The Big Burn: Saluting the Bravery of Early Forestry Workers

Currently on Netflix is a documentary about the forest fires that devastated North Western areas of the USA in 1910.  I like to connect our understanding of health and safety with those that gave us the knowledge we enjoy. The program is a salute to early forestry workers and their incredible bravery when they fought The Big Burn.

After a season of 1000s of fires the newly formed forestry service thought they had contained the worst of them. Back then there were only about 500 such rangers working to establish an idea of conservation in rugged public lands. Their efforts were often resented by miners and loggers who knew that these backwoods were not theirs to work, but a long tradition gave them a sense of entitlement.

President Teddy Roosevelt, a big time fan of the wilderness, saw the need to preserve natural resources for the future. In the early 20th century unregulated production of timber was slowly exhausting the vast forests and the effects of mining were poisoning it. Enter young men dispatched to tame the disorderly industries that relied on nature.

Some of these guys had a patch of 300 square miles. In there could be boom towns with accompanying violence. In the woods were few roads and a scattered group of operators understandably after profit for hard work. Government interference was not a flavour they took to.

Trains belched smoke and sparks as they thundered through the wilderness. Storms would spit lightening out of the skies and steam machinery in the woods threatened to ignite the world all around.

The summer of 1910 was a dry season. The fires that spread were combated by men with days of hiking to do before tackling them. There were no respirators, no air support or for that matter no special tools.

charred trees and workers in 1910 surveying the burnt forest.
The fires left scars on the land clearly visible today.

They did understand how to create fire breaks and until the 19/20th August they were doing well.  They had to appeal for federal funds to recruit men just for the purpose but it was crucial work. In the valleys that were surrounded by these dense forests were wooden towns. Worse, this still being a frontier type environment, a lot of the settlements were constructed out of canvas and tar paper. As embers fell it took little to see a town go up like a gigantic firework.

Nature Ups the Stakes and Creates the Big Burn

The worst thing that could happen took place that August. A storm accompanied by 70 mile an hour winds. The programme concentrates on an area around Wallace, Idaho, but in the end 3 million acres were incinerated. That is about half the size of the UK.


black and white showing the ruis of a western town after the flames went through it.
What was left of Wallace. Women, children and the elderly escaped just in time. The men were left to do what they could.

87 people, mainly firefighters, were caught in flames that progressed faster than a horse could run. They were high in the hills and overtaken. Many more were injured. Buffalo Soldiers saved one town in a titanic effort after they were trapped. Other places, Wallace among them, were evacuated by rail at the last moment.

The bravery of those people puts us to shame when we complain about trivial events.  The survivors hid in mine workings or stumbled frantically out of the path of the flames. Lives were destroyed yet out of the charred aftermath came positive things

What We Know Now About Forest Fires

Apart from the progress in firefighting and safety came an understanding of the wilderness. Ironically we now know that without occasional fires, the forests themselves suffer. Nature has its way sometimes and it is better left to it where possible.

Have a watch of this PBS production if you get a chance. All our safety started with heroics and mistakes and to all that went before  I am grateful.

Take care,

Chris Hodge


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