National Wildfire Coordinating Group

The Great Fires of 1910 (The Big Blowup) – August 20th


This Day in History is a brief summary of a powerful learning opportunity and is not intended to second guess or be judgmental of decisions and actions. Put yourself in the following situation as if you do not know the outcome. What are the conditions? What are you thinking? What are YOU doing?

Incident Summary:

The 1910 fire season in the Northern Rockies was an unprecedented challenge to the US Forest Service. Record drought conditions had combined with an unusually strong lightning cycle and an abundance of man-caused fires. By July 15, there were over 3000 firefighters on the fireline in Region 1 of the Forest Service alone. On August 8, President Taft deployed numerous companies of the regular Army to northern Idaho and western Montana.

On August 20, an upper-level trough, centered in Saskatchewan, moved through the Northern Rockies between 1000 and 2100 hrs. This cold front passage brought a strong west/southwest wind that caused numerous fires to blowup and join together to create large fire fronts that moved across the landscape. Fire crews across the Northern Rockies found themselves in danger of entrapment. Many were able to take refuge in previously burned areas, natural safety zones, and mine tunnels. Some were completely cut off, and by the end of the day, 85 persons - 78 of them firefighters - had lost their lives at 9 separate fatality sites.

This day in wildland fire history is dedicated to all those at the Big Blowup.

Black and white photo of burned out timber.

Discussion Points:

  • The fire behavior on August 20 was influenced a great deal by the drought conditions.

Discuss what a Fire Danger Rating System pocket card tells us and where to get them.

  • Messengers were sent to some of the crews to warn them of the impending windstorm, but most of the crews received no warning.

We often depend on our handheld radios to receive critical weather updates. What backup systems / technologies can be used if our radios don’t work?

  • On the West Fork Big Creek fire, a 60-person crew was instructed by their supervisor to choose between two safety zones, the black from the previous burning period or the creek bottom below.  19 firefighters chose to take shelter in a nearby homesteader’s cabin which ignited as the flame front passed. 18 of them perished rushing outside. The one survivor tripped at the door and fell to the ground. 

What is your agency’s policy on taking refuge in a structure?  What considerations would you take into account?

  • The 18 firefighters on the Stevens Peak fire burned out a safety zone in light fuels.  One firefighter perished when he breathed in super-heated air. 

Discuss the importance of protecting your airway in entrapment situations, and methods of doing so.

  • When the 70 firefighters working on the Setser Creek fire were instructed by their supervisor to proceed down-stream to a safety zone, 27 of them disregarded the order and chose instead to follow the instructions of the Camp Cook who insisted there was no danger.  All 28 lost their lives. 

What tools are used by your crew/unit to improve crew cohesion in times of stress?

  • On the Middle Fork Big Creek fire, one crew had retreated to a two-acre clearing with a stream running through it.  Most of the firefighters who sought refuge in the stream survived.  Three firefighters, however, were killed when a large tree fell on them. 

What factors influence the selection of a good safety zone? (Review Safety Zones found under Operational Engagement section (green) in the Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461.)

  • On the Storm Creek fire, the crew supervisor had led his 70-person crew to a safety zone consisting of black from the previous day’s burn.  This safety zone proved to be a good one, as the crew safely watched the fire burn around them.  One firefighter left the protection of the safety zone and was found dead the next day.

How do you and your crew provide for firefighter accountability?

  • After the Big Blowup, there were 116 injured firefighters.  Some received their initial care from Army field surgeons.  Others, including famous Ranger Ed Pulaski, were left with long-term disabilities. 

What are the burn injury protocols on your unit? 


This Day in History
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Sep 2022

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