tv Reel America The Fires of 1910 CSPAN October 10, 2020 8:19am-8:51am EDT
>> hello, folks. i am smokey, the forest-fighting bear, with a mighty important 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. the appearance 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 of control on august 20 and 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. ranger ed pulaski. ♪ ♪
narrator: in the years before the big blowup, president theodore roosevelt was helping to put conservation on the national agenda. in 1905, he appointed his friend as chief forrester of the newly minted u.s. forest service. many accused the president of pushing his agenda to fast. >> the senator was always after roosevelt as were most of western senators. they 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, an area about the size of new england. the rockefeller family was building the biggest and most extensive transcontinental railroad and history, right through the mountains, where the fire takes place. then, you have the guggenheims and others. families that are largely known to us today probably only for
their philanthropies. but 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, graduated its first class in 1904. 1905, the forest service gets control of the national forest. >> gifford pinchot quickly hired the kids to be the boots on the ground as rangers for the forest service out west. all of the young men looked up to pinchot. he urged them to be part of the great crusade, as he called it. >> he was named gifford pinchot. they were called little g.p.'s. they were infused with the idealistic image of the great crusade.
conservation. >> 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 rangers to pass a test about outdoor 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 with 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. these yale trained forresters. these young forest rangers would go out west and they would find brothels and saloons. >> want to buy a lady a drink?
>> one ranger referred to taft, montana, as the wickedest place in america. >> the one town of taft, montana, named for the 350 pound 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 the u.s. army. they set up a pattern of firefighting that in some ways is still with us. it was established in 1886 when the cavalry took over yellowstone national park. they were greeted by fires when they rode in, they put out 60 fires that summer. that became a kind of 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 temporary lookouts, they had telephones, telegraphs. they would try to find fires and 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 in, 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. 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 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 either with limited government and land management or you are with active government and wholesale commitment to it. you're either with 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. because there were a whole array of things. there were probably different choices that were necessary for different regions. ♪ narrator: the fires of 1910 were 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. setting into motion a century of
large lethal fires. during october of 1871, a fire burned across wisconsin. spot fires started 10 miles away 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 ax 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 fires people
set overwhelmed the lightning. you didn't see it because the amount of burning. it was not until they removed people that they begin to realize that lightning accounts for a lot of these fires. at that point, 1910 does mark a transition of 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. ♪ narrator: 1910 started with plenty of snowfall in the northern rockies. look out pass held snow well into spring and plaster creek was flowing strong. but the moisture from the sky abruptly stopped. in april, glacier national park reported their first fire and drought began 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 concentrated in the northwest, especially in the northern rockies, extending well into canada. >> let's take a tip from our canadian friends. 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 the northwestern united states was 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 real 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 then be organized much as they were for laying track for railroad or digging a track to a mine. >> that's why so many of them were in the brothel-ridden saloon towns. >> 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 a 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 looked to the army for help. they wanted some kind of discipline. the army wasn't necessarily good at digging trenches and throwing dirt, but at least they could obey orders. ♪ >> pulaski had gone west like many before him for adventure and fame. he had become a miner in the region. northern idaho, primarily. in 1908, he was hired by the forest service as a ranger in wallace, idaho. he knew the area, knew most of the people. he was an older guy, 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, and one was, "ow do you fight a top fire?" which was their term for a ground fire, and the guy's answer was "run like hell and pray for rain." narrator: by august, the air was combustible. the townspeople grew desperate. in wallace, a method of bringing loud booms to create rain was employed. dynamite was randomly exploded for 60 hours straight to no avail. needless to say, people were on edge. on august 19, ranger ed pulaski rode back to get more supplies and to warn his family. he had been supervising crews in placer creek, 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 they should be prepared to save themselves. >> as he left, the morning of the 20th, the circumstances were changing and 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. and, again, 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 idea if a front is approaching. 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. there were enormous, 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. fire lines that held for days were overrun by 70 mile-per-hour blasts of wind and flame. over 3 million acres would burn in two days. >> this was a thousand-year fire. it was off the scale. nobody had seen anything like this, 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 conveyed that people responded to, they were panicking with some cause. i mean, this 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. and that is 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 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. ranger ed pulaski. >> eventually, they all passed out from asphyxiation or drowning in the muck. the rest lived. they found the body of ed pulaski crumpled up in the mud. they thought he was dead. >> i don't know how long i was in that condition, but it must have been for hours. i heard a man say, "come outside, boys. 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 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. and our clothing was parched rags. later, as we dragged down through placer creek, we were met by women from wallace. they had hot coffee and whiskey. although we appreciated their kindness, we could take nothing but cold water. ranger ed pulaski. >> the flames raced toward wallace, mullin, taft, saltese, avery, and many more. >> there were a number of communities at risk.
they were wooden towns with wooden sidewalks and wooden buildings. they are extremely vulnerable to fire. >> around 9:00 saturday night, the flames rushed into wallace from placer creek, where pulaski's crew had been. 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 sunset brewery burned while beer poured out onto the streets. >> on the middle fork of big creek, john bell's ranger crew of 50 had been working with ed pulaski's crew. with the fire chasing them, bell led his crew to a homestead of john beauchamp. surrounding the homestead 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, beauchamp, sought shelter in a cave that had been dug to save his belongings. as the fire reached them, trees started falling in every direction. one tree came down over three people lying in the creek, instantly killing two of the
men. the third man had his legs pinned under the tree and screamed for help. there was nothing anybody could do. he perished in the flames along with the seven people who sought shelter in the cave. ranger debitt was in charge of the avery district. sensing imminent danger, he sent the deputy sheriff to setzer creek to warn a crew of 70 to evacuate back to avery, but 28 decided to stay back because they felt the ranger and the deputy were exaggerating about the fires. all 28 men were later found burned to death on a hillside. >> the largest single loss of the crew. we don't know what happened, but
you can see them retreating slowly sort of up the hill. imagine them sort of doing whatever they could, and then, finally, coming into a small stand and just 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 in selfish attempts to save their own skin. >> a fat man shoved my kids and i off the train and took our spot. narrator: soldiers were doing their best to keep some sort of order. >> they had to have soldiers at gunpoint with their fixed
bayonets order men off the train. there were african-american soldiers who had always sort of done the dirty work of the united states army. they had put down indian uprisings. they had put down labor wars in this place five years earlier. they show up, and they're supposed to save this town. they were greeted by the kind of racism that was typical of the day. they had stories about how "they were strangely quiet." "we would think they would be singing at night." so all of these racial stereotypes. but none of the folks who lived there thought they could fight a fire. but the soldiers saved at least one town, avery, idaho, and they were instrument and they were instrument in saving another, wallace. >> thank you, soldier. ♪ narrator: 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 somehow 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 to saltese. once at the destination, the victim late in the boxcar in gauze.
a friend checked on him and lit a match to see but dropped it. the match caught the gauze on fire. the victim ran off the boxcar, screaming and fanning his own flames. this time, he was not as fortunate. he was the only victim of that taft blowup. trains took thousands of refugees to missoula and spokane. fires ranged from 30 to 50 miles wide. >> they would get to the trestles over the valley and the trestles were burning so they would all hide in a cave. they would back the train into a cave in the mountain. 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 on the west fork big creek. with the fire on their heels, he directed the crew to follow the fire line over another burned over area. 19 of the crew were panic stricken and decided instead to run down the hill to a cabin, which was 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 fell down in the doorway and 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 feet of the cabin, along with five horses and a black bear. ♪ >> "the 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." 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 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 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. so it was not the case of one sort of 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. everybody reported them dead, until the crew walked out one week later. ♪ >> when a fire happens, pinchot realizes, like all people who can see public policy moments, they need their 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. and they used this fire as the rallying cry that saves conservation. they gave speeches. they wrote op-eds. the rangers who fought this thing, they were made heroes. the press portrays them as heroic. it was covered all over the u.s. "the new york times" had several-page stories. the european press covered it. so, suddenly, public sentiment shifted, and you saw a dramatic effect in congress, where they refunded the agency. they doubled its budget, and they 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 virginia and pennsylvania and new england without this fire. >> pulaski 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 salvage logging, all of it. as part of that larger task, he
invented a tool. he thought we needed a combination tool, something to grub with, some kind of cutting tool, an ax. he put them together in his backyard forge, and then, over a number of years, he refined it, and this was adopted and it became "the pulaski tool," which is now one of the defining implements of firefighting. if you pick one symbol of wildland firefighter, he or she is going to have a pulaski in their hand. in many ways, it is a perfect expression of how the pulaski story has become embedded in our culture of wildland fire. because every time one of us picks up that tool, we are reliving that 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
blowup is not past. we still carry pulaski tools. it is still a defining tool. much of our paramilitary approach an organization 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 kind of infrastructure and programs we have, so the debate, those fundamental debates, the basic questions are still the questions we are asking today. can we prevent fires? do we want to prevent fires? 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. but out of the ashes, we can still learn from the story and others like it. much like the pulaski tool, the firefighter spirit has endured through many different policies, administrations, tragedies, and triumphs. it is now up to us to make sure the bonds and experiences shared by firefighters continued be remembered and passed on with each swing of the pulaski from one generation to the next. ♪ >> hi, folks. remember, only you can prevent forest fires. ♪
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