In the summer of 1910, hundreds of wildfires raged across the Northern Rockies. In mid-August, the particularly destructive fire season hit its peak: in just 36 hours, a firestorm burned more than three million acres and killed at least 78 firefighters. It was one of the largest fires in American history, and it secured the future of the still-new United States Forest Service.
In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt transferred control of the Presidentially designated "forest reserves" to the Bureau of Forestry at the Department of Agriculture, and thus established the U.S. Forest Service. Gifford Pinchot, who had been the chief of the Division of Forestry for seven years, became the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. One of Pinchot's first tasks as chief was writing the “Use Book,” a manual for Forest Service agents that describes their primary tasks “to protect the reserves against fire, to assist people in their use and to see that they are properly used.”
Another significant change for the new Forest Service was the selection of forest rangers through comprehensive field and civil service examinations, rather than by political appointment. With this new practice, Pinchot guaranteed himself a knowledgeable and qualified workforce, and in the spring of 1905, the first group of graduates of Yale’s Forestry School arrived in the frontier towns of the West.
While these first rangers were well-schooled in forestry, nothing could have prepared them for the rough western towns they settled in. One of Pinchot’s initial hires was William Greeley, a young Yale graduate from New York. Greeley oversaw 29 million acres of forest, covering most of Montana, Idaho and parts of South Dakota; working under his command, 160 rangers were responsible for almost 300 square miles of national forest. But Greeley and his men were not popular with the local settlers accustomed to living without the intrusion of the federal government. And the settlers weren’t the only problem the fledgling Forest Service faced.
Almost immediately, timber and mining barons from the Northwest used their influence with Congress to help push budget and staff cuts onto the new agency. Gifford Pinchot fought against this political pressure by citing the threat of fire and its power to destroy valuable American resources, land and lives; he considered fighting forest fires to be essential to the Forest Service’s mission and the key to its survival. Pinchot made his case in speeches, articles and testimony in front of Congress: “The question of forest fires, like the question of slavery, may be shelved for a time, at enormous cost in the end, but sooner or later, it must be faced.”
Under Pinchot’s leadership, the forest reserves increased from 60 units covering 56 million acres in 1905 to 150 national forests covering 172 million acres just five years later. However, when President William Howard Taft took office in 1909, Pinchot no longer had the conservation-minded ally he had in Roosevelt. The two men's quarrels grew more contentious and public, and Taft fired Pinchot in 1910. The young Forest Service entered what would become its most trying year yet, with a new leader and low morale.
The previous two years had been dry, but nothing could have prepared the Forest Service for the severity of the drought that befell the Northern Rockies in 1910. Starting in April, fires broke out continuously, and the rangers had only axes, shovels and whatever other hand tools they could find to fight the blazes.
On the evening of July 26, 1910, a violent lightning storm lit up the sky, igniting more than 1,000 fires across 22 national forests in Idaho and Montana. With the number of fires growing by the day, William Greeley desperately needed additional men on the ground. With little support from Washington, he quickly hired every able-bodied man available, even emptying the jails and sending convicted murderers to the fire lines. Finally, on August 7, the federal government relented; Taft sent 4,000 troops to the Rockies, including seven companies from the African American Buffalo Soldiers. It was the first time Buffalo Soldiers had been sent to fight a fire, and their arrival nearly doubled the black population of the state of Idaho.
By the second week of August, the number of fires had multiplied, and on the evening of August 20th, what would come to be known as "the Big Burn" erupted when 70 mile per hour winds fanned the flames into one gigantic blaze. It lasted for 36 hours and burned more than three million acres of forest and $1 billion worth of timber. Soot from the fires darkened skies as far away as Boston, and a layer of ash blanketed the ice in Greenland. But it was the human toll that stunned the American people -- 78 firefighters perished in the flames, and scores more were injured or had lost their homes.
As soon as the smoke cleared, the debate began over the lessons of the Big Burn. Critics declared the Forest Service’s fire fighting efforts a failure, citing the loss of life and timber. Although no longer its leader, Gifford Pinchot passionately defended the Forest Service’s actions and trumpeted the heroism of the men who had lost their lives. His efforts, along with an outpouring of public support, paid off. Within a year, Congress doubled the Forest Service’s budget and expanded the territories under its control.
In the century following the Big Burn, the U.S. Forest Service grew to employ more than 30,000 men and women throughout the country and adopted a fire suppression policy that demanded that every fire be fought -- a policy many now consider misguided. With wildfires seeming to cause more damage each year, and with the increasing human population in wilderness areas, the Forest Service now faces another question: when to put out wildfires, and when to let them burn.
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