National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Birthday of the U.S. Forest Service – February 1, 1905


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?


The national forests (first called Forest Reserves) began with the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, creating the U.S. Division of Forestry within the Department. of Interior (DOI). In 1901, it became the Bureau of Forestry. On February 1, 1905, it was transferred from DOI to the Department. of Agriculture, and the United States Forest Service (USFS) was born.

The mission of the Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The United States currently has 155 national forests, 20 national grasslands, and 222 research and experimental forests, as well as other special areas, covering more than 192 million acres. It has evolved into an agency that manages the national forests for a wide range of uses including recreation, timber, wilderness, minerals, water, grazing, fish, and wildlife.

Take a moment to celebrate the birthday of the USFS. As firefighters, we can all reflect on the many events that have occurred during this agency’s rich history, as it affects the way we do our work today.

1891 – Shoshone National Forest is set aside as part of the Yellowstone Timberland Reserve, making it the first forest reserve (national forest) in the United States.

1905 – Under the direction of Chief Gifford Pinchot, the USFS and the national forests grew spectacularly from 60 reserve forest units covering 56 million acres in 1905, to 150 national forests covering 172 million acres in 1910. Pinchot famously summed up the mission of the Forest Service: "to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run."

1910 –The USFS faced a devastating series of forest fires in Idaho, Montana, and Washington referred to as the Big Blowup. This led to new USFS fire prevention and suppression policies and the development of new ways to forecast fire behavior, inform citizens about fire prevention, extinguish the flames, and provide federal aid to state and private landowners for fire protection.

1913 – Hallie Daggett became the first female fire lookout in the Forest Service, spending 15 years working at the Eddy Gulch fire tower on the Klamath National Forest.

Photo of first Forest Service lookout tower atop Mr. Hood Oregon at 11,200 ft.1915 – The Forest Service built the first lookout tower atop Mt. Hood, Oregon, at 11,200 feet. From the lookouts, fire detection was aided by an invention developed by forester William Bushnell Osborne, Jr. The Osborne Firefinder allows lookouts to accurately pinpoint the geographic location of forest fires. Its use quickly spread throughout the USFS and is still in production today.

1920’s – The national fire danger rating system began with the research of Harry T. Gisborne, the first USFS scientist to focus on estimating the probability of forest fire occurrence before a blaze ever begins. The agency considers him the "first true specialist in forest fire research in the nation.” During his career, he devised many instruments to gain information about forest fires, their hazards, prediction, and prevention. Gisborne died while hiking to inspect the site of the Mann Gulch fire in Montana on November 9, 1949.

1924 – A unique beauty of the Gila National Forest is its wilderness. The Gila Wilderness was established as the first designated wilderness in the country.

1935 photo of nine men in the Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project standing in front of plane, two in parachute gear.1935 – The Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project was created to fund experiments in the use of water and chemical bombs for fire suppression. In 1939, the project's focus was switched to parachute jumping. The first operational use of USFS smokejumpers was on the Nez Perce-Clear Water National Forest in Idaho in 1940.

1939 – The Forest Service began employing the first organized fire suppression crews (40 person crews) on the Siskiyou National Forest to overcome the weaknesses of recruiting untrained personnel to fight fires.

1946 – The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) fire suppression crew stationed at the Del Rosa work center at the San Bernardino National Forest is renamed the Del Rosa Hot Shots and is administered by the Forest as the first Hot Shot crew.

Photo of a Bell 47b helicopter first used in the Angeles National Forest in 1947.1947 – The Angeles National Forest saw the first use of a helicopter (Bell 47B) for extended use on a wildland fire in the United States. The USFS was so pleased with the results that the helicopter was used on four other large wildland fires and triggered an extensive study on the use of helicopters on wildland incidents. The Angeles National Forest began utilizing the first helitack crews in 1957.

1949 – The Mann Gulch fire on the Helena National Forest greatly influenced fire suppression within the USFS. This devastating fire claimed the lives of 13 smokejumpers and led to the establishment of two new USFS facilities in Missoula, Montana, and San Dimas, California, dedicated to developing and testing firefighting equipment (MTDC) and (SDTDC).

Picture of Smokey Bear, a live cub used to promote the prevention of forest fires.1950 – A small bear cub was found badly burned after a fire on the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. News about the little bear spread fast and soon made national headlines. The state Game Warden wrote an official letter to the Chief of the Forest Service, presenting him with the bear with the understanding that the small bear would be dedicated to a publicity program of fire prevention and conservation. He found a home at the national zoo in Washington, D.C., becoming the living symbol of Smokey Bear.

1955 – The first air tanker is used on the Mendocino National Forest, California.

1957 – The Forest Service convenes a special task force to study fatality fires and devise safety guidelines, resulting in the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and the 18 Watch Out Situations.

1959 – MTDC (then MEDC) began developing fire shelters. Field tests of the shelters began in 1961 by the El Cariso Hotshots on the Cleveland National Forest.

1965 – The Boise Interagency Fire Center (BIFC) was created when the USFS, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and National Weather Service (NWS) saw the need to work together to reduce the duplication of services, cut costs, and coordinate national fire planning and operations. The name was changed in 1993 to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) to more accurately reflect its national mission.

1977 – The USFS makes fire shelters mandatory as a result of three fatalities on the 1976 Battlement Creek Fire.

1981 – Deanne Shulman joined the McCall jumpers, becoming the first female smokejumper.

Today – The effect that the Forest Service has had on wildland firefighting is as apparent now as from a historical perspective. There is no doubt that this agency has an immense and an interesting foundational history that plays a role in everyday life as a firefighter, regardless of your agency.


The USFS maintains a historical reference collection at the Forest History Society, in Durham, North Carolina. This collection features historical materials amassed since the early twentieth century by U.S. Forest Service employees. Materials continue to be added from a variety of sources. The Forest History Society has produced an online searchable database of the collection.


This Day in History
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Aug 2023

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