Posts Tagged ‘archival collections’

A key instrument in fighting wildfires is the National Fire Danger Rating System — used to anticipate fires ahead of time by predicting the potential danger for fire in a specific geographic area.  The Forest History Society Library and Archives staff recently processed a collection that provides a history of the Forest Service’s creation of this national system, as well as highlights the intersection of science, engineering, and nature — revealing the multidisciplinary nature of forestry.

This new archival collection spans from the 1910s to the 1970s with a small amount of material from the 1980s through the 2000s.  The earlier material originated with John J. Keetch, fire control scientist at the Southeastern Forest Experiment Station in Asheville, North Carolina.  The more recent papers belong to Dale D. Wade, collection donor and fire researcher, and concern research in prescribed or controlled burning.

While processing the collection, I discovered that the main theme among the materials is the scientific method applied to the prediction of forest fire.  Anxious to save both man hours and money, Forest Service scientists pioneered a nationwide system for predetermining where and when forest fires would occur.  Foresters were then able to use daily predictions to prepare for fire control in advance.

The creation of a national fire danger rating system really began in the 1920s with the research of Harry T. Gisborne, the first U.S. Forest Service scientist to focus on estimating the probability of forest fire occurrence before a blaze ever began.


Gisborne uses an early fire danger meter to predict forest fire activity in Kaniksu National Forest in 1937.

Gisborne engineered a simple slide rule–like device known as the Fire Danger Meter that foresters could carry with them in the field.  The meter made fire prediction easy and accessible, with consistent results.

The idea of the Fire Danger Meter spread like wildfire (groan) during the 1940s and 1950s.  Foresters and fire researchers across the U.S. created regional variations of Gisborne’s danger meter, adapted according to local weather, temperature, wind and water, soil chemistry, leaf litter, tree type—all the region-specific variables that factor into the likelihood of forest fire.  By 1954 at least eight distinct meter types were in use across the country.

Fire Danger Meter 8-W

Forest Fire Danger Meter type 8-W, created in January 1954.

At the recommendation of the Forest Service’s Washington Office, Division of Fire Research, a team of fire researchers and fire control officers from all regions of the United States began to develop a unified system in 1958, which was soon dubbed the National Fire Danger Rating System.  The research team worked toward a set of variables that could be used to predict fire danger regardless of geographic location.

John J. Keetch, whose papers make up the bulk of the National Fire Danger Rating System Collection, led this team of fire researchers and fire control officers in creating the basic structure of a four-phase fire-danger rating system.  The first phase of the rating system completed, the Spread Phase, provided indexes for predicting the relative forward spread of wildfires.  Keetch later traveled from region to region collecting feedback and criticism from those using the preliminary version of the unified rating system.

The materials in this collection provide the perspective of one fire control scientist on the process by which the unified rating system was conceived, tested, improved, and subsequently made operational in 1972.  The collection in its entirety also provides an excellent record of the evolution of fire prediction—a process at one time effectively done using rotating cardboard discs that is today done using a set of detailed computer programs.

To read a detailed inventory of the National Fire Danger Rating System collection, please visit our online finding aid — the first published with our new and improved design!

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On this day in history, leading conservationist Gifford Pinchot and six other foresters founded the Society of American Foresters in Washington, D.C.  In its 108-year history, the Society has grown to become the largest professional organization for foresters in the world. Currently representing more than 15,000 forestry professionals and students working in private industry, educational settings, and local, state and federal government, SAF strives to advance the science and professional management of forest resources, enhance member competency, and promote sound forest management and conservation practices for the health of forest ecosystems.

The Forest History Society is the fortunate steward of the records of the Society of American Foresters — 449.5 linear feet, with more additions anticipated!  To describe SAF’s beginnings, I defer to the original meeting minutes, which we hold in our collection, to provide an account:

Washington, D.C. November 30, 1900.

Minutes of the First Meeting of the Society of American Foresters.

An informal meeting of foresters was called at the office of Mr. Pinchot on the morning of November 30th.  There were present Mr. [Gifford] Pinchot, Mr. [Overton] Price, Mr. [William] Hall, Mr. [Ralph] Hosmer, Mr. [Thomas] Sherrard, Mr. [E. T.] Allen, and Mr. [Henry] Graves.  It was stated that the object of the meeting was to discuss the feasibility of organizing a Society of American Foresters.  All those present were in favor of the organization of such a Society.

Mr. Pinchot was appointed temporary Chairman, and Mr. Graves temporary Secretary, in order that the Society might be formally organized.

A motion was made, seconded, and carried, that the society be known as the Society of American Foresters.  It was then moved and seconded that a committee of three be appointed by the Chair for the purpose of making recommendations as to the complete organization of this society. The Chair appointed Mr. Graves, Chairman, Mr. Price and Mr. Hosmer.  It was then decided that the Chair should call a meeting as soon as the report of the committee was ready.

Henry S. Graves, Sec’y Protem

Today also marks another significant event in forest history: the first appearance of a guest blogger on Peeling Back the Bark!  To celebrate the anniversary of SAF’s founding, we have invited historian Char Miller, senior fellow of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, to comment.  In his entry, Miller recalls fledgling efforts at professional forestry, debates within the field, and forestry’s responsiveness to shifting challenges.

As Miller offers an overview of SAF, the rest of this post will highlight some interesting finds in our archival holdings.


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