Friday, September 03, 2004

1910 wildfires brought about changes

From USA Today:

On Aug. 20-21, 1910 - a firestorm of biblical proportions raged across Idaho, Montana and Washington.

Three million acres in the Bitterroot Mountains exploded in flames. Whole towns were incinerated. Eighty-five people were killed, including 78 firefighters, dozens of them burned alive. Smoke drifted across the country, darkening the skies so much that street lights remained on all day in Watertown, N.Y.

The fire became known as The Big Blowup and so traumatized the nation that Congress for the first time decided to spend federal money to fight forest fires. The government eventually required that all reported fires be extinguished by 10 a.m. the next day.

The irony is that the lessons drawn from The Big Blowup contributed to the fix the United States is in today, with more than 5 million acres burned this year so far in the nation’s worst wildfire outbreak in decades.

By aggressively fighting blazes, the government prevented wildfires from performing the housekeeping role nature assigned them. Over the years, forests became overgrown with trees and vegetation that can fuel fires even more catastrophic than those seen before man began interfering.

The result: giant blazes like those burning now on more than 850,000 acres in Montana and Idaho, many in the same Bitterroot Mountains.

‘’People have been trained to hate fire,’’ said Mark Petersen of the Lands Council, a Spokane-based environmental group. ‘’But fire is to our ecosystem what rain is to a tropical rainforest.’’

In the forest primeval, natural wildfires burned brush off the forest floor and opened the pine cones that seeded new trees. Indians used to set fires to speed this work.

When the West was first settled, forests were thinned by timber companies that logged the trees and burned the logging debris, and by ranchers looking to increase pasture land.

‘’The last herder coming out of the mountains would set a fire to ensure good forage the next year,’’ said Leon Neuenschwander, professor of fire ecology at the University of Idaho.

Before The Big Blowup, forest fires were fought primarily by timber companies seeking to protect their investments.

But the fire of 1910, and large fires in the 1920s, led the federal and state governments to create well-trained, standing armies of firefighters, Neuenschwander said.

To extinguish fires early, the nation built roads and telephone lines into the forests, set up fire lookout towers and built campgrounds to concentrate tourists rather than having them spread out. Many of those facilities were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression.

World War II brought a temporary stop to aggressive firefighting, because most of the men were at war. But the end of the war saw a bounty of surplus equipment like bulldozers and airplanes added to the war on wildfires.

‘’In the 1950s, fires were suppressed almost instantly,’’ Neuenschwander said.

And the woods were transformed, especially pine forests of the Northwest that were used to big fires at least every 30 years.

The forests became denser, often with undesirable trees that were not resistant to fire. Trees that could not get enough sunlight or water were left stunted or dead, infested with bugs and easy to ignite.

In forests that had just 30 big trees per acre, flames used to stay close to the ground. Now flames dance across the tops of forests crowded with 300 to 3,000 trees per acre.

‘’That’s a fire almost impossible to fight,’’ Neuenschwander said. ‘’The flames are 90 feet tall instead of 3 feet tall. The fires we have now are hot, real hot, and resemble nothing of what the fires of 1910 would have looked like.’’

Federal firefighting policy changed a bit in the early 1970s, when some fires in the wilderness were allowed to burn themselves out.

After big fires in 1988 and 1994, federal policy was changed again, this time requiring the Forest Service to create plans for specific areas, showing which fires would be fought and which would be allowed to burn. But many plans have yet to be written.

Faced with tinderbox forests, the nation has the option of setting fires to clear growth, allowing loggers to remove trees or suffering huge conflagrations, said Robert Nelson of the University of Maryland.

The Clinton administration has shown a preference for prescribed burns to clear away growth, Nelson wrote recently in The Washington Post. But those can be controversial. It was a prescribed burn that went out of control and destroyed more than 200 homes in Los Alamos, N.M., in May.

More logging is complicated by political disputes between environmentalists - suspicious of any logging - and timber companies, who say they must remove the biggest trees in order to make money.

The Clinton administration has sharply reduced logging in the national forests. However, The New York Times reported Tuesday that the administration wants to expand nationwide an experimental effort in Flagstaff, Ariz., to reduce fire danger by thinning out small trees.

Without a change in direction, Nelson wrote, ‘’The West can expect to see even worse fire seasons in years to come.’’

The fires of 1910 were stopped only when rain and snow began falling on Aug. 23. Despite all the advances in techniques and equipment since then, the firefighters in the Bitterroots now are also looking to nature for relief.

‘’You just pour money onto a fire until it rains,’’ Petersen said. ‘’Hopefully it will snow in the next month or two.’’

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 09/03 at 12:50 AM
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