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The wildfires of the summer of 1910 scorched millions of acres in the western states, depositing soot as far away as Greenland. Through the experiences and words of rangers, soldiers, politicians, scientists, and the volunteers who fought the fires and were forever scarred by them, acclaimed historian and former forest fire fighter Stephen Pyne tells the story of that catastrophic year and its indelible legacy on the firefighting policies of today. Not only does Pyne explain how wildfires happen and how they are fought, he also chronicles the ongoing debate on the relative merits of firefighting versus "light burning." More than a memorable adventure tale, Year of the Firesis the story of a profound event that continues to shape American life. "Year of the Fires is a pleasure to read." (The New York Review of Books) "Powerful and absorbing." (Austin American-Statesman)
Stephen J. Pyne is professor of history at Arizona State University.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.
Rockfall clogs the entry. Seepage through the loose rubble feeds a wild growth of mosses, bracken, woody saplings, and long-tendriled flowers. The West Fork of Placer Creek splashes a few feet below. This is not an easy place to find. The midsummer lushness practically blots the tunne from view. One has to peer carefully, even when standing across the stream. Apart from the hum of gnats and mosquitoes and the low rustle of the creek, the scene is silent. It has the feel of some mythical grotto, the source of a sacred spring like Lourdes, a sepulcher, an oracle. It is, in truth, all these.
* * *
Probably the site is as obscure as any on the National Register of Historic Places. (The identifying plaque is well away, conveniently planted alongside the paved portion of forest road 456 south of Wallace, Idaho.) The story the site tells is as buried by the shards of time and the rank growth of institutions as the tunnel's entrance. It is hard to find its plot now, amid the detritus and weediness, or to hear its lines above the larger din of engines, chain saws, and air tankers. But in the summer of 1910 it stood as a dark sanctuary, the moral axis of a vast maelstrom of flame.
What happened that astonishing summer was that American society and American nature collided with almost tectonic force. Spark, fuel, and wind merged violently and overran whatever mountains and people had placed in their way. The sparks came from locomotives, settlers, hobo floaters, and lightning. The fuel lay in heaps, like those alongside the newly hewn Milwaukee Railway over the Bitterroots and down the St. Joe Valley and across hillsides ripped by mines and logging and untouched woods primed by drought. The Rockies had experienced a wet winter but a dry spring that ratcheted, day by day, into a droughty summer, the worst in memory. Duff and canopies that normally wouldn't burn now could. The winds came with the passage of shallow cold fronts, rushing ahead from central Washington and the Palouse and the deserts of western Oregon, acting like an enormous bellows that turned valleys into furnaces and side canyons into chimneys.
The Great Fires began simply enough. Lightning sizzled down snags and kindled fire in the spiral tears it gouged out of the dead trees. Abandoned campfires and candle-size flames sparked by railroads crawled through scrub and slash. Fires smoldered in damp duff, and in litter compacted by winter's heavy snows, and tuffs of bunchgrass sending green shoots into a dry spring. But they did not go gently out. They remained aflame. They grew, and new fires added to the burden of burning. As the weeks wore on, the fires crept and swept, thickening during calms into smoke as dense as pea fog, then flaring into wild rushes through the crowns until they eventually scorched millions of acres across the middle tier of North America and, climbing to a summit in August, shattered vast patches of Washington, Oregon, and especially Idaho and Montana. It flung smoke to New England; its soot sank into Greenland ice. In its peak moment, the fires bore no more relation to burning snags than a creek's runoff to the Mississippi River in flood. Towering flames burned conifer stands like prairie grass and came over the ridges, as one survivor recalled, with the sound of a thousand trains rushing over a thousand steel trestles. One ranger said simply, the mountains roared.
There were people amid those flames. As the fires scaled up, the fledgling U.S. Forest Service, barely five years old, tried to match them. It rounded up whatever men it could beg, borrow, or buy and shipped them into the backcountry. The crews established camps, cut firelines along ridgetops, and backfired. Over and again, one refrain after another, the saga continued of fires contained, of fires escaping, of new trenches laid down. Then the Big Blowup of 20-21 August shredded it all. Farms, mining camps, trestles, hobo camps, and whole towns cracked and burned. Smoke billowed up in columns dense as volcanic blasts, while the fire's convection sucked in air from all sides, snapping mature cedar and white pine like toothpicks, spawning firewhirls like miniature tornadoes, flinging sparks like broadcast seed. Those on the lines heard that savage thunder and felt a heat that could melt iron and buffeted in winds that could scatter whole trees like leaves and stared, senseless, into smoke too dense to see their own hands before them. Crews dropped their saws and mattocks and fled. That day seventy-eight firefighters died.
The panorama is vast, the summer endless, the meaning of the Great Fires easily lost in streamers of flame and throbbing smoke. Yet an order exists. Consider the season as a vast nebula made of fires instead of stars, with flame swirling inward from a loosely herded periphery to a tightly bound core. Trace that narrative coil, ignoring the garden variety fires, even when lethal, and move, first, to the northwestern United States. Within that tangle of mountains and plateaus, tighten the focus to the Northern Rockies. Move still more closely to the crushing core with the Big Blowup, and trim the panorama to the rugged landscape between the Coeur d'Alene and St. Joe rivers. Narrow that vision further to a mine tunnel, grim and despairing, along the West Fork of Placer Creek. Finally, focus on the heart and mind of a ranger at its entrance, like the windless eye of a hurricane, standing between a cowering crew and the bellowing flames. Here geography and story merge, and a crazed, fatal firefight becomes one of the great tales of Americans and their lands.
Fires express their surroundings: The big fires of 1910 became Great Fires because they grew out of an extraordinary cultural context. Wind, drought, and woods collided with bureaucracies, railroads, political scandal, pioneering, ideas about nature, and reformist zeal, and because they compelled a reply, the fires became a moral force. In 1910 America's politics were as eruptive as its landscapes. It was a reformist era, an age that sought to act. The fires brought to a fast boil institutions, policies, beliefs, and land practices that might otherwise have simmered for decades. Controversy swirled, in particular, over the legacy of conservation as a popular movement. The Great Fires did what fires do best: They quickened, destroyed, fused. Within two years the Big Blowup was followed by a Big Breakup of the Republican party. Meanwhile the young U.S. Forest Service had the memory of the conflagrations spliced into its institutional genes, shaped as profoundly by the Great Fires as modern China by the Long March. Not for more than thirty years, until its founding generation had passed from the scene, would the trauma of the 1910 fires begin to heal and would the nation's leading agency for administering wildlands consider fire as anything but a hostile force to be fought to the death. Because of that link, probably no fire short of the holocausts that accompanied Earth's putative collision with an asteroid along the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary has had such global ecological reach.
The Great Fires became America's ur-fire, the founding story of how Americans would relate to a natural phenomenon at once as common as sunflowers and as powerful as tornadoes, an ecological element only partly tamed and partly captive and, like a trained grizzly, ever ready to turn feral. The narrative of wildland fire in America remains a series of glosses on that primordial text. The Great Fires were unlike any American fire before them, and no wildland fire since has fundamentally differed from the pattern they inscribed. The choices faced in the summer of 2000, as fires once again, with eerie echoes, splattered across the West, remained those laid down in 1910. Yet to interpret that text properly requires a trip to the enigmatic grotto on the West Fork, for here, in the obscuring shadows, the old events utter their delphic meaning.
* * *
The trek to the site is arduous, not because the way is long (it isn't), but because the primary trail, which used to trend to Striped Peak, is abandoned and overgrown, vanishing into a Northern Rockies hillside beneath boulders, talus, roots, forbs, and the slender shafts of willow and alder. A secondary path to the old mine is even dimmer. You won't find the tunnel without a reason to search for it.
Yet to understand the Great Fires, you need to reach that murky orifice. You'll need a text to guide you, and more than a translator's dictionary or a Rosetta stone to interpret the words, you may need practically, not merely figuratively, a tool. This story originated in deeds, not words. Its legacy survives in acts more than texts. You need something sharp to slash through the scrub. You need something durable to grub out steps through the loose rubble and root-clogged slopes. You need all these tools and a hand free besides. You need a pulaski.