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Harmon’s Histories: Remembering the “Big Burn” of 1910

By Jim Harmon

It’s August, and it’s fire season. Blazes large and small have broken out all over the West. Locally, all eyes are focused on the Roaring Lion fire, which exploded south of Hamilton, claiming one life, destroying homes and forcing the evacuation of hundreds.1910 HEADLINE 1

It brings back memories of the big ones, and there have been many, but none like the “Great Fire of 1910,” also dubbed the “Big Burn.” Growing up in Libby, I heard countless stories from my parents and grandparents. Every fire season in the 1950s and 1960s, comparisons to the Big Burn were inevitable.

At about 3-million acres, the complex of fires covered parts of four states and killed 87 people. Hardest hit were the mining towns of northern Idaho and western Montana; Deborgia and Haugan were destroyed, but the worst of it was around Mullen and Wallace, Idaho.

Timothy Egan penned one of the best books I’ve read about the event called, “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America,” in which he recounted, minute by minute, the panic in those mountain communities and the heroic actions of the country’s first national forest firefighters. I recommend it.

It had been a hot dry summer. Fires had broken out in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. Then, a cold front with fierce winds moved in on August 20, 1910. The headlines in the next morning’s Missoulian shocked the Garden City.

“At 12:30 AM, Mullen called Missoula over the telephone, appealing to the city authorities for men and equipment with which to fight a fire that had surrounded the town on three sides and was threatening its existence. The little mining camp was at that time incoherent with fright.”

“Six miles below, down the narrow canyon, Wallace was a mass of flames, which could be seen at intervals through the shifting smoke.”

“The wind (was) shifting and swirling until the direction could not be determined. (It) was high however, and was sweeping strongly up the canyon.”

“All the patients in the two hospitals at Wallace… were safely removed and placed on the last train for Missoula. They will be taken to the Sisters Hospital here as soon as they arrive. Their number is not known. Mullen reports, at two o’clock this morning, that the railway bridges – small affairs between that town and Wallace – are all burned and the trains cannot go beyond Mullen.”

The Wallace correspondent for The Spokesman Review noted “20 or 30 small dwellings on the hillsides burst into flames about 9 o’clock, and a few minutes later (the fire ignited) the wooden warehouses and hotels east of Seventh Street. The plant of the Sunset Brewing company, valued at $80,000, was also burning. The Oregon Railroad and navigation Company’s depot, recently completed at a cost of $5,000 was burned, as was the old wooden depot. At 11 o’clock the only building east of Seventh Street still standing was the Shoshone County Courthouse.”

Monday morning, August 22, 1910, the Missoulian reported six people were known dead in Wallace and that many more may have died. The fate of firefighting crews from the fledgling national forest service was unknown.1910 HEADLINE 3

Meantime, fires in Montana’s Belt Mountains threatened the town of Neihart. A huge blaze in the Gallatin Forest south of Bozeman was moving into “some of the most valuable timber regions in the forest.” Another big fire raced through forest land west of Paradise and rail traffic was cut off when a long trestle burned west of Trout Creek.

By Tuesday morning, August 23, the overwhelming number of fire-refugees streaming into Missoula forced the mayor to appoint 100 special policeman to guard against disorder.

“Missoula woke yesterday red-eyed from the smoke and cinders, but with a determination to prove equal to the emergency which the presence of a couple of thousand visitors had placed upon her shoulders,” reported the Missoulian. “But there is followed in the wake of the fire refugees, a small army of moochers and worse.”

The mayor declared, “There is abundant relief for the deserving, but the city has no place for any of this class of hangers-on.”

As with many catastrophic fires, weather (which had played the pivotal role in creating the firestorm) finally ended the event with cool air and steady rain.

The loss of life and property, and the damage to natural resources caused by the “Big Burn” did help save the National Forest Service. Until that time, many detractors in Washington, D. C. had called for cancellation of the forest ranger “experiment.”

The debate over how best to deal with these summertime natural disasters, however, has continued for 106 years and counting.

Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.