Posts Tagged ‘wildfire’

On this date in 1871, the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and several smaller surrounding communities were obliterated by fire. The “booming town of 1700 people was wiped out of existence in the greatest fire disaster in American history,” according to the memorial marker that still stands in Peshtigo as silent sentinel watching over the graves of more than 1,100 of the fire’s victims. The fire, which destroyed more than $5 million in property and 2,400 square miles, was overshadowed by the Great Chicago Fire, which occurred the same day and annihilated that city’s core. News of the Peshtigo fire didn’t even reach the state capital for two days. And when it did, Wisconsin’s governor was in Chicago with other state leaders trying to aid that stricken city and had to hurry home to help his own constituents.

Though still little known by the general public today, Peshtigo looms large in forest history and fire history circles. For example, several articles in the Fall 2008 issue of Forest History Today reference Peshtigo as an example of fire in the wildland-urban interface, and one looks at it in the context of wildfire and civil defense.

To mark the 140th anniversary, we have just finished processing a related archival collection, the Peshtigo Fire Centennial Collection, 1970-1990. In 1970, the town held a commemoration event marking the centennial of the fire. The new collection features event programs, commemorative items, publications, letters, newspaper clippings, photographs, and other materials. A few things that caught our eyes were the commemorative stickers and the postage cancellation mark, which you can see on the finding aid page, and a bumper sticker and wooden coins. All materials were kindly donated by Karl W. Baumann.

Peshtigo Centennial bumper sticker

Peshtigo Centennial bumper sticker (click to enlarge)

Peshtigo Fire commemorative wooden coins

Peshtigo Fire commemorative wooden coins

Artist's rendering of Peshtigo Fire.

Artist's rendering of Peshtigo Fire approaching a Wisconsin farm (FHS2525).

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Family and friends probably had to be careful when they lit the candles on a birthday cake for Harry Gisborne. As the first true specialist in forest fire research in the country, he might have held court about fire danger while the candles burned down to the icing. Kidding aside, Gisborne’s work included fire danger rating systems, prediction of fire behavior, fire weather forecasting, fire control strategy, fire control organizations, weather modification, fuels studies, and the application of fire retardants. His impact on the study and understanding of forest fires was so great, so marked, that his career span of 1922 to 1949 is known as the “‘Gisborne Era’ of forest fire research.”

Harry Gisborne, aka, "Gis"

Gisborne’s work and career are well documented: born in Vermont in 1893, he graduated from the University of Michigan’s School of Forestry in 1917 and then briefly worked in Oregon as a timber cruiser before serving in World War I with the Tenth Engineers. He returned home and held a succession of research and staff positions before being assigned to the Northern Rocky Mountain Forest Experiment Station at Priest River, Idaho, in 1922. He quickly established a personal creed that guided his career and work: research was useless unless it addressed real problems and could produce results for immediate application. He spoke frequently with field foresters to understand “real problems” and turned out inventions, findings, and data that lived up to that creed. The fire danger meter he invented in 1939 led to the development of the National Fire Danger Rating System and made possible advances in understanding of fire meteorology, weather and lightning forecasting, fuel types and fuel moisture content, and fire behavior. Though the research data came from local sites near Priest River, his work had a national and even international impact.

This Fire Danger Meter Type 8-W is in the National Fire Danger Rating System Collection.

Gis’s many coworkers described him as sarcastic, outspoken, irascible, “and nearly as demanding of perfection from others as he was of himself. And yet, he inspired a legacy of devotion and fond memories that is truly remarkable…,” according to his biographer Mike Hardy (the biography, published by the U.S. Forest Service, is available through Google Books.) Gisborne himself said he was the burr under their tails that motivated them to do their best for him and science.

World War II brought a pause in his research and a corresponding drop in funds. But both accelerated after the war ended. The Forest Service’s obsession with fighting all fires under the 10 a.m. policy, which Gisborne opposed, ironically meant more funding and tools at his disposal. Surplus aircraft enabled experiments in aerial fire fighting and experiments in cloud seeding.

Ultimately, Gisborne’s hard-driving nature would lead to his demise and also forever link him to the tragic incident at Mann Gulch. Following the death of 13 smokejumpers and a forest guard in the August 1949 Mann Gulch fire, the Forest Service wanted to understand what happened there. Gisborne read all available reports on the incident before visiting the site on November 9, 1949. He wanted to walk through the burned area to see things for himself but was advised not to go into the rugged valley because of poor health. He collapsed there and died. Some say that he’s the 14th victim of the Mann Gulch fire.

The Harry Gisborne memorial marker in Mann Gulch is the first one encountered as you hike in from the Missouri River. (Courtesy of the author)

This marker stands at the spot where he died. But that’s not where Gisborne wanted to spend eternity. He had left instructions and a photo in his desk drawer indicating where he wanted his ashes spread—on a mountain near Priest River. A year later, the mountain was renamed in his honor and a brass memorial marker placed. It declares him a “Pioneer in Forest Fire Research.” Indeed, he was the last of that field’s pioneers and one of its greatest.

FHS has many resources on Harry Gisborne and his fire research. Most are found on our “U.S. Forest Service Fire Research” page. The National Fire Danger Rating System Collection holds materials collected between 1911 and 2004.

To learn more about Harry Gisborne, watch this film “short” from “The Greatest Good” documentary.

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This weekend marks the 101st anniversary of the “Big Blowup,” when 3 million acres of forestland went up in flames during the 1910 fires. In July of this year, I finally made the hike to Pulaski Tunnel outside of Wallace, Idaho, something I’d wanted to do for some time. The tunnel is where Ed Pulaski forced his fire crew at gunpoint and ordered them into the small tunnel as the inferno raged around them (you can read his firsthand account in this article). Because Wallace is not easy to get to, I thought I’d offer a virtual hike.

The trail was built by the Pulaski Project. The project was a substantial undertaking; researchers and archeologists had to first determine where the tunnel was; then came construction of the trail and installation of the signs in rugged country. Many thanks go to all of those who worked on the Pulaski Project.

The trailhead is just south of Wallace and the trail is a two-mile, mostly uphill, hike. Along the way you’ll find interpretive signs describing the Big Blowup and its aftermath, and about “Big Ed” and his life. (All photos are copyright James G. Lewis.)

The first few hundred yards are paved but then it’s compacted dirt the rest of the way. It’s a beautiful if slightly challenging hike because of the elevation change.

This the first sign along the trail. The trailhead is marked by posts with Pulaski tools on them.

To read the text on any of the signs, please click on the photo.

The trail runs along and above Placer Creek.

You’ve only started. There’s lots more to see after the jump.


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Coming only five years after the U.S. Forest Service’s establishment, the devastating series of forest fires that swept over Montana, Idaho, and Washington on August 20–22 in what is known as the “Big Blowup” struck at a critical and pivotal time in the history of the young agency. Ever since the dismissal of Chief Gifford Pinchot in January 1910, his successor Henry Graves had been fighting in the halls of Congress to save the Forest Service from its political enemies. That summer, in the rugged landscape of the Northern Rockies, Forest Service rangers battled to save national forest lands from thousands of fires. The Big Blowup killed around 87 people and wiped a handful of towns off the map. The catastrophe made headlines around the world and gave the agency its first hero, Ed Pulaski.

In addition to the fires seen on this map, the Forest Service was dealing with fires throughout the western U.S. when the Big Blowup occurred.

The fire incinerated 3 million acres of prime timberland in less than 48 hours. It was no small irony that a fire that very nearly annihilated the agency charged with protecting that land would instead actually save the agency. Before the fires were even out, the Forest Service moved quickly to assess the damage to the forests while at the same time salvaging its reputation. The agency and its supporters argued that the fires could have been contained and catastrophe prevented if the Forest Service had had enough men and money, and attacked their political enemies for not giving them sufficient resources to do their job. This became the agency’s mantra for the next half-century when discussing fire suppression—give us more men and money and we can conquer the enemy fire. After the Big Blowup, the agency immediately sought a cooperative approach with state and private associations to fight fire through the Weeks Act (passed in 1911) and soon launched a fire protection campaign that targeted eliminating fire from the landscape and changing how Americans viewed fire. More horrific fire seasons, especially that of 1933, led to the 10 AM policy and then the Smokey Bear campaign. The policy decision to go after fire no matter what—made even as the embers of the Big Blowup continued to smolder—continues to haunt us a century later.

You can learn all about the Big Blowup (sometimes called “The Big Burn”) and its legacy at our webpage dedicated to the 1910 Fires. You’ll find a more complete account of the fires and lots of documents relating to the incident—many written by those who fought the fires—and can learn more about the legendary Ed Pulaski too. Those wanting to understand the incident in a broader historical context will want to read Stephen Pyne’s new work, America’s Fires, published this year by the Forest History Society.

If you are in the Northern Rockies this coming weekend, you may want to take in one of the many activities going on there to mark the centennial of the Big Blowup. Missoula’s minor league baseball team will be giving away Ed Pulaski bobblehead dolls on Friday. At the Historical Ft. Missoula Museum, re-enactors from the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum will present a program on Sunday and George Sibley will screen a documentary about the fires on Monday. Wallace, ID, will host a slate of speakers including Dr. Pyne and Rocky Barker over the weekend and also a hike to the Pulaski tunnel. Below are images of the tunnel just days after the fire and this past May. The Forest Service was preparing to install “downed timber” at the restored site when our boss Steve Anderson visited the historic site then.

Pulaski tunnel

Mouth of tunnel where Ranger Edward Pulaski sheltered his men, photo taken September 1910

Pulaski tunnel, 2010

Mouth of the Pulaski tunnel, as seen in May 2010

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My Google news home page has a “Forest Service” section, which captures any article that has that phrase in it. Usually the article is about the U.S. Forest Service but it will also grab items about state or other national forest services too. Consequently, nearly every day there is a news item about fire somewhere in the world. Sometimes it’s about a wildfire currently burning or the aftermath of one; other times it’s about the progress of a prescribed burn or a notification that one is about to be getting underway. It makes fire seem ever-present.

With all that news about fire, one might ask if America has a fire problem. In his new book, America’s Fires: A Historical Context for Policy and Practice, Stephen Pyne says that America doesn’t have a fire problem — it has many fire problems. How this came to pass is examined in this newly revised and updated version of his classic work on the subject.

The policy of fire exclusion through most of the 20th century seemed successful at first but eventually led to larger, more intense, and damaging fires. By the mid-1970s, federal agencies had pulled back from the fire suppression model and embraced a mix of fire practices, including forms of prescribed burning and let-burn policies. The 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park placed fire issues (also discussed in a recent issue of Forest History Today) before the public in unprecedented ways, advertising the ecological significance of free-burning fire and the dilemmas of trying to manage it. Further complicating the fire scene is an increasing population, a growing wildland-urban interface, drought, invasive species, global climate change, and an incomplete institutional arrangement for managing the variety of fires that exist.

In this latest Issues Series book, Steve Pyne — the world’s foremost fire historian — reviews the historical context of American fire issues and policies that can inform the current and future debate. The resulting analysis shows why it is imperative that the nation review its policies toward wildland fires and finds ways to live with them more intelligently. Want to know more? Buy the book — don’t wait for the movie!

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On August 20-21, 1910, fires driven by gale-force winds consumed 3 million acres, several towns, and at least 85 lives in the Montana, Idaho, and Washington.  Known as “The Big Blowup,” no other event in U.S. Forest Service history has had a greater impact on the agency.  Heroes were made, legends were born, and the agency was changed forever.

The Forest History Society is marking the centennial of the 1910 fires with a website dedicated to preserving and presenting the history of that seminal event.  Many documents being made available are hard-to-find articles written by the men who lived through the fire and were deeply affected by it.  Men like Ed Pulaski, Bill Greeley, “Gus” Silcox, Elers Koch, and E.T. Allen, to name a few.

A sampling of images from the FHS collection relating to the Big Blowup. Images include newspaper clippings, photos of the fire-ravaged land, and of Ed Pulaski.

Drawing from the extensive holdings of the Forest History Society, our crack staff has created a new section of our U.S. Forest Service History webpages about the history and legacy of the 1910 Fires.  (You’ll also find a revised version of the Mann Gulch page, which we’ve blogged about here and here, under the Famous Fires section.)  On the Big Blowup page you will find an overview essay of the event and numerous items such as:

  • a firsthand account of the ordeal by Ed Pulaski and others
  • historical documents, photographs, and maps
  • PDFs of books and essays that place the event in historical context
  • reflections on the fire’s impact on land management and fire policy
  • an original essay by fire historian Stephen Pyne, author of Year of the Fires
  • a bibliography of books and articles about the Big Blowup

You can find all of our outstanding resources on the Big Blowup at: www.foresthistory.org/1910fires.htm.

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On this date 60 years ago, the Mann Gulch fire in Montana’s Helena National Forest was first spotted.  This devastating wildfire would eventually claim the lives of 12 U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers and one fire guard, as well as burn close to 5,000 acres of timber and grasslands.  The tragic events surrounding this fire ensure that August 5, 1949, will forever be remembered within U.S. Forest Service and wildland firefighting history.

Hot weather and lightning storms the previous evening put Forest Service rangers in the area on notice that day, and around noon, the Mann Gulch fire was first officially reported.  Shortly thereafter, a plane carrying 15 smokejumpers was dispatched to the fire from Missoula, Montana.

At the time of Mann Gulch, smokejumping was a relatively new practice.  The Forest Service’s Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project had moved to the North Pacific Region (Region 6) in 1939 and switched its focus from aerial water drops to experiments with parachute jumping.  The first operational use of smokejumpers by the Forest Service occurred in 1940, but prior to Mann Gulch, no smokejumper had ever died fighting a wildfire.


Forest Service smokejumpers dropped over Sherman Gulch, Lolo National Forest, Montana, June 17, 1954.

After landing on the ground a half-mile from the fire, the 15 smokejumpers were met by James O. Harrison, a fire guard from the nearby Meriwether Canyon Campground, and the group headed down the gulch towards the nearby Missouri River to stake a safer position.  The dry conditions and high winds, along with a change in wind direction, caused the fire to suddenly expand.   The men’s route was cut off, forcing them back uphill while trying to outrun the swiftly advancing fire.   It was later estimated that during this blow-up stage, the fire covered 3,000 acres in 10 minutes. (more…)

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