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Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910

Mineshaft where ranger Ed Pulaski held his crew during the Big Blowup.

The Great Fires of 1910 were great not because they were big - which they were - but because they collided with American culture in spectacular ways. They happened within a highly politicized context and traumatized the fledgling U.S. Forest Service. They killed 78 firefighters in six scattered settings, overran budgets by a million 1910 dollars, and personally affected four generations of chief foresters. That agency's response created the context within which America established its wildland fire policies and programs. But while that larger context is what made the fires significant, their core remains the stories of crews caught in the flames. Some survived, some succumbed.

The following is an excerpt that describes the character of those stories (pages 132-133):

The Big Blowup was a collage of smaller blowup fires, and likewise is chronicle is a massing of many stories. Yet almost every narrative conforms to a common formula. Each opens with a scene of the unsuspecting, lulled by the false calm of 19 August. There come the premonitions: the wind, the sudden darkness like a pharaoh’s curse, a glow on the horizon, firebrands from the sky, a roar, a black cloud like a great bird of death. When the fire breaks upon them, a new set piece begins. Here are the fires of judgment; the crew reacts, each member according to his gifts. After the flames have passed, the crew rouses and assesses the damage and decides what the experience finally meant. Those who are willing ponder it. Mostly they see it only as danger or horror; a few are willing to chalk it up as simple adventure; most are grateful and puzzled that they have lived. Then comes the odyssey home, the messages missed and scrambled, the rumors of horrible death and losses, the welcome shock of contact, and the telling of the tale. Most of he accounts did not emerge spontaneously out of some inner hurt, some compulsion to tell, but from bureaucratic demands for records, which partly explains their common shape. Whatever their origins, the stories of the Great Fires repeat his pattern over and over, like a battle told through the eyes of individual combatants, each distinct yet all the same.

But history is more than story; the stories themselves must be shaped into a collective narrative. On this there is less consensus. Most often the outcome has been an arbitrary mosaic held together by the binding of the pages rather than the logic of a narrative driver. Yet a mapping of the first suggests an organic order to those thronging accounts, less chronological than geographic. The fires gathered like an immense maelstrom, with the Big Blowup at their core: four gigantic burns blotting the Idaho Rockies like Rorschach ink blots. Around them stands a galaxy of lesser fires, as though caught in the gravitational field of the black hole burns. Along that periphery, the story develops at a pace still in the hands of its participants. But as the grand narrative spirals inward, the participants begin to lose control over their fires and over their tales. They react; they fill in the blanks of forms and questionnaires. The core stories have less leisure for foreshadowing and detail and explication. They dissolve plot into incident and incident into sensation. At the nuclear core of the Big Blowup, the narrative seemingly shatters into the literary equivalent of subatomic entities, moving randomly in a kind of storied indeterminancy.

All this happened most profoundly on the Coeur d’Alene forest, which became ground zero of the Great Fires. The Coeur d’Alene felt the west winds first; it sucked in crews from its neighbors; it sent its worst fires beyond its borders into the Cabinet and the Lolo; it endured the greatest damages. Of the 116 claims filed in District One for injuries and death, the Coeur d’Alene accounted for 101. Of the seventy-eight firefighters who died, seventy-two fell in the St Joe Mountains. In its flames, all the genres gathered: the crew escaped and the crew burned over, the settlers evacuated and the settlers killed, the towns threatened, burned, and saved. More tellingly, it broke down those stories into their smallest possible units, the phonemes and memes of narrative, until plot and place nearly vaporized in the flame and vanished in the pall. Remove the Coeur d’Alene fires, and the 1910 season becomes one remembered only by antiquarian chroniclers and raconteuring elders. Recall them, and you hold the torn fragments of an obscure sacred scroll of American experience. Understand them, and you touch the dark heart of a year of fires.