NHC Home TeacherServe Nature Transformed The Use of the Land Essay:
History with Fire in Its Eye: An Introduction to Fire in America
Stephen J. Pyne, Arizona State University
©National Humanities Center

"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."


Stephen J. Pyne, Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910
Viking, 2001, pp. 2-4.

U.S. Forest Serviceenlarge image
Big Blowup of 1910, Idaho
Forest destroyed by the hurricane-force winds and flames of the Big Blowup of 1910 (Idaho)

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.

R. Sterner
Area of the Big Blowup
Area of the Big Blowup

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 back country. 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.
Entrance to mine tunnel at Placer Creek
Entrance to mine tunnel at Placer Creek where miner Ed Pulaski led his men to safety

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.
Natl. Agricultural Library
California wildfire, 1934
California wildfire, 1934

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.

Hash Rock Fire, Oregon, August 2000
Hash Rock Fire, Oregon, August 2000

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.

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