1910, The Big Burn 1910, The Big Burn <p>Overhead, Hardluck Fire</p>

Trees of our Fathers, Part II

  • August 08, 2014
  • Posted by James J. Crumpler, III

“Out of the underbrush dashed a man-grimy, breathless, hat in hand. At his heels came another, then a whole crew, all casting fearful glances behind them. ‘She’s coming! The whole country’s afire! Grab your stuff ranger, and let’s get out-a here!’ gasped the leader.”  It was August 20, 1910 and it was a hot day during a hot summer. “For weeks there had been no rain and the woods were drier than I had ever seen them,” as Edward Pulaski mentions in his account of the events of that day. Rain had not fallen on the region, the panhandle of Idaho, since May. “In other parts of the United States a thunderstorm brings with the lightning an antidote for fire, in the rainfall which accompanies an electrical storm. Many of the western storms, however, are characterized by violent lightning with little rain, and lightning often strikes where there is no rain at all.”  Combined with the forest service policy, at the time, of controlling every fire, the underbrush of the forest was filled with dead, dry fuel. Throughout the summer “crews of several hundred men were working twenty-four hour days…endeavoring to hold back the fires.” On August 20, hurricane force winds drove down from Canada to push these scattered fires into a single conflagration that, by the time it died, had consumed 3 million acres, or 4,687 square miles.

The “Big Blowup” of 1910 was a culminating event that created the modern American conservation movement. Conservation is an ethical idea about proper use and treatment of resources; to take no more than necessary from the land and to be responsible for its extraction and its effects on the surrounding community. Conservation has been a constant refrain in the United States history, but John Muir developed it into an ethic. From our vantage point one hundred twenty years beyond John Muir, it is comparatively easy to see the importance of conservation principles. However, Muir was writing and prophesying at the beginning of the greatest period of industrial expansion in US history. 

All industrial activity requires raw materials. Steel mills require iron; railroads require coal and wood, and kerosene companies required oil. Due to western expansion, the United States stretched, at the turn of the twentieth century, from coast to coast and mineral resources were open to whoever owned the land rights. If you owned the land, you were free to do whatever you wanted to and on that land. Muir was among the first to vocalize that private enterprise was destroying the public domain and the rights that we possess as public citizens, not just private consumers.

The forest service was established in 1905 under Theodore Roosevelt. Under the guiding terms of the Federal Forest Transfer Act of 1905, the forest service was established as part of the Department of Agriculture to “execute or cause
to be executed all laws affecting public lands… after such lands have been so reserved, excepting such laws as affect the surveying, prospecting, locating, appropriating, entering, relinquishing, re-conveying, certifying, or patenting of any such lands.”  The USFS was thus tasked with the management of all federally owned lands, with the ability to lease these lands to private industry for resource removal.  It was a protection agency for the public domain.

By 1910 the USFS was widely ridiculed and its authority openly mocked. Laws are only as effective as their enforcement, and private industry still held immense sway in congress. On paper, the USFS could control public land usage, but in the forests of the Pacific Northwest timber and railroad companies could still cut ranges of public forest without fear of reprisal. The “Big Blowup” of 1910 radically changed public opinion in favor of the USFS. 

The “Big Blowup” created public heroes within the USFS. Ranger Edward Pulaski, a family man, survived the fire and went searching for his family in a town that had been burned to the ground by the same fire. Joe Halm saved the lives of his crew by sheltering next to a shallow creek and gravel shoal. William Doyle saved the life of a panicked horse packer and led the horses up and over the mountains to safety before returning to the town of Wallace to save his mother’s property. Stories like these captured the public’s imagination and made the rangers of the USFS into public heroes defending our collective property. Private industry did not save the forests and towns of the west, but the public servants of the USFS did. Conservation was suddenly a heroic national undertaking that continues today.

Budget cuts have strained the ability of the USFS. It will now contract with outside groups to add water bars, retention logs, or whatever else needs to be done to keep trails clear. The rangers act as supervisors, mostly, for these groups. Kiandra is my crew’s supervising ranger. She never seems to be tired, and walks up and down mountains as though they are not even at eight thousand plus feet in elevation. For the two people with the USFS that we interact with the most, she is our constant companion and makes sure the work we do is up to the USFS standards. One day she told us our next project site was in the burned out area of the “Hardluck Fire” of 2013. 

My crew, by the end of the day, was covered with ash and charcoal left over from the “Hardluck Fire.” It had been a long time since the area had seen rain, so the dust we kicked up from work got into everything. Mouths tasted like grit, and the black dust got into hair, on faces, arms, and anything that was not covered. Our job was to cut a reroute around the old trail. The old trail went across a dried out creek bed that dropped precipitously about four feet, was flat for another eight feet, before another steep rise of four feet. Such a trail is dangerous to pack animals, and needed to be shut down.  We cut our way around the old trail.  The ash was about two inches deep in places and the new trail was littered with the blackened trunks of fallen pine trees. On previous days we had already cut the logs out of the path, but on this particular day we did the final work. 
It was a relief to move back to the Cottonwood Corral campsite. It is located next to the south fork of the Shoshone River at a junction in the valley. Cottonwood trees grew along the river’s grassy bank, which gave the area plenty of shade. From the site, you could walk barefoot to a few water holes that were deep enough to stand knee deep, which was perfect for bathing.  It was nice to get all the charcoal and ash off, cold, but nice.  We had moved burned logs and dug new tread, and had covered ourselves with the remnants of a past fire, long dead. It was good to bathe.


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