On a hot day one hundred years ago this summer, forester Joseph Halm and his crew of firefighters hacked their way through miles of wilderness toward a wildfire burning at Bean Creek near the headwaters of the St. Joe River. Halm noted the withered ferns and grasses and the crisp brown underbrush, parched by drought. It had been a strange weather year. An extremely heavy snowfall followed by the hottest April on record and the driest summer in forty years.
By the third week of August, District One forester William Greeley reported more than 3,000 wildfires burning in north Idaho and western Montana. Hundreds of crews like Halm’s had been dispatched to every national forest in the district, and a dusting of gray ash covered the woods.
By August 20 Halm’s men nearly had the Bean Creek Fire under control when a freakish, ferocious wind blasted into the canyon and fanned the remaining embers into flames so quickly the firefighters dropped their tools and ran. The air grew dark with smoke and a towering wall of fire soon appeared over the hilltops. It jumped a mile-wide canyon and rained whirls of charred twigs down onto the panicked crew. Halm calmly ordered the men to take refuge in the middle of Bean Creek, where they survived the scorching heat by throwing buckets of water on the burning trees crashing around them.
Halm didn’t know it at the time, but similar scenes, and worse, were occurring throughout Inland Northwest forests. Memorialized as the Big Burn, the Devil’s Broom, the Big Blow Up, and the Great Fire of 1910, it devoured nearly three million acres on August 20 and 21.
The Great Fire roared from north central Idaho all the way to Noxon, Montana, and in its aftermath the landscape lay in utter ruin. The torrential windstorm had exploded with such force that entire hillsides of old growth trees were uprooted before the blaze even reached them. The animals that survived were singed, and trout floated, belly up in hot creeks poisoned with ash. Some settlements were completely leveled and others were miraculously spared. Several of the ones that survived—Avery, St. Maries, and Wallace, Idaho; and Thompson Falls and Trout Creek, Montana—are commemorating the Big Burn with various displays and events this summer.
Hikers can get an idea of what Halm’s crew was up against by walking about nine miles along the St. Joe Trail #48 to remote Bean Creek in the Avery Ranger District. Access it from the Spruce Creek Campground near the Red Ives Ranger Station. Between Red Ives and the campground is a horse camp. Across from it up the hill to the left are the standing remains of cedar trees charred in the 1910 Fire. Kayaking and whitewater rafting enthusiasts can travel through the area on Class III-IV rapids from the put-in 16 miles further up the St. Joe at Heller Creek.
The fire roared through the Clearwater country before reaching the Coeur d’Alenes. Two hikes from Clearwater Crossing in the Lolo National Forest lead through areas that were destroyed. The North Forks of Fish Creek and Straight Creek are now a good place to see 100 years of re-growth. The Devil’s Broom passed over the wet lower reaches of the West Fork drainage where a magnificent stand of old growth cedars still stands.
“A RED DEMON FROM HELL”
As news of the approaching inferno reached one fire brigade after another, the leaders—many of whom were young men in their early twenties— sought shelter for their crews in caves and mine shafts, or ordered them to cover themselves with wet blankets and lay down in trickling streams where they sucked precious air from spaces in the gravel. Many who survived were seared and temporarily blinded from the heat and smoke. A few went mad. A forester named Edward Stahl wrote of flames shooting hundreds of feet in the air, “Fanned by a tornadic wind so violent that the flames flattened out ahead, swooping to earth in great darting curves, truly a veritable red demon from hell.”
The woods were filled with a surprising concentration of people in those days. Thousands of prospectors, homesteaders, lumberjacks, laborers, and backwoods entrepreneurs had fanned out into the nooks and crannies of the heavily treed wilderness after gold, silver, cheap land, and the lush stand of white pine in what is now the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. The fledgling Forest Service hired as many men as they could to fight the fires, and so did mining and logging companies. When more hands were needed, recruiters raked Spokane, Missoula, and Butte for homeless drifters who could be persuaded to head for the danger zone. Before the fury of the firestorm hit, a copper-red sun glowered through a smoky haze that cast an eerie pall over the drought-stricken landscape. People eyed the strange sun warily and wondered what it presaged, as conspiracy theories about the end of the world flashed through the mountain settlements. All of Halm’s men survived, but at least eighty-five others died during those two days. Many more stumbled out of the woods, or were carried out, scorched and raw. The skin on any exposed flesh was seared and the men were dazed. In this condition they scrambled for miles over a tangle of charred, smoldering trees to the nearest towns and many ended up at the hospital in Wallace.
A circle of graves at Woodlawn Cemetery on the west end of St. Maries commemorates 57 men who died in the fire, most at Setzer Creek near Avery and Big Creek near Wallace. On August 21, a mule pack string will lead a procession from a display area at the fairgrounds to a commemoration service at the cemetery.
By August 20, 1910, the woods around the railroad town of Avery were surrounded by fire, but it had not reached the settlement, which served as staging area for fire crews and pack trains that hauled tents, tools, food, and survival gear to the firefighter’s camps. Nearly one hundred fifty men were stationed near the headwaters of Setzer Creek three miles northwest of town, when the wind blasted through late Saturday afternoon. Reports were coming in about the encroaching fire and the ranger in charge sent word to bring the crews out immediately. Most were happy to comply, but a headstrong cook at one camp refused to leave and convinced twenty-seven followers to stand their ground. They all burned to death, their charred bodies interred where they died. Their remains were later moved to the cemetery in St. Maries.
Former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth will appear in Avery on August 21, to make a speech in conjunction with the dedication of a white pine tree in Ruth Lindow Park. Avery’s fire commemoration includes games that utilize the types of skills needed when fighting wildfires a century ago, such as bucket brigades and cross cut sawing. There will be demonstrations on the proper way to pack a mule, use a fire locator, and cook with a Dutch oven. Historians and authors will make presentations in the community center (see side bar for interview with presenting author, Timothy Egan). Avery is 47 miles east of St. Maries on the St. Joe River Scenic Byway. If it seems like a long stretch, consider that just one hundred years ago people made this trek from Spokane by train to Coeur d’Alene, where they boarded steamboats to St. Joe City. The rest of the way was by horse, on foot, or polling against the current in a canoe.
OLD MILWAUKEE RAIL LINE
Back in 1910, finishing touches were being put on a section of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul transcontinental railway line that was constructed in a grand loop through the narrow canyon of the North Fork of the St. Joe River between Avery and Taft, near what is now I-90. Eight raucous settlements sprang up along the line to support the needs of the gandy-dancers, as railroad laborers who dug tunnels and erected the elaborate trestles were called. All the towns had bunkhouses and taverns with plenty of beer and whiskey, sporting women, and a railroad operator’s office.
The coal-fired railroad along this route had added significantly to the number of fires burning in the area that summer, and C.H. Marshall was on duty extinguishing hot spots on bridges near Falcon, while engineer John Mackedon was pulling a train over St. Paul Pass. Both were headed back to the station at Avery when the torrential wind swept in. Suddenly, the operator at Kyle appeared along the tracks and flagged Mackedon down with an urgent SOS. The fire had already swooped down on Grand Forks and was headed straight for Falcon where a group of frightened people anxiously waited along the tracks to be evacuated. Mackedon attached a boxcar to his engine and backed the train six miles to Falcon, where the people hurriedly crammed onto it. When room ran out they climbed onto the outside and hung on for dear life. Burning brands fell across the tracks as the rescue train sped to safety in Avery, but it had to stop twice to extinguish fires on burning bridges before crossing over the charred trestles.
The scene was comparable on Marshall’s train, where every available inch was crammed with anyone still remaining in the woods. There was no way to press through the fire to Avery and the train was literally smoldering when it screeched to safety in a 365-foot tunnel where the passengers bore down in the oppressive heat as they watched the roaring flames licking both entrances.
The best way to appreciate the precarious situation these rescue trains faced is to ride the Route of the Hiawatha rails-to-trails bike path, which traverses the old Milwaukee route. It can be accessed either through Avery or at the Taft Trailhead near Lookout Pass. It’s best to take mountain bikes or hybrid models on this trail, and helmets and lights are mandatory. The commemoration at Avery also includes a bike ride along the last part of the route the trains took as they approached the rail yard.
Forest Ranger Ed Pulaski was supervising firefighters in the Big Creek area when he realized it was time to evacuate to Wallace. As he led a group of forty-three men and two horses along Placer Creek they became hemmed in by the conflagration. Pulaski ordered them all, horses included, to take shelter in a mine tunnel. They got on their faces on the tunnel floor and Pulaski hung blankets over the entrance. The mine filled with smoke and heat and most of the men lost consciousness. Five died inside, and another, who refused to go in, lost his life near entrance. After the fire subsided, the rest picked their way blindly through the smoldering landscape to the hospital in Wallace.
The entrance to the developed Pulaski Trail is on Moon Pass Road about a mile from downtown Wallace. Anyone not wanting to make the two-mile hike alone can inquire at the Wallace District Mining Museum on Bank Street about guided tours on weekends through August 22. The museum is also the place to see a video and exhibit on the fire and to ask questions about presentations, tours, and dramatic portrayals around town in July and August. The city’s Big Fire commemoration is on August 21, with a procession of land management agencies and local fire districts from Rose Lake, along I-90, to the Wallace Visitor Center, where officials will make speeches.
Wallace was a bustling community of some 6,000 residents in 1910. Closely hemmed in by dry woods all around, the drought had the town fathers concerned, so they set off a series of dynamite blasts for several days with the hope of making it rain. If rain causes thunder and lighting, they reasoned, then it follows that thundering noise and flashes of light could cause rain. Being in the heart of the mining district, they had plenty of dynamite on hand, so it was worth a try. Strangely, after sixty hours of intermittent blasting, a small shower fell on the bone-dry ground, but it wasn’t enough to make a difference. By August 20, live embers and flaming firebrands rained down on the city and the entire east end was destroyed.
A theme that recurs throughout the historic Big Burn stories is that those who panicked lost their lives. Most of those who remained calm and cooperative survived.
There is a calendar of events throughout the Inland Northwest at (and also above on this page): http://www.fs.fed.us/r1/1910-centennial/index.html, but double check facts with the hosts.
WHEN YOU GO:
CLEARWATER CROSSING: Leave Interstate 90 at the Fish Creek Exit #66, approximately 37 miles west of Missoula. Follow Fish Creek Road #343 south to West Fork Fish Creek Road #7750. Turn on to Road #7750 and follow it to Clearwater Crossing located 1 mile past Hole in the Wall Lodge.
AVERY AND RED IVES: From St. Maries, take the St. Joe River Scenic Byway east 47 miles to Avery. For the Route of the Hiawatha, go to the east end of Avery and turn left on Moon Pass Rd. Pearson Trailhead is to the right after nine miles. To see the Loop Creek burn area by car, go past the Pearson cut-off about a mile and turn right on Loop Creek Road. For Red Ives, drive 27 miles east from Avery and turn right onto Forest Road 218. It’s about 10 miles to
OTM recently caught up with Timothy Egan, Spokane-raised author of
The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America.
A presentation by Egan will be a part of the Fire’s Centennial Celebration
this August in Idaho.
YOU WILL BE SPEAKING IN WALLACE ON AUGUST 21 ABOUT YOUR BOOK, THE BIG BURN. WHAT CAN PEOPLE EXPECT FROM YOUR
I’m going to try to bring the fire home to folks in Wallace – that is, try to get them to feel the sense of panic, fear, and heroism that came over the Silver Valley when this fire blew up. There’s been nothing like it, really, in the history of American wildfires.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE ANECDOTES OR DISCOVERIES THAT YOU MADE WHILE RESEARCHING THE BIG BURN?
As important as this fire was to the Inland Northwest, it was a really big deal in the rest of the country. It was front page news everywhere, and brought about a big change in our policy on wildfires and the Forest Service. It saved the Forest Service, I argue, by making heroes of this still-young agency. But it also prompted a century-long policy of putting out every fire, or trying to, which led to fuel suppression and defiance of nature. Fire, after all, is a part of nature. As for anecdotes, I’m still touched by the story which I unearthed of Pinkie Adair, the homesteader, who was forced to cook for all these convicts released into the woods to fight fires. She walked some 20 miles or so to escape the fire—she outlived all the major players, telling her story well into her 90s.
NOW THAT THE BOOK HAS BEEN OUT FOR A YEAR HAVE YOU DISCOVERED ANYTHING NEW ABOUT THE FIRE? WHAT WOULD YOU ADD—IF ANYTHING TO AN ADDENDUM? A POSTSCRIPT?
Well, I learned how much fascination there still is with Teddy Roosevelt, the pioneering conservationist president. We can thank him for many of our national parks, most of the Forest Service, and the national wildlife refuges. I get lots of letters and notes from people telling me how much they love Roosevelt.
As for new stuff, when I was on the road last year, I always mentioned this telegram that was sent by an early ranger to Missoula after finding saloons and houses of prostitution going up on public land. “Two undesireable prostitutes setting up on Forest Service land. What should we do?” Came the reply: “Get two desirable ones.”
Well, I was telling this story at a reading in California and afterwards, a woman approached me with the original telegram. It was her grandfather who’d sent it!
WHILE YOU WERE RESEARCHING YOUR BOOK, DID YOU GET OUT THERE AND HIKE THE AREAS AFFECTED BY THE BURN? IF SO, WHICH TRAILS OR AREAS DO YOU THINK BEST CONVEY THE HISTORY OF THE FIRE?
Yes, I hiked all over the area, and it’s a fascinating quilt: mostly restored by third growth, but still, there are some areas where the fire burned so hot that nothing came back. The big train that came through is now gone, replaced by biking trails. You can see some of the standing, dead trees—or what’s left of them—in places. Sad to say, there is a lot of beetle infestation all over these forests—in the Lolo, the Panhandle NFS—which is now killing the trees, which may be tied to global warming, in the view of some forest researchers. But, as to a trail, I’d recommend the Pulaski Trail, just outside of Wallace, just a few years old. This is a living history trail, newly developed by the Forest service, where you can hike the places where Ed Pulaski led his bedraggled group out of the burning mountains on the “Night the Mountains Roared,” as they called it. It’s self-guided, with markers along the way. Very nicely done for history and hiking buffs.
DO YOU SEE ANY PARALLELS BETWEEN THE BIG BURN AND THE BP OIL DISASTER?
Obviously, there are major differences: the fire was an act of nature, the BP spill is man-caused, and nature-killing. But there are some parallells in the approach, and in the hubris. A hundred years ago, some in government and elsewhere proclaimed that we’d reached a stage where fire was no longer a problem, as if it had been eliminated. Then, when it blew up, they had no way to fight it; they were helpless against this power of nature. Similarly, with BP, they didn’t even a file a spill response, because they thought, or indicated, it would never happened. And now that it has happened, they don’t have a plan, or a clue, how to contain it.