The Great Fire Of 1910 Places The Current 2012 Fire Season In Perspective

source of image – fire area as of June 12 2012

This summer promises to be a season of high danger. The upcoming heat wave (see) is certainly going to dry out the forest even more than it current has. Colorado has already experienced a fire of 52,068 acres as of June 15 west of Fort Collins (see also).

However, it is useful to place fire in the western forests in perspective. In 1910 there was a truly massive fire [h/t Bill Neff]. As written at Wikipedia

The Great Fire of 1910 (also commonly referred to as the Big Blowup or the Big Burn) was a wildfire which burned about three million acres (12,000 km², approximately the size of Connecticut) in northeast Washington, northern Idaho (the panhandle), and western Montana.

This 1910 fire [also called the Big Blowup]  precipitated a US Forest Service policy that led today to the risk of extreme fires when they do inevitably occur. The effect of the 1910 fire is described in the

U.S. Forest Service History

where they write

 Contemporary critics, however, pointed out the flaws in the fire suppression policy.  Elers Koch, a forester who had fought the Big Blowup on the Lolo National Forest in Montana, argued afterward in favor of letting backcountry fires burn themselves out.  Professor Herman Chapman of Yale Forest School, who was studying Southern forests, argued that fire had an important if little understood ecological role in the landscape.  And Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger, whose department had seen part of the newly created Glacier National Park burn along with surrounding national forest land, argued for allowing annual burning to reduce fuel loads like the Native Americans did.

But Forest Service leadership and forestry leaders like Gifford Pinchot thought otherwise and worked for years to suppress and discredit such arguments.  In the aftermath of 1910, Chief Graves staked the agency’s continued existence on the belief that it could in fact defeat fire.  Toward that end, Graves embraced a cooperative approach with state and private associations to fight fire (realized the next year through the Weeks Act) and soon launched a fire protection campaign that involved removing fire from the landscape and changing how Americans viewed fire.  The campaign, which would lead to the creation of Smokey Bear, would last for more than half a century and completely change forest ecology throughout the country during its lifetime.  Other nations adopted the American fire suppression model, with equally devastating results.  Now the folly of fighting backcountry fires is widely accepted and the role of fire in maintaining forest health is understood.  The impact of the campaign is the most important legacy of the 1910 Fires and the Big Blowup—and it is a legacy that we are still coping with today.

Comments Off

Filed under Vulnerability Paradigm

Comments are closed.