On any given summer morning, when we awaken to a drift of smoke in the air, or when a sunset seems to begin at 3 in the afternoon, all discussions will revolve around the fire: Where is it? What is the acreage? What is the predicted fire weather? What is the response? Hotshot crew? Aerial tankers? Fire season has a language all its own.
The “Big Burn” of 1910 is a heart-stopping epic, well-known to many people. If you aren’t familiar with it, you can read about it on the USFS website at www.fs.usda.gov: “When the Mountains Roared - Stories of the 1910 fire.” It makes compelling (but not very cheery) reading. The Forest Service was created in 1905, and fire suppression became a primary duty due to the 1910 fire.
The Mann Gulch fire north of Helena in 1949 was a tragedy made famous by Norman Maclean’s book “Young Men and Fire.”
Those stories have been told, and told well, but I wondered -- what did people do about forest fires before the Forest Service?
In ancient Rome, there were “Vigiles” whose nightly duty was to watch for fires and fight them. It’s where we get the term “vigilante,” though in Montana it seems to have been more concerned with gunfire than forest fires.
In Colonial Massachusetts, it was, at times, illegal to smoke outside, lest a carelessly emptied pipe start a forest fire.
Bucket chains were often used to defend a home, barn or town from an approaching fire. That might make an interesting competition. There could be two awards -- one for the team passing the most buckets along the line and another for the team managing to spill the least en route.
One of the earliest Western fires I could find reference to was in the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition in October, 1804. A fire was racing across the grassland, and a young boy was overtaken by the flames. (Note: The following spelling is not mine!) “The couse of his being Saved was a Green buffalow Skin was thrown over him by his mother who perhaps had more fore Sight for the pertection of her Son and less for herself.”
My grandmother homesteaded in Idaho in the early 1900s. At 4’10”, she didn’t fit the stereotype of a wildland firefighter, but nonetheless succeeded in using wet burlap bags to put down a prairie fire.
Before fire crews used the Pulaski (an axe/hoe hybrid named in honor of a hero of the 1910 fire) to cut a fire line, draft horses were sometimes used to cut firebreaks where the ground wasn’t too rocky.
I’m not sure if the editor of the Deer Lodge paper was serious when he wrote in 1880 that “There are few scenes prettier than a forest fire in the mountains, and few of them equal that in the Gold Creek mountains Wednesday night.”
A couple of years later, fire in the Gold Creek area was being taken a lot more seriously. The paper of Aug. 25, 1882, reported that “Extensive forest fires are in progress throughout the country. ... A large extent of country is burnt, or being burnt over on the Gold Creek Mountains and on Little Blackfoot. These doubtless originate in the majority of instances from carelessness with camp fires which is a criminal offense under the laws."
Fires were blamed on campers, arsonists (called “firebugs”), sawmills, smelters, locomotives and even miners burning off underbrush to expose minerals. Oddly, lightning was rarely considered the cause.
The struggle to contain a fire in the Oro Fino district in early August 1889, was typical of the times. “All the men from the Champion mine joined with those from the town to do the element battle. There were fifty or sixty of them, all told, and they worked heroically all day, felling trees, clearing away brush, etc., and by night they had the fire pretty well under control.” The battle along the Divide was far from over, though, and wouldn’t be until snow arrived that October to finish the job.
If it’s possible to have a favorite fire, mine was the one in 1884 extinguished by a tremendous rainstorm. “The storm swept up from the west and south, with incessant lightning, having something of the characteristics of auroral lights. During and just after this electrical storm, many aquatic birds, ducks, gulls and other species, came swooping into the streets … and several were caught by pedestrians.” I suspect they wanted to get to safety before their goose was cooked.
Lyndel Meikle lives in the Deer Lodge area.