Tuesday, February 07, 2023

The 'Big Fires of 1910' changed the U.S. Forest Service

| April 5, 2010 9:00 PM

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the great wildfires of 1910.

Over 3.1 million acres of forests burned in North Idaho, western Montana and eastern Washington, with the majority of burning occurring on Aug. 20 and 21, 1910. These fires killed 78 firefighters and 7 civilians and burned railroad trestles, mining camps and several towns in the area.

The loss of life and resources caused by these fires were great. However, the institutional impact of the fires had on a national level was profound and long lasting. The influence the fires had is exemplified in Timothy Egan's 2009 book titled, "The Big Burn, Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America" and Stephen Pynes book, "Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910."

The U.S. Forest Service, just five years old, was struggling both politically and administratively, and the fires galvanized the Service and its mission to protect forests from fires. As such, the policy, management and research directives that framed forest management and the Forest Service for the last 100 years had their genesis with the wildfires of 1910.

These directives not only shaped America's wildland fire establishment, but they also influenced the world. Fire exclusion, reinforced by Smokey Bear, continued to dominate U.S. forest policy well into the 1980s and beyond into the 21st Century.

There will be a seminar concerning the "1910 FIRES: A CENTURY LATER" held in the Wallace Community Center and high school gymnasium between May 20-22.

These meetings will examine the social and institutional conditions prior to the fires, during the fires, the impacts the fires had on resources and institutions, and discuss the possibility of such fires burning again.

There will be a banquet, Friday evening, May 21, between 5:30 and 9 p.m. The featured speakers will be Bob Sallee, sole living survivor of the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949, and Dr. Dick Rothermel, a retired fire behavior scientist and author.

For specific details and costs of the seminar and banquet, call Fred Ebel at 773-4631.

Yes, Lord willing, I plan to be there.


I'm writing this North Idaho weather update on Good Friday morning, April 2. It's cold outside, more like Feb. 2. The sky is 'spitting snow,' much like it has for several days now.

The snows have melted as they've hit the warm ground, so I haven't recorded more than a 'trace' of the white stuff in the past 72 hours. But, heavier amounts are predicted for the Easter weekend into early next week.

Since Dec. 31, 2009, we've only measured a puny 2.7 inches of snow on Player Drive, the least ever for the 92-day period. Previously, the record for the least January through March snowfall in Coeur d'Alene was 7.7 inches in 1944, followed by 7.8 inches in 1934 a decade earlier. Since 1895, our average snowfall has been 66.7 inches. We gauged an incredible 172.9 inches in the 2007-08 winter season. It seems that when it comes to snowfall, it's either 'FEAST' or 'FAMINE' in North Idaho. We usually have plenty of snow during a cold, wet 'La Nina' sea-surface temperature event and very little, like this winter, during a dry and mild El Nino cycle.

The "good news" is that El Nino is falling apart in the tepid waters of the Pacific Ocean. This should mean a cooler and wetter spring season across the region.

We're already seeing above-normal amounts of moisture despite the lack of measurable snowfall. The month of March actually was a bit wetter than usual with 2.01 inches of precipitation compared to the 116-year norm of 1.99 inches and last year's 4.86 inches in March during the final days of the last snowy and cold La Nina.

March of 2009 had more than DOUBLE the normal Coeur d'Alene snowfall at 14.9 inches compared with the 116-year average of just 5.8 inches. This past March of 2010 gauged only a 'trace' of snow in town, tying five other Marchs for the least snow on record since 1895.

April may see more measurable snowfall in Coeur d'Alene than we've seen in the months of January, February and March combined since the snows stopped in late December. Remember, last April in 2009, we measured a healthy 6 inches of snow on our way to a whopping 145.6 inches by June 30, the second most snowfall ever in Coeur d'Alene to the 172.9 inches received in the roof-crushing winter of 2007-08 the season before. Only time will tell if we'll exceed our normal April snowfall of 0.9 inches.

Longer-term, I'm still seeing a HOTTER and DRIER summer season ahead with lots of warm 'Sholeh Days' near or above 90 degrees.

While I don't see a repeat of the disastrous forest fires of a century ago in 1910, it's quite possible that we will see more fires than usual due to extreme summer dryness. Again, only time will tell. Stay tuned.


Happy Birthday, Sharon! You're a great wife and a loving 'mother' to our poodles, 'Sholeh' and 'Genny.' I'm taking you to Beverly's tonight for a birthday dinner. I'll have great views ...YOU and Lake Coeur d'Alene!

Cliff Harris is a climatologist who writes a weekly column for The Press. His opinions are his own. E-mail sfharris@roadrunner.com

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