Staff Ride to the 1910 Idaho Fire

 

In August of 1910, on the Coeur d’Alene National Forest, a group of timber cutters, miners, and assorted individuals looking to make a dollar found themselves running for their lives down a steep canyon to an unknown end.  Ed Pulaski, the Forest Ranger in charge of this group of hastily collected firefighters, knew he had some quick decisions to make.

Conditions across the west had been unseasonably dry with below average rainfall since April.  Fires, both lightening and human caused, had started in the spring and reached a crescendo in July and again in late August.  The group behind the effort to suppress these fires was an organization in its infancy, the newly created United States Forest Service (USFS).  Forest Supervisors in Idaho and Montana did their best to control the blazes with the resources they had; a handful of recent forestry graduates, forest guards hired from the local community, and whatever labor could be gathered from the mines, timber camps, and bars throughout the west.

By the time the fires peaked and reached the point known as “The Blow-up,” approximately 3 million acres burned across Idaho and into Montana with several towns burned and an estimated 85 people killed, both firefighters and public.  The impact of this event shaped fire policy and direction within the U.S. Forest Service for decades to come and strongly influenced the public perception of the role of federal agencies in fire suppression and the role of fire within the landscape.

The 1910 Fires Staff Ride is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:

  • Adam Ackerman – U.S. Forest Service – Colville NF
  • Scott Ebel – National Park Service – North Cascades
  • Doug Frederick – U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – Pacific Region
  • Ken Meinhart – U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – Pacific Region
  • Jason Riggins – U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – Pacific Region

Special thanks to the following individuals for their valuable support and help with finalization of the 1910 Fires Staff Ride:

  • Julian Affuso – U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – Southwest Region
  • Gail Aschenbrenner-West – U.S. Forest Service – Idaho Panhandle NF
  • Jim Cook – U.S. Forest Service – National Interagency Fire Center
  • Ken Frederick – Bureau Land Management – National Interagency Fire Center
  • Steve Matz – U.S. Forest Service – Idaho Panhandle NF
  • Nina Walker – Bureau of Land Management – National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Click the image to open a larger image.

Travel Map

Travel Map

The Great 1910 Fire Overview Map

The Great 1910 Fire Overview Map

 
Crew Location Map

Crew Location Map for August 19, 1910

Pulaski Decision Sequence Map

Pulaski Decision Sequence Map for August 20, 1910

 

In order to have a successful experience with this staff ride, facilitators and participants should read at a minimum one of the following books:

  • Year of the Fires by Stephen J. Pyne,​ New York: Viking Penguin; 2001.
  • The Big Burn by Timothy Egan​, ​New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt; 2009.

Audio/Visual References:


Google Earth fly-around animation for the area south of Wallace, Idaho​.

1910 Fire Commemoration Website

Region 1 USFS 1910 Fire Commemoration documents and publication

Site includes:

  • "Supervisor W.G. Weigle's Report on the 1910 Fires, Wallace, ID, June 24, 1911"
  • "Mountains of Fire" by Sherry Devlin, The Missoulian, 2000
  • "The Big Fire," Joe B. Halm, USDA Forest Service
  • "Fire Report on the Coeur d’Alene National Forest, November 9, 1910," Roscoe Haines, Acting Forest Supervisor
  • "A History of the 1910 Fires in Idaho and Montana," Elers Koch, 1942
  • "Pulaski, Two Days in August 1910" (Cultural Resource Inventory, Wallace Ranger District, Idaho Panhandle National Forest, USDA)
  • "When the Mountains Roared, Stories of the 1910 Fires," USDA Forest Service, Northern Region, June 2010 (commemorative reprint)
  • "The Great 1910 Fires of Idaho and Montana Tour Guide," USDA Forest Service, Northern Region, June 2010

Documents and Publications:

Local Contact Information

Idaho Panhandle National Forests
3815 Schreiber Way
Coeur d’Alene Idaho 83815
Phone (208) 765-7233

In 1905, management of the public forest reserves is given to a new agency, the United States Forest Service. Between 1905 and 1909, an initial wildfire suppression doctrine is formulated and promoted by the first Chief of the USFS, Gifford Pinchot. To help with the public's perception of the role of the Forest Service in local communities, ranger districts hired local, well-respected figures such as Ed Pulaski to assist the Forest Service with public perception.

Map of surrounding area

Map of surrounding area

The fire season of 1908 provides the new leadership and firefighters of the Forest Service an opportunity to develop their suppression skills; however, a large part of the force consists of as-needed labor provided from miners, loggers, vagrants, and immigrants (many of whom do not speak English). By 1909, Forest Service leadership asserts that unwanted wildfire could be prevented through adequate prevention and control and asserts in the Forest Service Use Book (1905) that, "...officers have no more important duty than protecting the reserves from forest fires."

During this time, the infrastructure to access new areas for mining and timber are in the process of being developed. Rail systems are completed along the St. Joe and Coeur d'Alene rivers, greatly increasing the flow of people into this area. At the turn of the century, Coeur d'Alene was the transportation hub for most of northern Idaho. In conjunction with Spokane, these two cities were the economic powerhouses of the region. Communications were telephones and telegraphs between Missoula and Coeur d'Alene/Spokane.

There are several good options for the location of Stand 1 in order to conduct an overview of the 1910 situation including the Cataldo Mission, the Coeur d'Alene City Park, or combining with Stand 2 at the I-90 Exit 61 rest stop and firefighter memorial in Wallace. These locations are accessible to the public with parking for multiple vehicles and restrooms.

By early July, wildfires became widespread throughout the region. Dry lightning in conjunction with a wind event on the 11th caused multiple fires to ignite and spread throughout the northwest. In Washington, western Montana and north Idaho, there were approximately 3,600 firefighters at work. In British Colombia, Oregon, and Washington, half a dozen logging towns were burned over, and several people were killed as a result.

The Secretary of Agriculture visits Region 1 in mid-July and approves additional emergency firefighting funds, bringing the forest fire fund into operation for the first time. In addition, the Western Forestry Association telegraphs President Taft and requests military assistance to provide additional firefighting forces. By late July, strong winds again increase the size of existing fires and hundreds of new fires start by lightning and human activity.

The 1910 firefighter memorial

The 1910 firefighter memorial is easily located in the Exit 61 rest area. This memorial was erected during the summer of 2010. This area would make a good site to facilitate Stand 2.

During the first week of August, the town of Wallace receives ash fallout; and heavy smoke obscures visibility and makes breathing difficult. Forest Supervisor Weigle organizes the defense of the town. Throughout the first weeks of August, windy conditions continue to influence large fire growth. Strategy shifts to controlling new starts near high-value areas resulting in fewer backcountry fires being controlled. The evening of August 19, I Company of the 25th Regiment is recalled to Wallace for fire suppression duties. The Company is to assist in the impending evacuation.

Around noon on the 20th, the Palouse winds hit the Coeur d'Alene area. All existing fires begin to spread rapidly and new fires start from heavy fallout. By that evening, the remaining townsfolk of Wallace are given the order to evacuate. At approximately 2100, embers ignite open buckets of solvent outside Wallace's The Times; winds were estimated at 40 to 60 mph.

August is the driest month on record since 1894. Ranger Ed Pulaski oversees close to 200 men assisted by three forest guards. The fire crews and Guards are spread out over a distance of about 10 miles fighting numerous small fires between Wallace and Avery. On August 20, Pulaski is returning to his crews after briefing Forest Supervisor Weigle in Wallace. The Palouse winds hit the area in the early afternoon. Pulaski rides up and down the ridgeline where the men have been working and gathers loose groups of firefighters, eventually totaling around 45 to 50 men.

By mid-afternoon, Pulaski leads this group off Striped Peak and down the West Fork of Placer Creek making for the town of Wallace. Upon reaching an old cabin, Pulaski stages his men and scouts ahead to find out they are cut-off down drainage by fire. He retreats up the canyon and seeks the Nicholson adit (an exploratory mining tunnel) for a place to take shelter.

Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, similar scenarios take place as mostly young and inexperienced crew supervisors are faced with difficult decisions on how to escape and take shelter from the impending firestorm. A variety of differing techniques are utilized: from sheltering in place using natural features to lighting escape fires.

View of the parking at the trailhead

Note limited parking available at the trailhead. Trail begins across the road.

Interpretive displays

Several interpretive displays are located at the parking area and along the trail leading to Stand 4.

 
Historical photo looking across Placer Creek

Historical photo looking across Placer Creek at the entrance to the Nicholson adit, sometimes referred to as the Pulaski tunnel.

Ranger Pulaski finds the Nicholson adit. He stages men along the route to help guide the crew as visibility has been greatly reduced due to heavy smoke and spot fires springing up around them. Once inside the tunnel, he orders the men to lie down; they use water to wet blankets and hang over the entrance. The fire front reaches them shortly after they are inside. Pulaski tries to keep the mine timbers from catching fire. One man attempts to flee but Pulaski retains order. As the effects of carbon monoxide and extreme heat mount, all of the men including Pulaski lose consciousness. Late in the night, one man recovers, makes his way to Wallace, and mistakenly reports that he is the only survivor.

The outcome for many of the crews ranges from all surviving to many fatalities within a group. Several towns are evacuated and burn, but some are saved by the efforts of the locals and rangers. The fires burn into Montana some 60 miles before rain the stops their progress on August 23rd.

Looking from overlook at newly renovated entrance

Photo was taken summer of 2010 looking from overlook at newly renovated entrance toward the Nicholson adit.

View of the Nicholson adit

The overlook provides a good view of the Nicholson adit as well as a good site to facilitate Stand 4. Several interpretive displays are located along a circular path at this site.

Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
2020-05-12