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Big Burn of 1910 changed course of Oregon forestry
August 18, 2010
Contact: Kevin Weeks, (503) 945-7427
Observances this week in Idaho will mark the centennial of the 1910 Big Burn, a devastating fire that consumed 5,000 square miles of forest across Washington, Idaho and Montana. Though the Big Burn occurred a century ago, the impacts of the fires remain felt today in wild land fire management and forest policy. With the centennial of the Oregon Department of Forestry coming up in 2011, it’s a fitting time to consider our progress in managing and protecting forests.
Though not officially included in the complex of fires known as the Big Burn, Oregon lost 192 million board feet of timber during 1910 fires and six lives were lost battling forest fires that summer. No record exists of how many acres of eastern Oregon forests were destroyed.
“Conservation of forests was a growing concern at the time,” said Oregon State Forester Marvin Brown, “but the 1910 fires, especially the destruction and loss of life in Montana and Idaho, pushed public sentiment in Oregon forward to protect our forests. People grew tired of smoke-filled skies in the summer and landowners wanted certainty their forest resources would be kept safe from future fires.”
The 1911 Oregon legislature created the Office of the State Forester, and granted regulatory authority to a seven-person Board of Forestry with the charge of coordinating fire protection on private timberlands throughout the state. Francis Elliott was chosen to serve as State Forester, the first of eleven leaders selected for the executive role during the next one hundred years.
Over the next several decades, the role of the State Forestry Department (which evolved into the Oregon Department of Forestry) expanded to include researching forest disease and insect damage, management of forests deeded to State ownership after property tax defaults in the 1920s through 1940s, enforcement of natural resource protection laws, promoting forest conservation, ensuring water quality and fish habitat conservation on forestlands, providing education and assistance to forest landowners and assisting Oregon cities with urban forests. Protecting 15.8 million acres of forest in Oregon, mostly privately owned, from fire remains the top priority of the Oregon Department of Forestry.
The fires of 1910 shaped modern fire management, wildland fire fighting and fire science research.  Those disciplines continue to evolve, with new knowledge emerging all the time about the role of fire in forests, and best ways to suppress and manage fires to protect natural resources and public safety.
An unexpected hero of the summer of 1910 was Ed Pulaski. A ranger working for the then-fledgling National Forest Service, Pulaski saved 40 members of his fire fighting crew by shepherding the men into a mine shaft near Wallace, Idaho when flames closed in. Despite suffering smoke inhalation injuries that would plague survivors for years, Pulaski kept all but five men alive without the aid of contemporary fire safety equipment. The following year, Pulaski would introduce a hand tool that combined an axe on one face with a mattock on the opposing face for digging, the basic wildland firefighting equipment still referred to as a “Pulaski.”
Among the more somber observances scheduled this weekend will be a rededication of the graves of over 50 Forest Service firefighters in St. Maries and Wallace, Idaho from the 1910 fires – among the 78 firefighters who died in the blazes - and the dedication of a Firefighters Memorial in Wallace, Idaho.
Additional information about the 1910 Big Burn is available on the U.S. Forest Service Region One website, http://www.fs.fed.us/r1/1910-centennial/index.html
The Oregon Department of Forestry is planning several events and public observances of the Department’s centennial in 2011.