Stories of the 1910 Fire

History of the 1910 Forest Fires — Idaho & Western Montana
by Elers Koch


If history is not written it is soon forgotten. The 1910 forest fire in the Northern Rocky Mountain Region is an episode which has had much to do with shaping the fire policy not only of that region but the whole United States. The tragic and disastrous culmination of that battle to save the forests shocked the nation into a realization of the necessity of a better system of fire control.

It is now thirty-two years since that memorable summer. The men who took part in the campaign are getting older each year and before many more years have elapsed the 1910 fire season will be only a tradition. For this reason the writer who, as Supervisor of the Lolo Forest, had some small part in the campaign and the background of a current knowledge of the regional situation through those trying days, has undertaken to compile an informal record of the fire history of that year. This is not written for publication, but primarily as a record for the Forest Service, so that the story will not be lost.

A large mass of historical material was assembled under the direction of Mr. Fred Morrell in 1926, and free use has been made of these records.

(The Idaho Press, August 25, 1910)
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(The Idaho Press, August 25, 1910)
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Areas effected by forest fires (1910)

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The Organization of the National Forests (1910)

By 1910 the organization of the National Forests in Region One was pretty well shaken down under the direction of the Forest Service, following the transfer from the Department of the Interior in 1905.

The first Forest Reserves in the Region date back to February 22, 1897. These included the old Lewis & Clark, which took in most of what is now the Flathead and the western section of the present Lewis & Clark and Glacier National Park. The old Bitterroot Reserve, created February 22, 1897, included most of the country from the Lolo Trail south to the Salmon River and a strip in Montana on the west side of the Bitterroot. The Priest River part of the Kaniksu was set up in 1898. The next oldest Forests in the Region are the Elkhorn, now the Helena, the Absaroka, the Little Belt, now in the Lewis & Clark, the Kootenai, and the Madison, which were withdrawn from 1900 to 1902. Most of the other Forests in the Region were established 1905 to 1906, including the Lolo, Cabinet, Pend Oreille, Coeur d'Alene and St. Joe.

Some sort of primitive fire control had been established under the General Land Office on the old Lewis & Clark, Bitterroot and Priest River Forest Reserves. The country was partly explored and a few trails built, but not a great deal had been accomplished up to the general reorganization of the older units, and a new organization of the new Forests by the Forest Service in 1905 to 1907.

In 1908 the present regional organization was set up with W. B. Greeley as District Forester and F.A. Silcox as Assistant. By 1910 the organization had pretty well settled down to approximately its present form. At that time, George N. Ring was Supervisor of the Nezperce; Major F.A. Fenn had the Clearwater, which then included most of the present Clearwater and what was subsequently the Selway Forest. W.G. Weigle was Supervisor of the Coeur d'Alene, which included most of the present St. Joe. W.N. Miller had the Kaniksu, and J.E. Barton the Pend Oreille. In Western Montana the Supervisors were as follows: Kootenai, Dorr Skeels; Blackfeet, F.N. Haines; Flathead, Page S. Bunker; Cabinet, Ralph H. Bushnell; Lolo, Elers Koch; Bitterroot, W.W. White; and Missoula, D.G. Kinney.

The five or six years previous to 1910 had all been fairly favorable fire years, so that the organization on many of the Forests had relatively little experience in large-scale fire-fighting. An exception to this were the Lolo and Coeur d'Alene Forests. The year 1908 was a fairly dry year, and the C.M. & St. P. Railway was just finishing construction through these forests, and in the course of right-of-way clearing operations scattered fire pretty well all along the line, so that these forests went through a rather intensive training period and the personnel learned to handle large crews on fires. The effect of this training was very apparent in 1910.

The Great Fire

Set an airplane course from Clark Fork, Idaho, south 25 degrees east, approximately along the axis of the Bitterroot Range, and fly on this course 160 miles to Moose Creek on the Selway River. On 70 percent of this flight you would be flying over 1910 burn, with the burned area extending an average of 25 miles on either side of the line. Even then you would have seen only three-quarters of the burned area, through the South Fork and the North Fork of the Flathead, and westerly across the Kootenai and Kaniksu Forests to see the rest of the fire swept area. Three million acres of green forest burned, most of it in two terrifying days.

The snowfall in the winter of 1909 did not appear to be deficient. A cruising party on the upper St. Regis River from April 3 to the first of May found four to six feet of snow packed so hard that snowshoeing was rarely necessary. It is probable that the snowfall in the mountains was normal or above normal. But the summer drought started early all over the Region. From the first of April on, the usual spring rains were almost lacking. The hills hardly got green that spring. July followed with intense heat, and drying southwest winds from the Columbia plains. Crops burned up all over the Region. As an indication of the drought conditions, press dispatches on July 10 stated that the Northern Pacific Railway was laying off 3,000 to 4,000 men on account of crop failure along the line. The Forest became tinder-dry, ready to explode at the touch of a spark.

Already in June fires began to break out in all the Forests. Several times through July severe electric storms swept the mountains, starting new fires. The newly organized forest-protection force was thinly scattered. There were no lookouts, and detection of new fires depended on intermittent patrols. In the vast wildernesses of the St. Joe, Clearwater, Salmon and Flathead Rivers, were only a few primitive trails along the natural routes formed by the main divides and ridges. The great river canyons of the St. Joe and Clearwater were still almost inaccessible.

In the face of all these difficulties, the little force of rangers and guards struggled desperately and in many cases effectively with the constantly recurring fires. By July 15 over 3,000 men were employed as fire-fighters. Men were shipped from Missoula, Spokane and Butte until the supply of floating labor was exhausted.

There was no reserve of fire equipment in the Region at that time. As new crews were put out, new equipment was purchased from the hardware stores. Axes, mattocks, shovels, cross cut saws, wash boilers, tubs, coffee pots, and frying pans were bought as needed until the supply in most of the local stores was exhausted. The standard bed for a firefighter that year was only a shoddy blanket or one cheap soogan.

A 50-man crew was a big one. There was no thought of putting 500 or 600 men on a fire as is frequently done today. Firefighting methods used were not fundamentally different from present practice and a great deal of efficient work was done. By August 15 over 3,000 small fires and over 90 large ones had been controlled. In the more accessible areas such as the Lolo and much of the Coeur d'Alene Forest, a real and successful attempt was made to send crews promptly to all fires. In the back-country districts of the Clearwater, Selway and Flathead Rivers, there is no doubt that many fires burned for weeks without being attacked, and in many cases five or ten men were fighting fires which would require a hundred to do effective work.

On August 8, President Taft authorized the use of the regular Army for firefighting. About eight or ten companies were assigned to Region One, on the Coeur d'Alene, Lolo and Flathead Forests. Since most of them got in place just about the time of the big blow-up, their accomplishment was not important, though they were of some value for police purposes during the general disorganization after the big fire. The firefighting job progressed with varying degrees of success through July.

Severe electric storms swept the mountains in the latter part of July and many new fires were started. By the end of the first week in August things began to look better. On the 9th, the Supervisor of the Lolo, whose forest had been particularly hard hit, made the statement to the press that every fire on his Forest was out, or practically under control. Regional Forester Greeley asserted on that date that the general situation was greatly improved.

The 10th of August was a bad day, with low humidity and high winds. Fires picked up everywhere and there was a wave of fire which crossed the Bitterroot range from Idaho into Montana in many places all the way from Stevens Peak to the Lolo Pass.

The effect of this blow-up, which greatly extended the fire lines and scattered fire widely, had much influence on the holocaust yet to come. Firefighting efforts were redoubled and more crews put out, and by August 19 things again looked better. Many miles of fire line were held, and with the end of the season approaching, it looked as though the loss might not be too great.

Then came the fateful 20th of August. For two days the wind blew a gale from the southwest. All along the line, from north of the Canadian boundary south to the Salmon, the gale blew. Little fires picked up into big ones. Fire lines which had been held for days melted away under the fierce blast. The sky turned a ghastly yellow, and at four o'clock it was black dark ahead of the advancing flames. One observer said the air felt electric, as though the whole world was ready to go up on spontaneous combustion. The heat of the fire and the great masses of flaming gas created great whirlwinds which mowed down swaths of trees in advance of the flames, In those terrible days many fires swept thirty to fifty miles across mountain ranges and rivers.

The town of Wallace lay directly in the path of the fire, and by the evening of the 20th a third of the town lay in ashes. The flames from the Coeur d'Alene fires swept on to Taft, Saltese, DeBorgia, Haugan, crossed the high range to the Clark Fork, jumped the Clark Fork, and swept on across still another range to the head of the Fisher River, destroying towns, homesteads, lumber camps, everything in their path.

Special trains, crowded with refugees, bore thousands of people to safety into Missoula and Spokane. Had it not been for fine work on the part of train crews, the loss of life would have been far greater.

The unfortunate firefighters on the Coeur d'Alene Forest were caught in the uprush of the fires from the St. Joe River across the summit of the Bitterroot Range. Too late to escape to safety, they were forced to weather the blast in such places as promised some degree of safety. Some retreated into mine tunnels, some took refuge on recently burned-over areas, some lay in small streams with their heads covered with blankets.

When the terrible toll of losses was finally added up, 72 firefighters were dead on the Coeur d'Alene Forest, four on the Cabinet, and two on the Pend Oreille. Two lives were lost in the burning of Wallace and one at Taft. A peg-leg prospector was burned near the St. Joe-Cedar Creek Divide, and three homesteaders burned to death near Newport. Altogether, 85 lives were lost in the two-day conflagration. Many of the surviving firefighters were terribly burned, and as the pitiful remnants of the crews straggled out of the mountains, the hospitals of Wallace were filled with injured men. The fires swept fiercely on all day the 20th and 21st, but about 1:00 a.m. on the 22nd, a rather sudden change in wind and humidity occurred. Fires made little advance through the 22nd and 23rd, and the night of the 23rd a general light rain, with snow on some of the higher ranges, temporarily checked the flames.

The following week burning conditions again picked up, and the widespread fires made some advance. Most of the fire crews had been driven out of the hills. Camps and equipment had burned, and crews had been largely paid off. But under the spur of District Forester Greeley crews were again organized on a large scale, and set about cutting off the spread of fires and opening up trails through the burned country. A good general rain beginning the night of August 31 ended the fire season.

The Coeur d'Alene & St. Joe

In 1910, the territory now in the Coeur d'Alene and St. Joe Forests was under direction of Supervisor W. G. Weigle, with headquarters at Wallace. Owing to proximity to settlements and the large number of fire crews out at the time of the big blow-up, the Coeur d'Alene suffered more in loss of life and property than any other Forest.

Through May, June, and the first half of July, numerous fires were started from lightning, campers, and from the two railroads which traversed the Forest. Most of these were put under control. Outside the Forest, the Pine Creek fire to the west, burned all through the latter part of July and was a continued threat. On July 23, a severe electric storm passed over, and set numerous fires. These were manned as rapidly as possible but, with new fires starting daily and continued high winds which threw brands to a great distance, conditions got steadily worse. On August 13, even though the nearest fire was six miles from Wallace, numerous pieces of burning bark as large as a man's hand fell in the streets, setting awnings on fire in three different cases. By this time there were eighteen hundred men fighting fire on the Coeur d'Alene, besides two companies of soldiers.

After the fire of August 20, 1910. (The Oregon-Washington Railroad and Navigation Depot) Wallace, Idaho. (Barnard-Stockbridge Collection, Courtesy University of Idaho Library and Department of Special Collections and Archives)

Soldier's Camp-Wallace, Idaho (1910).(Barnard-Stockbridge Collection, Courtesy University of Idaho Library and Department of Special Collections and Archives)

Wallace burns

With Pine Creek ten or twelve miles west of the city, afire all through the latter part of July and the first of August, and with numerous fires to the south, just across the St. Joe divide, the people of Wallace were badly worried. On August 14, a newspaper reporter stated that all insurance men had all their clerks busy writing fire insurance policies, but were not refusing any business.

On August 20, a high wind arose about noon. All existing fires flared up, and new ones were started. Great thunderheads showed to the south and west, as the fires rushed to uncontrollable proportions. It was obvious that a holocaust was impending.

Since the greatest danger to Wallace was from fire coming down Placer Creek, Supervisor Weigle took a saddle horse and started up the creek to reconnoiter. He was caught in the rush of the fire, and had to abandon the horse and take refuge in a mine tunnel. He did not succeed in getting back to Wallace until 10:30 that night, with his eyebrows and clothes scorched from his close encounter with the flames.

With the adjacent hillsides all ablaze, the fire broke into town at 9:15 Saturday night. The whole eastern part of the city burned, and before the flames were under control by the fire department, approximately one hundred buildings were burned, with an estimated loss of one million dollars. Two lives were lost in the fire.

A relief train on the Northern Pacific started from Wallace about 10:00 p.m., loaded with women and children. They picked up many more refugees at Mullan and Saltese, and arrived in Missoula Sunday morning. All day Sunday new reports of terrible loss of life came in, as the scorched and burned survivors of various firefighting crews stumbled wearily into town, with tales of terror and disaster.

The terrific uprush of fire from the St. Joe drainage across the divide caught every firefighting crew in that territory, and they were doomed unless they could find a safe place to weather the blast of flame. The story of each of the seven Coeur d'Alene crews caught in the fire is taken from Supervisor Weigle's report of June 24, 1911.

Wallace, Idaho— Taken before the fires of August 20. (Barnard-Stockbridge Collection, Courtesy University of Idaho Library and Department of Special Collections and Archives)

Wallace, Idaho— Taken September 12, 1910— Damage caused by the fires. (Barnard-Stockbridge Collection, Courtesy University of Idaho Library and Department of Special Collections and Archives)

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Last Updated: 08-Jul-2009
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