The Big Burn of 1910

Coeur d’Alene National Forest, ID, 1910 Near the Little North Fork of the St. Regis River. Photo from USFS archives

FIRESTORM : the violent, erratic, fire-induced windstorm that accompanies and propels a large wildfire, wind speeds often in excess of seventy miles per hour.

Following service during World War II, my father spent a summer working as part of a crew in the national forest of the Idaho panhandle cruising timber and putting out small fires. Little did he know as a young man that his summer job in Idaho came as a result of a catastrophic fire in the area nearly forty years earlier.

In 1910, the five-year-old United States Forest Service was under-manned, under-funded but full of the zeal infused by Teddy Roosevelt and his chief forester Gifford Pinchot. They had envisioned a series of “forest reserves” in the great West which had until then been the province of the big business powers of the day: railroaders, timber companies, and the mining industry. Sound familiar?


Coeur d’Alene National Forest, ID, 1910 Burned over homes in Wallace ID. On this terrace every house was burned; there were approximately 200 in all. Photo from USFS archives

In the dry summer of 1910, an area spanning the Idaho-Montana border larger than the state of Connecticut–more than three million acres–burned in a ten day period with a series of wind-driven fires converging into the largest firestorm the nation had seen in the West. Over 10,000 men were sent walking into the woods to fight the fire, towns were wiped off the map, and a hundred people died or carried the scars for the remainder of their lives. Ash and smoke settled as far away as Denver and Minnesota. The political fallout stretched much farther, helping to solidify the place of national forests in America and has influenced our national conservation ethic for the past one hundred years.

For a comprehensive slice of that history, pick up a copy of The Big Burn (2009) by excellent documentarian Timothy Egan. To see a short author interview including more photos: click here.

About Outspire

The natural outdoor world is exciting, restorative, and infinitely fascinating. More people should spend time there!
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2 Responses to The Big Burn of 1910

  1. I’d not heard of this. Interesting bit of forest fire history.

  2. outspire says:

    Yes, and history about the truly novel idea of large, managed public forests rather than the privatized lands of Europe, or even the majority of the Eastern U.S. at the time. There was a frontier mentality in the West back then and many individuals were accustomed to simply taking whatever they wanted without regard to consequences–timber, mining and railroad companies included.

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