flame.

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