Magazine article American Forests

News from the World of Trees

Magazine article American Forests

News from the World of Trees

Article excerpt

1910 FIRES: STILL BURNING

The 1910 fire season in the Northern Rockies was burned deeply into the consciousness of American firefighters and foresters. But according to experts, the fire that we recognize 100 years later as the largest and most significant in history may not be a one-time historical event. In fact, the century of firefighting experience and practice since that marker year have created conditions that are likely to bring even larger conflagrations.

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The three-day fury of the "Big Blowup" that began on August 20, 1910 burned through three million acres of forests and several towns, killing more than 85 people. It went on to become the creation myth on which the U.S. Forest Service thrived. Prevention of such giant fires became the centerpiece of a national fire exclusion policy that shaped the agency, its budgets, the practice of forestry, and even public attitudes.

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But today, 22 years after the 1988 Yellowstone fires, and in the middle of a decade of routinely large fires across the West, it is clear that we have not succeeded in preventing other large fires, nor may it ever be possible to do so. Foresters today know that fire is a healthy and necessary part of the forest, and that fighting every smaller blaze serves only to build up fuels and boost the size and frequency of catastrophic fires.

But on the anniversary of the 1910 fires, the public remains fearful of forest fires, and continues to demand quick response and full suppression. Yet, the more we suppress, the more extensive and intense are the fires we experience.

"In terms of fire and fuels, we are in a whole new era," Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told an international gathering of fire chiefs last March. The U.S. had 243 wildfires greater than 50,000 acres in the last decade; twice as many as in the previous two decades. Tidwell described these as "megafires on a scale rarely seen before."

Total acres burned annually had not exceeded 7 million acres since the 1950s, reported Tidwell. But since 2000, we've seen two years with more than 7 million acres burned, two years with more than 8 million, and two years with more than 9 million. And experts are now predicting fire years with 12 to 15 million acres burned. These colossal fires are occurring even as firefighters manage to put out 98 percent of the wildfires that start in the United States.

This summer we are seeing--and rightly so--a host of commemorative events, symposia, lectures, exhibits, books, and even a map and guide for a four-day driving tour of Big Blowup sites in Montana and Idaho. …

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