Big Burn Introduction (03:44)
On August 19, 1910, forest ranger Ed Pulaski rode out of the Bitterroot Mountains to evacuate Wallace, Idaho residents ahead of a fire. The town burned in a wildfire that destroyed three million acres in 36 hours and shaped views on controlling nature and public land management policies.
Wild West (02:42)
In 1907, forest rangers arrived in Taft, Montana to manage newly designated public land. They were shocked at the town's chaos and lawlessness. Learn about forester and politician Gifford Pinchot.
Early Conservation Movement (03:14)
Pinchot befriended John Muir and joined Theodore Roosevelt's cabinet in 1901. Forests were being clear-cut by the logging industry; they wanted to regulate and scientifically manage timber, mineral, and wildlife resources.
U.S. Forest Service (04:07)
Roosevelt placed 200 million acres of national forest land under Pinchot's supervision. William Greeley managed 160 rangers in Montana, Idaho, and South Dakota. Many believed they were doing God's work but met resistance among loggers who wanted to continue resource exploitation.
Early Wildfire Techniques (02:41)
Locomotive sparks started fires and the Forest Service tried to extinguish them to protect wooden towns along the railroad. Rangers tried to control fires by establishing fire lines--physically exhausting work.
Pinchot's Hubris (02:32)
Timber and mining interests in Congress tried to cut the Forest Service budget. Pinchot argued that fire fighting was necessary to protect national timber resources and was convinced wildfires could be controlled.
Northern Rockies Drought (02:50)
1910 was a dry summer. Greeley instructed his rangers to strengthen fire patrols, but most recruits were inexperienced. Pulaski was familiar with Montana and Idaho forest and knew how to survive in the wilderness.
Big Burn Origins (02:25)
On July 26, 1910, an electrical storm set off 1,000 fires in the Northern Rockies--threatening railroad towns west from Missoula. Pinchot had been fired by President Taft, but urged his rangers to remain in the Forest Service.
Short Staffed (03:19)
The Forest Service hired immigrant men and even released convicts, but couldn't keep up with wildfires. Greeley called Washington for help. Taft sent 4,000 troops to the Rockies including seven Buffalo Soldier companies. The African-American units faced racism in all-white Idaho towns.
Big Burn Begins (03:16)
A second electrical storm doubled fires to 2,500 but rangers believed they could control them. Pulaski's crew tried to protect Avery and Wallace on either side of a burning ridge. A hurricane force wind picked up, fanning the flames.
Wallace Fire (02:29)
Embers from the Big Burn set buildings ablaze. Women and children were evacuated to Spokane; men were forced to stay and fight the fire. Emma Pulaski took her daughter to the reservoir and prayed for her husband's life.
Trapped in a Firestorm (02:42)
The Big Burn became a weather system as it moved east across the Rockies. Pulaski's men panicked as they were faced with a wall of flame.
Saving a Fire Crew (02:53)
Pulaski led his men to a mining shaft where they struggled for oxygen. He suffered burns hanging a protective blanket and collapsed, but survived. Five died.
Big Burn Heroes (03:13)
Greeley received news of fire crews perishing in the wildfire. After evacuating Avery, Buffalo Soldiers lit a successful back fire, saving the town and their own lives.
Big Burn Toll (03:27)
Much of Wallace was destroyed, but Emma Pulaski survived and Ed returned--badly burned. An early snow put out the remaining fire. It had consumed three million acres, killed 78 fire fighters and permanently damaged hundreds more.
Big Burn Lessons (02:23)
Pinchot's conviction that wildfires can be controlled was proven wrong, but he used the fire to extol forest ranger heroism. With public support, Congress doubled the Forest Service budget and created national forests in the East.
Unintended Environmental Consequences (02:51)
By suppressing fires for 100 years, the Forest Service created conditions for massive wildfires—but the Big Burn also saved national forests politically. Despite his burns, Pulaski continued forest work until 1929 and invented a fire fighting tool used today.
Credits: The Big Burn (02:01)
Credits: The Big Burn
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