Following service during World War II, my father spent a summer working as part of a crew in the national forest of the Idaho panhandle cruising timber and putting out small fires. Little did he know as a young man that his summer job in Idaho came as a result of a catastrophic fire in the area nearly forty years earlier.
In 1910, the five-year-old United States Forest Service was under-manned, under-funded but full of the zeal infused by Teddy Roosevelt and his chief forester Gifford Pinchot. They had envisioned a series of “forest reserves” in the great West which had until then been the province of the big business powers of the day: railroaders, timber companies, and the mining industry. Sound familiar?
Over 10,000 men were sent walking into the woods to fight the fire, towns were wiped off the map, and a hundred people died or carried the scars for the remainder of their lives. Ash and smoke settled as far away as Denver and Minnesota. The political fallout stretched much farther, helping to solidify the place of national forests in America and has influenced our national conservation ethic for the past one hundred years.
For a comprehensive slice of that history, pick up a copy of The Big Burn (2009) by excellent documentarian Timothy Egan. To see a short author interview including more photos: click here.