The summer of 1910 was dry. Well, it was generally dry in the mountain regions of western Montana. But it was extremely dry even by Bitterroot standards. The fledgling United States Forest Service was hard-pressed to deal with the danger and prospect of fire when conditions were ideal. And conditions were far worse than ideal.
It’s pretty well-known that fire (in proper doses) is good in the woods. It cleans out dead undergrowth and allows new growth to begin, which provides food and shelter for wildlife. Controlled burns create firebreaks that help reduce the chances an “uncontrolled” burn will turn catastrophic. And, in the case of pine trees, the pine cones hold their seeds until the heat of fire opens them. So in some sense, the destructive power of fire is also the precursor to new life.
But the summer of 1910 provided precious little time and certainly no money to control any burn. The Forest Service was headed by noted conservationist Gifford Pinchot, a close personal friend of President Theodore Roosevelt (another strong conservationist). The goal of preservation of the forests led to the removal of millions of acres from the public domain. These “national forests” may have been nice for people to walk around and view, but for the logging interests that sought to harvest the trees for building and profit, it meant countless dollars removed from their coffers.
Many of these industrialists had tremendous influence in Congress, and as a result, the Forest Service (seen as Roosevelt’s pet) was grossly underfunded. It struggled even to police and protect the set-aside lands from “tree-poaching”, much less engage in true forestry and preservation. During the summer of 1910, small fires broke out here and there in the timbers all throughout the northern Rockies, but in the Bitterroots (of western Montana and eastern Idaho), conditions were unbelievably dry and volatile.
The biggest danger after man’s carelessness was (and is), of course, lightning. A single million-volt matchstick bursting between ground and sky, instantly turning wood and kindling into flame, is a potentially deadly event. So when a lightning storm hit the area on July 26, 1910, no good result could come from it. I read Timothy Egan’s book The Big Burn earlier this year, and his description of the storm is worth plagiarizing. “On July 26, the night sky over the Bitterroots exploded – not an isolated thunder boomer or two clapping around the valleys, but a rolling, continuous, full-throated electrical storm. It sounded like breaking glass amplified a hundredfold, and could be heard in the higher reaches of three states. The fireworks spread across the range, one supercharged bolt after the other. Entire mountain flanks came to life with the pulsing skeletal arms of the storm, shooting down crooked until they hit a big rock outcrop or grounded in the blunt edge of a summit.”
Daylight brought the smoke from hundreds of little fires started by the myriad of lightning strikes. But worse was to come. Fire needs two things to survive and thrive…fuel and air. Fuel there was in dry, parched abundance. All that remained to add were the breezes. They were some time off, but when they arrived…well, we’ll take this up again in a few weeks.