Posts Tagged ‘Montana’

I mentioned a week ago that we went to visit my grandma.  When we got there, she was a bit frustrated because “some kids came into her apartment and broke her TV”.  It’s probably true that someone came into her room, because that happens in assisted living facilities.  It may have been to pick up the laundry or run the vacuum or…whatever, but she was right about the TV…it certainly wouldn’t turn on.

I pretty much can’t fix anything, but I volunteered to check it out.  So I messed with it a bit and, wonder of wonders(!), I got it working good as new.  She was pretty happy to have it back and I, for a moment anyway, played the part of hero.

We turned the TV on and there was this guy in a wetsuit in the middle-of-nowhere Alaska.  He had a dual-engined sluicebox and was looking for gold.  It was awkwardly fascinating to watch him sucking up material with a giant hose into his sluicebox where the good stuff would be captured.  He ended up finding quite a bit, at which point grandma asked me if I had ever panned for gold.  Boy, you accidently fix a TV and people think you can do anything.  I would likely be drowned by that sluice contraption long before I found enough gold to pay for my funeral.

But it actually did bring to mind the events surrounding the founding of Helena, Montana…no, seriously, it did.  My frantic mind works that way.  I remember in grade school reading about a guy (or maybe it was some guys…but no girls, because in second grade, girls didn’t do cool stuff like pan for gold) who discovered gold in a place called Last Chance Gulch.  I don’t know why it was called “Last Chance Gulch” (maybe they were about to give up the search)…wait, let’s take a minute and list the things that I don’t know so far…

  • How to fix much of anything
  • How to fix a TV, except by accident
  • How to pan for gold and survive to tell the tale
  • Who (or how many) found gold in Last Chance Gulch
  • Why the place is called “Last Chance Gulch”

I don’t think I’m going to pass the test.

So anyways, a guy (or some guys) found gold in this place in the summer of 1864.  And like all gold strikes, word got around and, pretty soon, there were a bunch of people there, hoping to make their fortune.  At some point, the prospectors decided that “Last Chance Gulch” wasn’t a good name for the place (again, I don’t really know why, but 3-word towns take up a lot of space on an envelope when you’re writing to your grandma, so that’s probably it).

On October 30, 1864, the men met to decide on a new name.  After some deliberation, they settled on Helena and a new town was born.  And I do know that Helena remains, that it’s the capital city of Montana, and probably has one of the smallest populations of any capital in the country (less than 30,000 people).

I also know that if my story has got you interested in doing a little gold-digging on your own, you won’t be able to pan in Last Chance Gulch.  I learned (in second grade) that Helena’s main street runs right over Last Chance Gulch.  Panning for gold there now requires a jackhammer and (most likely) some kind of permit…and those barricade things with the lights on them.

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Back in January, we took a look at the power of weather and its never-ending pursuit of equlibrium and tranquility.  And it’s a bit ironic that, as weather seeks peace, it often does so in a most violent manner.  Severe thunderstorms, hail, tornadoes, and torrential rains are the usual “peace talks” between competing fronts.  Last week in central Iowa, we saw that first-hand as a frontal boundary stalled over the area, resulting in some of the heaviest rains I’ve ever seen.  In three evenings, we collected more than a foot of rain, and the lightning accompanying the storms was astounding.  But the most common output of weather’s constant ebb and flow is wind.

January’s discussion centered around wind mixed with water.  Those two elements combined to produce a blizzard of epic, and very deadly, proportions.  It ripped across the Midwest with the power of a tornado and the breadth of a hurricane.

On August 20, 1910, the story was wind mixed with fire.  In late July, an electrical storm in the Bitterroots of northern Idaho sparked thousands of little forests fires.  The fledgling U.S. Forest Service was faced with the impossible task of trying to control and eliminate them with neither the equipment, the manpower, nor the funding to do so.  All it would take was some wind…

…which arrived on this day in the form of a cold front.  Accompanying it were hurricane-force winds approaching 80mph.  Fire needs but two things to survive – fuel and air.  The fuel was all around in the form a giant forest starved for rain.  And now the air was there in magnificent abundance and with gail-force power.  It churned the thousands of small blazes into a towering inferno, the likes of which have yet to be repeated in U.S. history.

And surprisingly, it was brought under control just a day later by a third element – water.  Another cold front passed through the region, bringing rain and relief.  But the damage had been done.  In little more than 24 hours, more than 3,000,000 acres of timber, towns, animals, and humans had been reduced to ashes.  It’s hard to comphrehend the size of this fire, but the area consumed is a little larger than two Rhode Islands and a Delaware.  It was a huge fire…and this area was burned in a day.  Numerous towns in Idaho and Montana were left as charred ruins.  Smoke carried as far east as New York, and ships 500 miles out into the Pacific reported difficulties navigating due to the smoke.

In all, 87 lives were lost, 78 of which were those fighting the fires.

Today, television carries us to forest fires with regularity.  And unless we are in middle of the conflagration, we struggle to grasp the power of the “fire and wind” concoction.  People in western states (particularly in California with the powerful Santa Ana winds) have a better idea, seeing fire approach (and sometimes overtake) their homes on a more regular basis.

But I’m not sure any of us can imagine the power of what is now simply known as The Big Burn.  Unless we were actually there, no words will be able to adequately describe what was the United States’ most powerful forest fire.

Recommended Reading: The Big Burn – An absolute must-read.

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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.

Recommended Reading:  The Big Burn – What David Laskin’s The Children’s Blizzard did with a blizzard, Egan has done with a forest fire.  It’s highly recommended.

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