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tv   Reel America The Fires of 1910  CSPAN  October 6, 2020 7:29pm-8:02pm EDT

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outright terror is faced by men on the fire lines. men in fire protection agencies deeply cherish two phases in the work. the second is the fire that is contained in the initial attack phase. the first is a fire that is never started. (music) >> hello, folks. i am smokey bear with a message for you.
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in the spring of 1910, the comets appearance in the sky seemed to foreshadow the deadly fire that would involve the rockies. no amount of money, equipment or firefighters could stop the hurricane of fire that raged out of control on august 20th, 21st on 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
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saddles and the canyon seemed to act as chimneys through which the wind and fires roared like a thousand freight trains. ♪ ♪ in the years before the
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big blowup, president roosevelt was hoping to put conservation on the national agenda. in 1905, he appointed his friend to the national for service. many accused the president of pushing's agenda too fast. >> he was always after roosevelt, they just couldn't stand the for service. more than anything else they were against the idea of national forest. the railroads were given more than 35 million acres for free in northern new england. the rockefeller family was building the biggest and most expensive railroad through the mountains. right where the fire takes place. then you have the guggenheim's and others, families that are largely known for their philanthropies. but then, they were at the peak
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of their gilded age power they wanted islam because they're used to getting it for free. roosevelt took it out of the job public >> -- often the forced was to be the people's land. the people were going to use it. >> yale school of forestry had opened, graduated its first class in 1904. 1905, the government gets control of the national forest. >> boots on the ground as rangers for the forest service out west. all of the young men looked up to them. he rallied their spirits for conservation. he urged them to be part of the great crusade as he called it. >> his name was gifford
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pinchot. 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 keep a record of their survival 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 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. the yale trained forrester's.
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they found brothels and saloons. >> one ranger referred to montana is the wickedest place in america. >> the one town of taft, montana, named for the president had three prostitutes for every man and a higher murder rate than new york city. >> fittingly, a recruiting poster warned invalids need not apply. >> the most successful firefighting organization was probably u.s. army. they set a pattern that in some ways is still with us. it was established in 1886 when the cavalry took over yellowstone national park. they were greeted 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 comprises a fraction of the acreage that lies within the forest boundaries. the service rangers had to plan
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accordingly. >> they recognized you had to control the fires while they were small. they had to try to find them, they have lookouts, telephones, telegraphs. 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. you are just bushwhacking through the smoke trying to find. >> 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. it took more time to get in than put out a small blaze. >> 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.
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>> the speaker of the house said not one cent for scenery. there was a huge culture war going on. >> they disagreed publicly on forest policy. pinchot arranged for a letter to be read in congress criticizing the president for misinterpreting ballenger's policies. president taft fired him for insubordination. >> it should have been a debate about policy. what is the best way to protect 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're with government and land
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management or folk knowledge and the indian way of burning the landscape or professional forestry and the academic heft 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. >> the fires of 1910 were not unique for u.s. history for their size. there had been huge fires before. in 1825, over .5 million spot
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fires started in wisconsin 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 were set aside and had been set aside to protect them from the acts and fire as the 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 upset about the lightning. you didn't see it because of the amount of human.
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burning. then they began to realize that lightning accounts for a lot of these fires. at that point, 1910 does mark 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 past held snow well into the spring and the creek was flowing strong. the moisture from the sky abruptly stopped. in april, national park reported their first fire and drop 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
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throughout the u.s.. most of it was in the northwest. especially in the northern rockies and expanding into canada. >> when we go out into the woods, let's be extra careful with fire. (music) >> the 1910 fire season would be so severe, the forest service asked the army to provide assistance. >> most of the standing army in the united states was called out to fight the fire and they were an important presence. >> 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 real cross-section of american frontier life and
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working-class. large numbers were immigrants. it was a huge time of immigration. 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 could be organized for building a railroad or digging a trail to a mine. >> that's why so many of them were in the brothel ridden towns. >> howdy stranger, staying long? >> 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 that many of them were starting the fires themselves in order to stay employed. army soldiers would spread out to try to keep some sort of order on the line. >> it's one reason why agencies
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like the forest service continually look to the army for help. 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 for and fame. he had become a miner in he was in idaho. he knew the area, new 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
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fire? that is their term for a ground fire. the answer was run like hell and pray for rain >> 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. people were on edge. august 19, polaski ran back to get more supplies and to warn his family. he had been supervising crews. an area of great importance because the fires were close to impinging on 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. >> when he left to go back to
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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. here, we come back to the absence of any effective communication. they are on their own. they have no fire behavior forecast. no red flag alert. nothing and suddenly, firebrands start falling out of the sky. smoke has blotted out the sun. they start hearing this noise. they are in trouble. >> on august 20, 1910, the wind began to blow in the northern rockies and didn't stop for two days. hundreds of small fires cyclone in the perfect storm that would consume anything in its past.
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hundreds of fires were blasted by wind and flame. over three million acres would burn in two days. >> this was a thousand year fire. it was a scale that nobody had seen. nothing this complex of thing in the mountains and people were there in harm's way. >> the moral presence of leadership, the imposition of personality and conviction that conveyed the 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? i 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 tried to make a rush
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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 asphyxiation or drowning in the muck. they found the body of an polaski and they thought he was dead. >> i thought it had been for hours. 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 concerned, the entire crew had been wiped out. his wife was under the expectation that her husband
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was among that number. how we got down, i don't 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. our shoes were burned off with our feet. we were covered in mud and ashes. later as we dragged our way down through plaster creek, we were met with women from wallace. they had hot coffee and whiskey. although we appreciated their kindness, could take nothing but cold water. the flames raced toward many towns. >> a number of communities were at risk. they were wooden towns with wooden sidewalks and buildings. they were extremely vulnerable. >> around 9:00 saturday night,
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the flames rushed into wallace from plaster 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. >> it became engulfed in flames and the brewery burned while beer poured out onto the streets. on the middle fork of big creek, the rangers crew of 50 had been working with polaski's crew. with the fire chasing them, the fire chased them to a home. most of the crew laid down in a stream for protection. several including the homesteader sought refuge in a shelter. as the fire reached them trees
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started falling in every direction. one fell down to the creek instantly killing two of them. 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. ranger was in charge of the district. sensing danger, he warned a crew to evacuate. 28 decided to stay back because they felt the ranger and deputy were exaggerating about the fires. all 28 men were later found burned to death. >> we don't know what happened, but you can see them retreating slowly up the hill imagine them doing whatever they could then finally, coming into a small stand and being overrun by the
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fire. >> the evacuation trains were supposed to be for women and children first, but men shoved ladies off the trains in attempts to save their own skin. >> a fat man shoved my kids and i off the train and took our spot. >> soldiers were doing their best to keep order. >> they had to have the soldiers at one point with bayonets to force thesoldiers off the trains. african-american soldiers had always done the dirty work of the army. they show up and they're supposed to save this town. they were greeted by the racism that was typical of the date. they had stories about how they were strangely quiet, but none of the folks who lived there thought they could fight a fire. they saved at least one town and they were instrumental in
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saving another. >> thank you, soldier. >> many of the residents decided that 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 soldier rush the burned man laid. his friend checked on him and lit a match to see. but dropped it. the match fell and caught the gauze on fire. the man ran off of the train screaming and this time he was not so lucky. he was the only victim of the fire.
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trains took thousands of refugees. fires were up to 50 miles wide. >> they would get to the trestles over the valley and the trestles were burning so they would hide in a cave. once in the cave, the fire would find them because it was in search of oxygen. it was a beast. >> lee hollingshead was a supervisor of 60. with the fire on their heels, he directed the crew over another area. 19 of the crew were panic stricken and decided to run down the hill to the cabin which was surrounded by flames. the men stayed inside the cabin until the roof again to burn and fall on them. the made a run for it. the last man out fell in the doorway in was trapped in the debris. hollingshead arrived at the
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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 the five horses and a black bear. the firefighters. where's smith and hennessey, edwards and stowe. the ranger listened and murmured low. they are missing, chief that's all. where the smoke rolls high, i heard them ride. they waved goodbye to me. good god, they might as well have tried to put back the rolling sea. i rode for eight until my horse fell dead then waded 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 boys would admit to
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go. they are missing, chief, that's all. >> of the 78 officially listed firefighters who died, the deaths occurred in separate incidents. it was not one mass fatality. >> 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 bitterroot from wallace. everyone reported them dead until the crew walked out one week later. >> when a fire happens, pinchot realized that 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.
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he and roosevelt. roosevelt was touring for his popularity. they used the fire as the rallying cry that saved conservation. 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 doubled its budget they refunded the agency and doubled its budget. and they created the national forest in the east. you would not have that in the adirondacks without this fire. >> polaski stayed and this is where he lived. he began to rebuild 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.
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he thought we needed a combination tool to grubup with. some kind of cutting tool, and ask. he put them together in his backyard fortune 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 wildfire -- firefighting. he picked one symbol, he or she is going to have a polaski in their hand. it is a perfect expression of how the polaski story has become embedded in our culture of wildland fire. everytime 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
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blowup is not passed. we still carry polaski tools. it is a defining tool. much of our paramilitary approach 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 first put together in 1910. they are still the way that we manage it. the legacy of emergency spending, enormously instrumental in shaping and giving us the infrastructure and programs we have. 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
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wildfires our own scrubbed fires? all of those questions were first brought together with great force in 1910 and we are still living with them. >> in our search for answers, please remember our history. the 1910 fires left a plume of scars, lessons and heroes that were a century ago. we can learn from this and many like it. the firefighter spirit has endured. it is now up to us to make sure the experiences shared by firefighters continue to be remembered and passed on. with each swing of the polanski, from one generation to the next. >> remember only you can prevent forest fires. (music)
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our series that looks at 14 presidential candidates that lost the election but have a lasting effect on u.s. politics. tonight, we feature former speaker of the house james blane, who service secretary of state through three presidents and was the republican nominee in 1884. watch tonight beginning at 8:00 eastern. enjoy american history tv, this week and every weekend on
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