One hundred years ago, an event took place in North Idaho that continues to have a major effect on our forest environment and management policies. On August 20, 1910, toward the end of an unusually dry summer, gale-force winds suddenly struck, transforming multiple existing fires into a huge, explosive conflagration that burned 3.1 million acres of forest, as well as numerous towns, mining camps, homesteads, railroad trestles, and other structures. Approximately 100 buildings (the eastern third) in Wallace were destroyed.
Miraculously, only 85 people died (although many more were seriously injured), mainly thanks to heroic efforts of individuals such as USFS crew foreman Ed Pulaski, who led 42 of his firefighters into a mining tunnel, where he commanded them to lie on their faces while he threw water on the burning support timbers of the tunnel before being overcome by the heat and smoke. Pulaski and all but six of his men survived and, although the survivors were “in a helpless condition” when rescued, all eventually recovered.
After the fire, many forest stands previously composed of white pine, larch and fir ended up regenerating with lodgepole pine. Also, serious soil erosion occurred on steep, denuded slopes, leaving vast expanses of exposed bedrock in many drainages. In fact, due to soil damage some areas never reforested and remain brush fields to this day. An estimated 30 to 40 percent of the fire area subsequently re-burned due to the dead timber left by the fire. In addition, a bark beetle epidemic developed following the fire and killed millions more board feet of white pine. Much of the burned area is now stocked with even-aged timber and heavy fuels, thus making conditions ripe for another catastrophic fire.
Forest management policies were forever changed. At the time, the fledgling U.S. Forest Service was being considered for elimination but the huge fire clearly demonstrated the importance of this agency, which immediately started a policy of aggressively suppressing all wildfires. (In 1950, the Smokey Bear campaign was created to help promote this policy.) This very proactive fire suppression approach has also contributed to the heavy fuel build up in our current forests.
This year, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the event, the Inland Empire Society of American Foresters annual meeting will focus on the 1910 Fires: their history, impact on forest management and policy today, and the likelihood of such devastating fires occurring in the future. The meeting will be held, quite appropriately, in Wallace, Idaho, on May 20 – 22, 2010. For more information about the meeting and how to attend, visit www.iesaf.org