Stephen J. Pyne's Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910, first published in 2001, was reissued in 2008 by Mountain Press in Missoula. The book contains a new foreword by Maclean in which he recounts the story of the 2007 Jocko Lakes Fire, which nearly took his cabin and the town of Seeley Lake, and analyzes the role the 1910 fires continue to play today.
A fool could have seen it coming. The previous summer in northwestern Montana was uncommonly hot and dry, but passed almost miraculously without a major outbreak of fire. By the next June, 2007, a wet spring had sent grass sprouting up higher than it had been for more than a half century, Then the rain stopped and by the end of the month temperatures soared into the 100s, killing the grass and drying out other vegetation - and this was only June! Seeley Lake, where my family has had a cabin since the early 1920s, was warm enough to swim in by the end of the month.
Back in the 20th century, if you ventured to the cabin in June you spent your day feeding wood into the fireplace. One rain squall after another scudded down from the north on a cold wind from Canada. The sun was an unfulfilled promise that peeked out from rare breaks in the fast-moving clouds. Swimming? Not for weeks and weeks.
In June 2007, though, you could hear fire coming. The dead grass rattled in the hot wind. Lodgepole pine trees squeaked as they swayed. In Missoula, about 50 miles away, the temperature broke the 100-degree mark for eleven days in late June and early July, the hottest stretch ever recorded so early in the year, and as far as I know the hottest ever. I've spent summers at the cabin from the time I was an infant and cannot remember the temperature ever breaking the 100-degree mark. If the mercury touched 90, we knew it was August and we sat under the giant Western Larch trees that shade the lakeshore and waited for the inevitable cool breeze of evening.
Not this time around. This summer a palpable cloak of heat and expectation hung over the landscape as though the predictable and cherished past had been replaced by an unfamiliar monster. Make no mistake, northwestern Montana is fire country and has been for centuries. The marks of fire, discovered in tree rings when one of the giant larch trees finally thunders to the ground, show that for centuries fire occurred along the shores of Seeley Lake every quarter century or so - until our forebears stopped the cycle in the wake of the Great Fires of 1910, the subject of Stephen Pyne's Year of the Fires. When I was growing up, the Forest Service, the agency responsible for the federal land around the cabin, did not allow us to cut a tree and even discouraged clearing brush. The offset was the promise that the Forest Service would contain any fire that threatened the area under the full suppression policy that was adopted in response to the 1910 calamity.
That full suppression policy now has been formally abandoned - along with the rule forbidding the cutting of trees around Seeley Lake. In recent years, the Forest Service itself undertook a forest thinning and light burning project in the area. The treated zones provoked complaints in the first year or two because they looked rough, but they have become a glorious sight since then. Densely packed stands of "dog hair" lodgepole pine have been opened up, disclosing centuries-old trees. The big trees, whose growth was stunted in recent decades because they were deprived of moisture and light, now can take their place as giants and future giants. Fuzzy new trees and low brush carpet the forest floor. Wildlife can move freely. Humans can hike or snowmobile through the stands without battling brush. The forest is not fire proof, but a low-intensity fire would likely burn through here without catastrophic damage. Regular clearing by fire is what allowed the giants to grow big in the first place.
During the summer, I mowed down the tall grass near the cabin, felled a couple of dead lodgepole pines, and cleared a year's accumulation of duff from near the cabin. Then I left the place to its rendezvous with fire - which was not long in coming.
The world of 1910 is no more, but its legacy haunts the nation's forests and scrublands. Decades of fire suppression have left behind a potentially explosive accumulation of overgrown vegetation. Drive Interstate 90 from Missoula to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and you see mountainsides of same-age conifers, mostly lodgepole, that sprouted from the ashes of 1910. Having reached maturity, these trees are now susceptible to beetle kill and more fire, a necessary element in the life cycle of lodgepole. Because the post-1910 policies applied to the nation as a whole, the problem of overgrown wildlands exists in varying degrees from one ocean to the other.
If dense vegetation was the only problem, thinning and deliberate burning would be the answer. But a multitude of new problems have arisen since 1910 to make a witch's brew. Global warming, which shows every sign of increasing, multiplies the number and intensity of wildland fires. Timber companies with vast holdings are turning themselves into real estate companies, helping accelerate the human invasion into previously open areas, the wildland/urban interface. More people and more homes raise the desperate choice between saving a structure and risking firefighters' lives. A backfire, one of the most useful tools for fighting fire, is no option if it will send flames racing through a new subdivision. Developers and homeowners often arrive with urban attitudes and little sense of how to prepare for fire. Environmental laws have created a labyrinth that turns controversial land use decisions into marathon legal battles. The bill for firefighting grows every year: firefighting now accounts for more than half of the Forest Service budget, starving other programs.
The result has been a breakdown in consensus - or the national "narrative," as Pyne aptly calls it - about when, where, and how to fight fire. Year of the Fires is the story of the events that forced the consensus, which in fractured form continues to shape the Western landscape. The consensus was not inevitable, which is a message worth heeding: other choices were and are available. Vital land use decisions are being made today for what remains of open lands across the nation. Knowledge of the events of 1910, presented here in an updated and thorough telling, is a necessary element to an informed debate about what happens next.
The Great Fires of 1910 burned more than three million acres and took scores of lives, but they provoked no great debate. Instead, the fires ended the long-standing dispute between proponents of "let burn" and "light burning" policies on one hand and proponents of full suppression on the other hand. The Forest Service, only five years old in 1910, came down hard for full suppression. The Great Fires became the answer to every question. Fire was the enemy. The youthful Forest Service in time would achieve status as the combat team ready to fight fire, protect property and commercial timber values, and save lives.
While the Forest Service lacked the manpower to take on the Great Fires, the agency did have a small cadre of bright young foresters, who were traumatized by the awful days of August, 1910. As these men rose to the top in the agency, they institutionalized the full suppression policy. No one who had endured 1910 wanted a repeat of that event. Fire country discovered, however, that it's a lot easier to dispatch an army to do battle than it is to sustain an occupation force in hostile territory.
One result was an almost feudal social compact between the Forest Service and those who lived under its long shadow, with the expectation that those powers would be used for the common good. When I was growing up, the word of the district ranger was little short of the law of the land.
The social compact in support of fire suppression broke up toward the end of the 20th century chiefly because suppressing fire in a fire-dependent ecosystem does not work. The burgeoning environmental movement played a role, to be sure. New policies were needed for newly created wilderness areas. National Parks were pushed to pursue more "natural" land management techniques. An iconic moment arrived in 1988 when the Yellowstone Fires introduced an initially horrified public to the "let burn" policy, which time proved to be correct, at least for the Park. Another iconic moment came in 1994 when fourteen firefighters, thirteen of them from the Forest Service, died fighting the South Canyon Fire, which burned in scrubland on Storm King Mountain in Colorado. A federal investigation blamed the dead firefighters for a "can do" attitude, which was like blaming a grizzly bear for its claws; in 1994, fighting fire meant having a "can do" attitude.
The Storm King tragedy helped spark more change in the fire world, across a broader front, than any event since 1910. Eight years later, in 2002, another fire swept portions of Storm King Mountain - and this time flames were mostly allowed to burn. More than a score of structures were lost, but no one was injured.
A few weeks after I left the cabin, sure enough, the "big one" hit.
The Jocko Lakes Fire was a mere twist of smoke when first spotted from a lookout tower on July 18. Two engine crews were dispatched and then numerous spotter aircraft were sent out, but for more than two weeks no one could find the fire, which was located somewhere in steep, broken country. Afterward, many asked with bitterness why the fire hadn't been traced and extinguished while it was still small and easy to fight - the expected response for generations.
The little smoke that disappeared came back to life on the first weekend of August, in a forest mosaic with no record of previous fire dating back at least to the 1920s. As hundreds evacuated homes, the blaze consumed 18,000 acres of woodlands and raced to just over a mile from my cabin, becoming in the process the national number one priority fire. The run displayed "tremendous fire activity, activity firefighters haven't seen before in this part of the world," commented Pat Cross, one of the fire information officers. No one could stand against such flames.
Had the wind blown as long and hard as it did in 1910, the town of Seeley Lake and the surrounding resort community - and my cabin - would have been wiped out. Every computer run of the fire's potential behavior came up with that result. Instead, the wind unexpectedly quieted after that frightful 18,000-acre run. Within two days of the big run, two airtankers joined the fight, making short circuits from Seeley Lake to the fire. They scooped water from the lake, ascended into a hairpin turn, dumped the water in a graceful cascade, made another hairpin turn and repeated the process, hour after hour. If the water drops hadn't worked, the plan was to light a backfire through the newly thinned areas to hold the bigger fire. The two airtankers, though, bought time for more air and ground resources to arrive.
Eventually the fire grew to more than 36,000 acres, but flames never reached the town or an even larger residential area behind the town, where substantial homes are surrounded by a dense forest of mostly lodgepole. Some homeowners say they moved there for the trees and won't cut them. The Jocko Lakes Fire taught new lessons: Seeley Lake Fire Chief Frank Maradeo says it's the best tool he's ever had for convincing people to thin the trees on their property.
It's an unending battle, though, to keep up with the pine beetles and drought that are killing trees. A fire history map tells you why: the acres behind the town that are now dotted with homes last burned in 1910.