On The Page: Fire On The Mountain

Edit: This post was written last week but just this morning I learned of the deaths of nineteen firefighters who were fighting the Yarnell Hill fire north of Wickenburg, Arizona. The firefighters were members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshots, part of the Prescott Fire Department. The wind shifted forcing the firefighters to deploy their fire shelters. Thinking good thoughts for the families of these firefighters as well as thinking about firefighters throughout the west.

Granite Mountain Hotshots

My latest read was Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire. The South Canyon Fire took place in July of 1994 just east of Grand Junction, Colorado. (This is only about an hour and half north of us.) I found the book a little hard to get started on, something that often happens to me in non-fiction as I try to match names with roles in the beginning, but once I got started I was hooked. How do you put down a book where you know that things are going to go sideways?

Fire On The Mountain

The handling of the South Canyon Fire was botched from the start and Maclean takes a long look at the politics and mismanagement that lead to the fire growing from a smalllightning strike fire into a blaze that claimed the lives of fourteen firefighters.

South Canyon Fire

Interestingly, the South Canyon Fire had many similarities to the Mann Gulch fire of 1949. John Maclean’s father, Norman Maclean, wrote about the Mann Gulch fire in his landmark book Young Men and Fire. Both fires burned in steep, “funnel like” gulches near large rivers (the Colorado and the Missouri). The fires were burning under extremely hot weather conditions with winds expected to pick up on the day of the blow up with firefighters cutting a fire line above the fire.

While Fire on the Mountain definitely had my attention, it didn’t seem particularly well written to me. If you’re interested in wildfires (or wildfire history), Colorado history, or like a simple fast paced non-fiction read, this might be a good choice for you.

Pulaski Tunnel Hike

Trailhead

Yesterday I told you all a little bit about the Big Burn of 1910 (I just found this Forest Service website with tons more info). One of the heros of the Big Burn was Ed Pulaski. Pulaski was a ranger for the young US Forest Service when the fires broke out in August of 1910. He was in charge of a crew of about 150 firefighters on the divide between the Coeur D’Alene River and the St. Joe River.

When the fire cut off Pulaski and a group of about 40 men, Pulaski decided the only feasible option for escape was to flee for Wallace. It became evident that Pulaski and his crew were going to be cut off before they were going to make it to Wallace. Using his knowledge of the area he lead his crew to a mine shaft where they huddled under blankets wet in the creek and waited out the firestorm. Four of the men died during the night but Pulaski’s thinking (and his threats to shoot any man who tried to leave) saved the lives of 42 of his crew members.

Pulaski Tunnel Reconstruction

On Wednesday, F, Ezra, and I decided to hike the trail to the Pulaski Tunnel. In 2010, the tunnel entrance was restored to appear as it did following the fires. The Tunnel overlook (the trail doesn’t go to the mine entrance) is two miles from the trailhead with about 800′ feet of elevation gain. We hiked up stopping at all the interpretive signs and on the way back down mixed some huckleberry eating and some running.

I’m glad we finally hiked the trail since we’ve been talking about doing it since we moved here. While it was a nice short hike in the trees on a warm day, I’ve read most of the history on the interpretive signs and without getting up close to the adit, it was somewhat disappointing. (The huckleberries were NOT disappointing.)

Fires of 1910

We hiked the Pulaski Tunnel Trail yesterday. I’ll have a post up about that soon (tomorrow?) but in the meantime, here’s a primer on what happened in Idaho and Montana on August 20 and 21, 1910.

In the summer of 1910, the entire Pacific Northwest was exceedingly dry—the first forest fires had started burning in Montana by late April. Fires burned throughout the summer but remained mostly small and isolated. Many of these fires were caused by lightning strikes but more were also related to the train traffic crossing the very dry mountains. Fire crews hired by the new US Forest Service (it had only been founded five years earlier) battled the small fires alongside 4,000 Army troops although many fires were left to smolder in remote drainages. (The troops sent to the Coeur D’Alene Mountain region included the all black 25th Infantry, Company G, the “Buffalo Soldiers.”)

Source: The Spokesman Review

On August 20, 1910, high winds hit the region and whipped many of the small smoldering fires into a giant fire that encompassed huge parts of Idaho, Montana, and Washington. Eventually, more than 3 million acres burned in the Bitterroots and surrounding areas. In addition to the 7.5 billion board feet of timber that burned, half of Wallace burned to the ground and the Montana towns of Taft, De Borgia, Haugan, and Henderson were completely lost.  The fires killed 87 people including 78 firefighters.

Source: Wikipedia Commons

There were some happy endings:Mullan & Avery survived thanks to backfires lit by volunteers. Ed Pulaski (the inventor of the pulaski firefighting tool) saved 40 of the 45 men in his crew by hiding in an abandoned mine tunnel (more on him tomorrow). The Forest Service’s importance to the West was cemented (although it would increase their adherence to a “total suppression” philosophy for decades to come).

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Sometimes, when I’m reminded of the fires, I think of being down in these narrow valleys as winds blow flames around, I think of the descriptions of the sky glowing red, I think of the firefighters out attempting to halt the progress of the blaze without the support of helicopters and roads, and I’m flabbergasted they even were able to try.

 

Highly Recommended Reading: The Big Burn by Tim Egan

Related blog post: 1910 Fire Commemoration

Sources:

The Forest History Society: “US Forest Service History, The 1910 Fires

Spokane Spokesman-Review: “Forest fire, the largest in US history, left stories of awe, tragedy.”