WALLACE, Idaho – Each year major wildfires in the West are fought like military battles, with firefighters deploying by ground and air, bombers dropping retardant on flames, and incident commanders plotting strategy behind the lines. These often epic campaigns are largely the result of the Great Fire of 1910.
The largest in U.S. history, it burned an area the size of Connecticut, wiping out whole towns and killing 86 people in remote areas of Idaho, Washington and Montana.
This is the 100th anniversary of the Aug. 20-21 firestorm that ended the era when wildfires were often allowed to burn themselves out. The fire, also known as the Big Burn, spawned a wildfire-industrial complex that employs thousands of people to extinguish forest fires each year, even though many think those efforts will likely result in larger, more destructive fires.
"For decades, the Forest Service told a clear and compelling story of firefighting as good versus evil, the moral equivalent of war," Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in a spring speech in Boise, Idaho, commemorating the Great Fire.
Things are different now. Fire is seen as necessary and beneficial, although the decision on when to let it burn and when to put it out continues to spark lots of debate.
There was a different controversy in 1910. The Forest Service, just five years old and hated by business interests who wanted to exploit Western timberlands, could not get money from Congress to fight wildfires.
But the devastation of the the Great Fire outraged the nation, and Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot used the disaster to double agency's budget.
"The nation went to war against fire," Tidwell said.
Crews were hired and trained, equipment was bought and eventually the agency set a goal of reaching each reported fire by 10 a.m. the next day.
"Today we are seeing the tragic results," Tidwell said.
Forests that have not seen big fires in decade are overgrown with fuel, a problem exacerbated by drought, climate change and tree killing insects. As a result, wildfires have been getting bigger.
While the total land scorched by wildfire was about 3 million acres per year in the 1990s, fires have suddenly exploded in number and size.
Since 1999, there have been 242 wildfires exceeding 50,000 acres, more than twice as many as in the previous two decades, Tidwell said. More than 8 million acres burned in 2005 and more than 9 million in 2007.
Some experts predict future fire seasons with up to 12 million acres burning, he said. Nearly 28,000 homes, businesses, and outbuildings have burned in wildfires in the past 10 years, Tidwell said.
In the long-running debate over federal wildfire policy, Tidwell favors a mixed approach calling for reduction of fuels in forests, working with communities to reduce fire risk through smarter planning, and responding to wildfires in a proportional way. Congress last year passed a law requiring the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture to develop a new wildfire strategy by Nov. 1.
A solution that will please everyone isn't likely.
Aggressive fire suppression inspired people to build homes in areas prone to wildfires, knowing that firefighters would protect them, said Matthew Carroll, a forestry professor at Washington State University.
"There is a long-standing assumption in these communities that Smokey Bear is going to come and rescue me," Carroll said.
The problem is becoming worse as more people move into forested areas, at the same time the timber sales that provide funds for Forest Service operations like firefighting are being cut, Carroll said.
In addition, climate change is blamed for drying out forests.
"The size and scope and elevation of fires since 1988 is huge," said Jack Potter, chief of sciences in Montana's Glacier National Park, which was created just three months before the Great Fire.
Despite a century of subsequent fires, the Big Burn of 1910 remains singular.
Fires broke out all summer as forests withered in high temperatures. Up to 3,000 fires of different sizes were burning on the morning of Aug. 20, 1910, many sparked by trains that threw sparks from their rails.
That afternoon, hurricane force winds whipped the flames together into a few giant fires. Walls of flames many miles wide and hundreds of feet tall raced through the forests. Residents and isolated crews of men who had been battling small fires ran for their lives.
"The fire turned trees and men into weird torches that exploded like Roman candles," one survivor told a newspaper.
The fire produced breathtaking escapes, as trains loaded with evacuees roared across burning trestles to seek refuge in tunnels. Entire squads of firefighters were wiped out.
Before it was over, 10,000 men were on fire lines, including homeless men brought in on trains from Spokane. The U.S. Army was called out.
"This was the first great attempt to fight large fires," said Steve Pyne, a professor at Arizona State and author of "Year of the Fires" about the disaster.
The fires were eventually doused by rain and snow storms.
Experts wonder if a similar catastrophe is brewing.
"I was recently asked whether the Big Burn could happen again and what we would do if it did," Tidwell said.
He noted some recent giant fires like the Biscuit Fire in Oregon, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in Arizona and the Murphy Complex fire in Idaho generated conditions similar to the Big Burn.
But firefighting crews are far more professional today. Air tankers and helicopters carry retardant to remote areas. Communications are much better and there are decades of research to draw on.
"Today, a megafire on the order of the Big Burn isn't likely to have the same catastrophic results," Tidwell said.