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tv   Reel America The Fires of 1910  CSPAN  October 3, 2020 10:17pm-10:49pm EDT

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million. cost of suppression, $2.7 million. probable cause, lightning. those five short lines reveal little of the thousands of man-hours sport in desha spent in training and preparing -- man-hours spent in training and preparing. dust, exhaustion and sometimes outright terror is faced by men on the fire lines. men in fire protection agencies twoly cherish parts -- phases in the work. the first is the fire that is contained in the initial attack phase. the other is a fire that is never started. ♪
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>> hello, folks. bear with a message for you. >> it is very rare in history you have one kind of originating moment. in a way it is a creation story for explaining who we are. >> in the spring of 1910, the earth passed through the tale of haley's comet. it seemed to foreshadow the deadly fire that would engulf the northern rockies. no amount of money, equipment, or firefighters could stop the hurricane of fire that raged out andontrol on august 20
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21st, 1910. the big blowup would be the catalyst of fire suppression for the next 100 years. >> on august 20, a terrific hurricane broke over the mountains. it picked up the fires and carried them for miles. the wind was so strong that it almost lifted men out of their saddles and the canyon seemed to act as chimneys through which the wind and fires swept like the roar of a thousand freight trains. ♪
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♪ narrator: in the years before the big blowup, president theodore roosevelt was hoping to put conservation on the national agenda. in 1905, he appointed his friend as chief forster of the newly minted u.s. forest service. many accuse the president of pushing his agenda to fast. >> the senator was always after roosevelt. most western senators cannot stand the forest service. more than anything else, they were against the idea of national forests. the railroads were given more than 35 million acres for free
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, an area about the size of new england. the rockefeller family was building the most extensive transcontinental railroad and history, right through the mountains, where the fires takes place. then, you have the guggenheims and others. families that are largely known to us today mostly only for their philanthropies. back then, they were at the peak of their gilded age power and they wanted this land because they were used to getting it for free. roosevelt took it out of the general public domain and put it in the protectorate of the forest service. the forest was to be the people's land. the people were going to use it. >> yale school of forestry had opened and its first class in 1904. 1905, the forest service gets control of the national forest. >> the kids from yell were quickly hired as boots on the ground as rangers for the forest
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service out west. all of the young men looked up pinchot. he urged them to be part of the great crusade as he called it. , his name was gifford pinchot. .'s. were called little g.p they were infused with the idealistic agenda of the great crusade. >> in order to become a forest ranger, one had to have many skills. first, they had to be able to write legible reports in order to keep congress informed of their findings. pinchot required them to pass to test of their skills. the test lasted two days and was comprised of navigation, horse handling, firefighting, and cooking. pinchot said one test was to cook a meal. the other was to eat it. they needed these skills and more to survive because they would be patrolling areas names like the high lonesome and the
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badlands. not to mention dealing with the wild west towns where some people would prefer to kill you over a drink rather than to buy you one. >> these people could not have been more out of place. these yale trained forresters. they found brothels. >> want to buy a lady a drink? >> one ranger referred to taft, montana as the wicked is place in america. the one town of taft, montana, named for the president had three prostitutes for every , man and a higher murder rate the new york city. >> fittingly, a recruiting poster warned invalids need not apply. >> the most successful firefighting incision was probably u.s. army. they set a pattern of firefighting that in some ways is still with us. it was established in 1886 when the cavalry took over
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yellowstone national park. they were greeted by fires when they rode in, they put out 60 fires that summer. that became an ideal model. >> the army had numerous advantages over the forest service when it came to fighting fires. the amount of land to patrol for fire in the parks comprises a fraction of the acreage that lies within the forest boundaries. forest service rangers had to plan accordingly. >> they recognized you had to control the fires while they were small. they had to try to find them, they had lookouts, telephones, telegraphs. they would try to find fires and to send people out. it could take several days to reach a fire. in a remote area, there might not be any trails. any obvious round and, you are bushwhacking through the smoke trying to find the thing. >> there were no trails or roads and we had to go in 65 miles. one spent the first week trying to get to the fire.
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it took more time to get into the country than to put out a small blaze. ♪ narrator: in 1910, roosevelt's out of office, succeeded by president taft. opponents of the conservation efforts wielded great influence in congress. they moved quickly to cut off funding to the forest service. >> the speaker of the house said not one cent for scenery. there was a huge culture war going on. narrator: a new secretary of interior disagreed publicly on forest policy. pinchot arranged for a letter to be read in congress criticizing the president for misinterpreting ballenger's policies. this was the final straw for president taft and he fired pinchot for insubordination. >> it should have been a debate about policy. what is the best way to protect
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the lands and communities from fire? it got sidetracked into a battle about politics. whose view of land management and the role of government will prevail? the fire thing wasn't about fire, it is remade into a polarizing political spectrum. you are either with ballenger or pinchot. you are with limited government and land management, or folk knowledge and the indian way of burning the landscape or professional forestry and the academic heft that that brings. you're forced to choose. that is effective politics, it forces people to choose, but it doesn't make good policy. there were a whole array of things. there were different choices necessary for different regions. ♪ narrator: the fires of 1910 were
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not unique in u.s. history for their size. there had been huge fires before. in 1825, over 3.5 million acres burned in the northeast. in october of 1871, a fire burned across wisconsin. awayfires started 10 miles after jumping over parts of lake michigan. the fire ultimately covered over 1.5 million acres and killed more than 1000 people. >> we have a whole backdrop of these. 1910 fires fit into the larger chronicle. what makes them different is this was not a settlement fire. these were fires raging in areas that had been set aside, and had been set aside to protect them from the acts and fire as the
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phrase went. they didn't recognize lightning as a problem partly because they were not concerned about fires in many of these remote areas. in many areas, the people were more dangerous than the lightning. you didn't see it because the amount of burning. then they began to realize that lightning accounts for a lot of these fires. at that point, 1910 marks a transition. a big fire but of a different sort, not one set as a result of settlement, land clearing associated with logging and agriculture, but fires that were being set on forest reserves and would be fought. ♪ 1910 started with plenty of snowfall in the northern rockies. look out pass held snow well into the spring and the creek
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was flowing strong. but the moisture from the sky abruptly stopped. in april, glacier national park reported their first fire and drought begin to settle over the area. storm systems would roll through with the promise of bringing needed rain, but they only packed lightning. >> this was part of a vast complex of fires that swept over the northwestern u.s. there were large fires throughout the west. most of it was in the northwest. especially in the northern rockies and expanding into canada. >> let's take a tip. when we go out into the woods, let's be extra careful with fire. ♪ ♪ narrator: the 1910 fire season would be so severe, the forest service asked the army to provide assistance. >> most of the standing army in
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the northwestern united states was called out to fight the fire -- called out to fight the fire. they were an important presence. narrator: the forest service would rely on logging and mining crews that had experience working as a team. another makeshift army of temporary laborers had to be deployed as emergency firefighters. >> it was a cross-section of american frontier life and working-class. large numbers were immigrants. it was a huge period of immigration into the u.s. many were people who just did unskilled labor on railroads and mines or random agricultural work. there were gangs who could be dragged out of saloons. they would be organized much as they were for laying track for k toroad or digging a trac a mine. >> that's why so many of them were in the brothel.
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>> howdy stranger, staying long? narrator: communication on the lines was tough at best. at one point, they walked off because they thought the boss was not the union sympathizer. rumors spread in the press that many temporaries were starting the fires themselves in order to stay employed. army soldiers would spread out within a fire crew of laborers to try to keep some sort of order on the line. >> it's one reason why agencies like the forest service continually look to the army for help. they wanted some kind of discipline. the army wasn't necessarily good at digging trenches but at least they could obey orders. ♪ polaski had gone west like many before him for adventure and and fame. he had become a miner in the region. northern idaho, primarily. he was hired by the forest service as a ranger in wallace, idaho.
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he knew the area, knew most of the people. he was about 40. much older than any of the youngsters who ran lots of the other crews. ♪ there was a question on the application, the test for becoming a ranger. one was how do you fight a top fire? the answer was, run like hell and pray for rain. narrator: the townspeople grew desperate. in wallace, a method of bringing loud booms to create rain was employed. dynamite was exploded for 60 hours straight to no avail. needless to say, people were on edge. polaskit 19, ranger rode back to get more supplies and to warn his family. he had been supervising crews in
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an area of great importance because the fires were close to the town of wallace. he told his wife and their daughter that he had a bad feeling about the next 24 hours. he warned them wallace will surely burn and should be prepared to save themselves. >> as he left, the morning of the 20th, the circumstances were changing. becoming more ominous. narrator: when he left to go back to the fire lines, they rode with him to the trailhead. he told them goodbye and that he may never see them again. ♪ >> 10,000 people altogether scattered all over the landscape. we come back to the absence of any effective communication. when these guys are in the woods, they are on their own. they have no fire behavior forecast. no red flag alert. nothing. suddenly, firebrands start
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falling out of the sky. smoke has blotted out the sun. there were towering convective columns. they start hearing this noise. they are in trouble. narrator: on august 20, 1910, the wind began to blow in the northern rockies and didn't stop for two days. hundreds of small fires cycloned in the perfect storm that would consume anything in its path. hundreds of fires were blasted by wind and flame. over 3 million acres would burn in two days. >> this was a thousand year fire. it was a scale that nobody had seen. nothing with this complex of things in the mountains and people were there in harm's way. the moral presence of leadership, the imposition of personality and conviction that
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conveyed that people responded to, they were panicking with some cause. the stuff is raining out of the sky on them, what are they going to do? they don't know, they need somebody to tell them what to do. that's what mattered. we reached the mine just in time. we were hardly in when the fire swept over our trail. one man try to make a rush outside, which would have meant certain death. i drew my revolver and said the first man who tries to leave this tunnel, i will shoot. i didn't have to use my gun. >> eventually, they all passed out from expects the asian, -- from asphyxiation or drowning in the muck. the rest lived. they found the body of polaski and they thought he was dead. >> i don't know how long i was in that condition, but it must have been for hours.
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i heard a man say come outside, the boss is dead. i replied, like hell he is. >> he was temporarily blinded. his lungs were a mess. in the meantime, somebody had gotten out and gone to town and as far as the town was -- the town understood, the entire crew had been wiped out. his wife was under the expectation that her husband was among that number. >> how we got down, i hardly know. we were in terrible condition. all of us hurt or burned. i was blind and my hands were burned from trying to keep the fire out of the mine. our shoes were burned off with our feet. our clothing was parched rags. we were covered in mud and ashes. later as we dragged down through plaster creek, we were met by women from wallace. they had hot coffee and whiskey. although we appreciated their kindness, could take nothing but cold water.
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>> the flames raced toward many -- toward wallace, taft, avery and many more. were a number of communities at risk. they were wooden towns with wooden sidewalks and buildings. they were extremely vulnerable. >> around 9:00 saturday night, the flames rushed into wallace from placer creek. the fire started on the east side of town. the mayor ordered the alarm to be sounded and the townspeople became hysterical. >> run for your lives, the town is going to burn. >> the newspaper building became engulfed in flames and the brewery burned while beer poured out onto the streets. >> on the middle fork of big creek, the ranger crew of 50 had been working with polaski's
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crew. with the fire chasing him, they were led to a homestead. there was a two acre clearing with the creek running through it. most of the crew laid down in a stream for protection. several others, including the homesteader, sought shelter in a shelter in a cave for his belongings. as the fire reach them, trees started falling in every direction. one fell down on the creek, instantly killing two of the men. another had his legs pinned and screamed for help. there was nothing anybody could do. he perished in the flames along with the seven who sought shelter in the cave. one ranger was in charge of the district. sensing danger, he warned a crew. 28 decided to stay back because they felt the ranger and deputy were exaggerating about the
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fires. all 28 men were later found burnt to death on a hillside. >> the greatest loss of the crew, we don't know what happened, but you can see them retreating slowly up the hill . imagine them doing whatever they could and then finally coming into a small stand and being overrun by the fire. narrator: the evacuation trains were supposed to be for women and children first, but men shoved ladies off the trains and -- trains in selfish attempts to save their own skin. >> a fat man shoved my kids and took our spot. narrator: soldiers were doing their best to keep order. >> they had to have soldiers at gunpoint with fixed bayonets order men off the train. african-american soldiers had always done the dirty work of the army.
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they had put down indian uprising and labor wars in this place five years earlier. they show up and they're supposed to save this town. they were greeted by the racism that was typical of the day. they had stories about how they were strangely quiet, we thought they would be singing at night. but none of the folks who lived there thought they could fight a fire. but they saved at least one town, avery, idaho, and they were instrument and they were instrument in saving another, wallace. >> thank you, soldier. ♪ many of the residents of taft decided that if the town was going to burn, they would drink all the whiskey before it happened. later, a drunk caught on fire. screaming and rolling on the ground, a ranger helped to put him out. he took him to a steel boxcar so he would be protected and rest while the train moved on. once at the destination, the victim late in the boxcar in gauze.
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a friend checked on him and lit a match to see. the match caught the gauze on fire. the victim ran off the boxcar, screaming and fanning his own flames. he was not as fortunate. he was the only victim of the taft fire. trains took thousands of refugees to missoula and spokane. fires were up to 50 miles wide. >> they would get to the trestles over the valley and the trestles were burning so they would all hide a cave. -- in a cave. they would back the train into a cave. once in the cave, the fire would find them because it was in search of oxygen. it was a beast. narrator: lee hollingshead was a supervisor of a crew of 60. with the fire on their heels, he directed the crew over another burned over area. 19 of the crew were panic
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stricken and decided to run down the hill to a cabin surrounded by flames. the men stayed inside the cabin until the roof again to burn and falling on them. they decided to make a run for it. the last man out was trapped by debris. this saved his life. hollingshead arrived at the cabin the next day. he was not prepared for the horrific scene he found. all 18 men were burned to death within a foot of the cabin. along with five horses and a black bear. ♪ firefighters" by arthur chapman. where's smith and hennessey, edwards and stowe. where is casey, link and small? the ranger listened and murmured low. they are missing, chief, that's all.
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where the smoke rolls high i heard them ride. they waved goodbye to me. good god, they might as will have tried to put back the rolling sea. i rode for eight until my horse fell dead then waited the mountain stream. the pools i swam were blood red and covered with choking steam. there was never a comrade to shout hello. though i swung back many a call. the brave ways new what it meant to go. they are missing, chief, that's all. ♪ of the 78 officially listed firefighters who died, the deaths occurred in six separate incidents. it was not one mass fatality. narrator: there were plenty of accounts from the fire that did not involve fatalities. one ranger crew survived the fire by taking refuge in a sandbar in the saint joe river 65 miles into the bitterroots from wallace.
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everyone reported them dead until the crew walked out one week later. pinchota fire happens, realizes, like all people who can see public policy moments, they need a launch point. he could see that this would be the fire that would save the agency so he immediately went on the attack. he and roosevelt. roosevelt was touring the west, reviving his popularity. they used the fire as the rallying cry that saved conservation. they gave speeches, they wrote p-eds.s -- o the rangers who fought this, they were made into heroes. the press made them into heroes. suddenly, public sentiment shifted and you saw dramatic effect in congress. they funded the agency, doubled its budget and created a bill lingering since roosevelt's day to create national forests in the east. you would not have national forests in the adirondacks and
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new england and pennsylvania without this fire. >> polaski stayed and this is where he lived. he began rebuilding the trails, putting new lookouts out, sending new people out to fight new fires. overseeing the cleanup, the rehab, the logging, all of it. as part of that larger task, he invented a tool. he thought we needed a combination tool to grub with. some kind of cutting tool, an ax . he put them together in his backyard forge and over a number of years, he refined it and this was adopted and it became the polaski tool which is now one of the defining implements of firefighting. >> he picked one symbol, he or she is going to have a polaski in their hand. in many ways, it is a perfect expression of how the polaski story has become embedded in our culture of wildland fire.
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anytime someone picks up the tool, we are reliving the story. and all of the complexity it brings. >> william faulkner once said that the past isn't dead, it's not even past. there are some senses in which the past in the form of the big past. is not we still carry polaski tools. it is a defining tool. much of our paramilitary approach to firefighting still harkens back to 1910. the way we fight fires, bringing in people from outside, hiring crews and locals, mobilizing the military, all of these things were first put together in 1910. they are still the way that fundamentally we manage it. the legacy of emergency spending , enormously instrumental in shaping and giving us the infrastructure and programs we have.
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the debate, those fundamental debates, the basic questions are still the questions we are asking today. can we prevent fires? do we want to? what is the cost of doing it? do we want to substitute for wildfires our own prescribed fires? all of those questions were first brought together with great force in 1910 and we are still living with them. narrator: in our search for answers, please remember our history. the 1910 fires left a plume of scars, lessons and heroes were a century ago. we can still learn from the story and others like it. much like the polaski tool, the firefighter spirit has endured through different policies, administrations, tragedies and triumphs. it is now up to us to make sure the experiences shared by firefighters continued be remembered and passed on.
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with each swing of the polaski from one generation to the next. ♪ remember only you can prevent forest fires. ♪ ♪ ♪


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