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Idaho history: The Great Forest Fire of 1910 was Idaho’s deadliest

The forest fire season of 1910 started on April 29 with a small blaze in the Blackfeet National Forest in the northwest corner of Montana. Nobody could have dreamed that it marked the beginning of the worst fire season in Idaho history, and one of the worst in the nation’s history. Like most forest fires in the West, it was probably started by lightning, since in some years 80 percent of the fires on record started that way.

The U.S. Forest Service was only 5 years old in 1910, with limited ability to fight fires. One historian describe the agency at the time as “undermanned, underfunded and underprepared for what was to come,” Scores of fires broke out in western Montana, northern Idaho and northeastern Washington in that fateful summer. Although the snowpack in the mountains was normal, or even a little above normal, by midsummer the woods were hot, dry and highly combustible, and more than 1,000 fires broke out across the region.

With too few men available to fight them, even though hundreds of men from nearby towns had been pressed into service, the Forest Service persuaded President William Howard Taft to deploy U.S. Army soldiers to help fight and contain the blazes. Among them was the all-black 25th Infantry Regiment stationed at Fort Missoula in Montana. Commonly known as “buffalo soldiers,” a name given them by Native Americans during the Indian Wars of the 1870s, the regiment focused its efforts on fighting fire and evacuating the people of Avery, then threatened with obliteration.

By Aug. 19, the fires seemed to be under control, and some firefighters were released from duty. But on the fateful day of Aug. 20, 1910, all hell broke loose when hurricane-force winds swept through the region, fanning small fires into roaring big ones. The sound of wind-driven fire was remembered by many when they described their experiences, and a book written about the great fire of 1910 was aptly named “When the Mountains Roared.”

Firefighters, in the face of such an inferno, could only try to save themselves. Some took refuge in mine tunnels if they could reach them, some lay down in streams with wet blankets covering their heads, but for far too many there was no escape.

Towns in the path of the fire were evacuated by Northern Pacific trains to Missoula and Spokane. Several thousand left their homes, not knowing if they would still have a home when they returned, and many didn’t. One third of the town of Wallace burned to the ground, with the loss of about 100 buildings valued at more than $1 million dollars. Two people died.

Of the many acts of heroism that came out of the great fire of 1910, the story of Forest Ranger Ed Pulaski is the most notable. On the day of the big blow-up, Pulaski rode his horse out of Wallace to check on a large fire crew on the west fork of Placer Creek. When he found them, they had given up trying to fight flames that shot as high as 200 feet and wanted to run for their lives. Pulaski tried to lead them back to Wallace, but a new wall of fire blocked their escape. As a last resort, he then led the crew of 45 men to a mine tunnel he remembered and ordered them to lie down in the trickle of water on the tunnel floor and cover their heads. When one man panicked and tried to leave, Pulaski pulled his pistol and told him to lie down or he’d shoot him.

The next morning found all of the men unconscious from smoke inhalation and five of them dead. All were burned and blistered with singed hair and eyebrows. Pulaski led his battered and exhausted crew into Wallace, glad to be alive. A fire-fighting tool still used today that is half axe and half grub hoe is named for Ed Pulaski.

The great fire of 1910 burned 3 million acres and killed 86 people — 78 of them were firefighters.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.

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