The Big Blowup
July 26, 2019
The disastrous fires of summer 1910 reached a crescendo in August when hurricane-force winds whipped flames hundreds of feet high across the mountains and into the small towns dotting the valleys below. By its end, the Big Blowup—an estimated conflagration of 1,736 total fires across the Northern Rockies—had consumed 3 million acres of private and federal land, claimed at least 85 lives, and pushed fire prevention and suppression policies that influenced fire management for more than 50 years.1
The first and former head of the United States Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, blamed the catastrophic spread of fire on members of Congress for allocating, what he considered, inadequate funding to cover even barely minimal equipment and personnel costs. In effect, he said, Congress was fighting on the side of fires. Pinchot stayed true to convictions that ultimately cost him his job: absolute restoration and conservation of natural resources (water, forests, minerals) as the only permanent basis of national success.2
The land was not a free-for-all, Pinchot argued, and with the welcome approval of President Theodore Roosevelt, Pinchot slashed the red tape in business practices to guard against forest fires and protect the young growth. He created national forest management, pushing conservation over the prevailing belief that forests were inexhaustible stores of timber and took back seat to lumber barons, ranchers, and an industrial nation intent on developing mineral resources. Like Roosevelt, Pinchot believed the absorption of these resources by special interest was a moral wrong.
Pinochet fought hard and secured and increased the number of national forests from 32 to 149, and totaling 193 million acres by 1910.
Pinchot garnered a lot of enemies during his tenure in the forest service, particularly among those with profit margins depending on the land’s exploitation. Preservationists, like John Muir, favored limiting access to public land (preservation) and not so much Pinchot’s planned use and renewal philosophy. High level political differences (trumped up to accuse Pinchot of government corruption) resulted in Pinchot’s dismissal in January 1910, under orders of President William Taft.
Pinchot was out of office prior to the culminating effects of the Big Blowup, although the forest service stayed on the side of Pinchot: the devastation could have been prevented if only they had had enough men and equipment on hand; only total fire suppression could prevent such an event from occurring again.3 Pinchot’s proponents opposed the practice of light burning to decrease underbrush and thin forests. The US Forest Service and federal land management agencies campaigned to eliminate fire from the American landscape.
The philosophy of total fire suppression has gradually faded into a research-driven policy of preventing unwanted and unplanned fires, and to let fires burn when and where appropriate. Forests and wildlands need fire. Ecosystems benefit from fire. Natural, low-intensity wildfires burn up fuel, plant debris, and dead trees. The nutrients returned to the soil and light coming through the thinned forest canopies give breadth to young, healthy trees and vegetation. Grassland fires—natural and controlled—burn off tall, aggressive, and non-native vegetation inhibiting growth of plants and grasses beneficial to sustainability and native animal life.
Amazingly, a controlled (intentionally set) burn technique used to extinguish the Big Blowup survives today. Over a century ago, Buffalo Soldier firefighters intentionally set a fire to stop the out-of-control wildfire, ultimately saving the town of Wallace. The controlled fire consumed the fuel, stopping the approaching fire in its tracks.
The science, however, hasn’t conserved our wildland and forest legacy and it can’t, unless, we do something to halt climate change and patrol our personal interactions with the environment. Simple rules include never leaving a fire unintended, following local ordinances when burning yard waste, and clearing dried leaves and debris from gutters and land surrounding your home or business. Residents of fire-prone areas are encouraged to develop community fire protection plans.
While past and future trends in wildfire spread and damages differ, an increased number of wildfires is one of the scenarios predicted under climate change. Warmer temperatures and drier vegetation are perfect conditions for wildfires The wildland-urban interface (WUI)—where houses border wildland vegetation and where wildfire problems are most pronounced—grew rapidly from 1990 to 2010 in terms of the number of new houses (41% growth) and land area (33% growth), making it the fastest-growing land use type in the conterminous United States.4
Other factors contributing to the trend include:5
- One hundred years of fire suppression leading to denser vegetation/forests and fires that burn with greater intensity.
- A less aggressive strategy on large fires for safety reasons.
- Responding with less equipment and personnel.
- West Coast: Above Normal significant large fire potential is expected due to fuel loading and preexisting dry conditions.
- Northern Rockies: Normal significant large fire potential is expected across the region during the outlook period except across the northern Idaho Panhandle and Northwestern Montana where Above Normal significant large fire potential is expected in July through early September.
- Southern California: Normal significant large fire potential is expected across the region during the outlook period except in the foothills and coastal mountains where Above Normal significant large fire potential is expected June through September.
Pinochet and Muir had it right: conserve and preserve. Even Smokey Bear pitched in with advice reflecting changes in the forest service’s original 1944 message, "Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires,” a revision in 1947 to "Remember... Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires," and, again, in 2001 to its current version, "Only You Can Prevent Wildfires."7
And in the meantime, if fire disaster strikes, call 911, and listen to and follow the instructions of an Academy certified emergency fire dispatcher.
1Forest History Society. “The 1910 Fires.” https://foresthistory.org/research-explore/us-forest-service-history/policy-and-law/fire-u-s-forest-service/famous-fires/the-1910-fires/ (accessed June 18, 2019).
2"Our National Conservation, According to Mr. Roosevelt.” The Wichita Beacon (Wichita, Kansas, USA). 1910; June 11. Newspaper Archive. (accessed June 19, 2019).
3Forest History Society. “U.S. Forest Service Fire Suppression.” https://foresthistory.org/research-explore/us-forest-service-history/policy-and-law/fire-u-s-forest-service/u-s-forest-service-fire-suppression/ (accessed June 19, 2019).
4Radeloff V, Helmers D, Kramer H, Mockrin M, Alexandre P, Bar-Massada A, Butsic V, Hawbaker T, Martinuzzi S, Syphard A, Stewart S. Rapid growth of the US wildland-urban interface raises wildfire risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2018; August. https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/55817 (accessed June 19, 2019).
5National Interagency Fire Center. “National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook.” 2019; June 1. https://www.predictiveservices.nifc.gov/outlooks/monthly_seasonal_outlook.pdf (accessed June 19, 2019).
6Gabbert B. “Visualizing California fires over the last 18 years.” Wildfire Today. 2018; Jan. 10. https://wildfiretoday.com/2018/01/24/visualizing-california-fires-over-the-last-18-years/ (accessed June 19, 2019).
7Story of Smokey. https://smokeybear.com/en/smokeys-history/story-of-smokey (accessed June 18, 2019).