As my students evacuate their homes and ashes cover my patio, I’m searching for technological answers to distance teaching and the right words to console scared kids, some of whom I have not even met yet. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and deeply discouraged despite creative, agile, hard-working colleagues and administrators in my life making the best of unprecedented uncertainty.
As I’m wont to do, I’m looking for comfort in knowing that I’m in good company and have emotional support from family, friends, near and far, and yes, I tell myself once again, history helps with perspective. And the collective human experience gives us an ever-increasing body of lessons, not all of them good.
The most massive fire the United States has ever experienced is apparently the Great Fire of 1910 near the Bitterroot Mountains of the northern Idaho-Montana state line. In 2000 separate blazes, fueled by dry 74-mile-an-hour winds from the southwest they called Pallousers, which I imagine are similar to our Diablo winds. In August these winds blew through the largest forest of standing white pine trees on earth. The result was the complete destruction of land the size of Connecticut, reaching into eastern Washington and British Columbia and burning enough wood to heat the whole nation for 15 years, according to an angry Forestry Service chief. Over a hundred people were burned to death, 78 of whom were firefighters, and the fires incinerated a dozen towns in the lingering “wild west.”
Even the nearby 25th infantry of Buffalo Soldiers, hardened by battles against Indians, Filipinos and striking laborers, fighting along with hundreds of suspicious, frantic white civilians, were no match for the Great Fire. Together, they couldn’t save the town of Wallace after most of its 3500 citizens were evacuated by train.
Amid today’s divisive politics it’s easy to forget that in 1910 former President Theodore Roosevelt, outraged that industrialists were allowed to cut timber with no limitations, toured the country while the fire burned, demanding a return to the conservation of his presidency that had protected national parks and forests. In doing so, he tore apart the Republican party and assured a Democratic victory in 1912, rare for that era.
While we may not expect much good from our president today, in 1910 William Taft didn’t even want to be president because newspapers said he “looked like a walrus in a postprandial snooze.” Although he loved large meals, he was fairly indifferent to forests and preservation, so the relatively new forest service was shrunk to near useless levels. Roughshod westerners and industrial tycoons alike hated the Yale-educated rangers charged with 300,000 acres each of forest preservation. Sometimes rangers paid immigrant firefighters out of their own meager government salaries.
With the forestry service starved of resources under Taft, it was just a matter of time before a fire got out of control. Comparisons today to the Centers for Disease Control leading up to COVID, or the Postal Service before the November election, are tempting.
Anyway, the fire’s catastrophic proportions made former Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot irate. He accused industrialist Idaho Senator Weldon Heyburn of fighting on the side of fires against the general welfare. They just needed more patrols and preventative equipment to stop such a calamity, he said.
While he must have known that wasn’t true in the face of such winds and dense forests, it made for a powerful narrative, however mythical, to a nation stunned by nature’s wrath. Pinchot, joined by his friend Roosevelt in dozens of dramatic speeches, used the fire to demand (successfully) new conservation efforts that would set aside 20 million acres east of the Mississippi and double the funding of the Forestry Service for fire roads and trails.
Moral Progressivism was under way and our belief that natural resources are part of the public good and worthy of protection became far more widespread. The 16th and 17th Amendments established progressive income tax and direct election of senators as part of the democratizing of our nation. Soon after, women won their fight for the national vote. (The newfound faith in government as a means to accomplish anything did lead to the unpopular excess of Prohibition but that was temporary.)
So, the legacy of the Great Fire of 1910 is multi-faceted in a country where improvements have lately felt hard to come by. Political reforms, preservation of natural resources, a government accountable to the welfare of its citizens, and the idea of real democracy are all at least part of the conversation today, no matter how tumultuous.
But today, with dozens of fires burning around California I can’t help but wonder if a century of fire suppression is a factor in why a warming climate is disproportionately affecting our state, pretty dry in the best of times. Real estate here has become some of the most coveted on the planet so fire suppression to the best of our abilities is a given. It seems like fighting nature is becoming more of an uphill battle so the technologies of human geography like GPS, satellite imagery, heat censoring and mountain cameras are more and more integral to protecting our way of life. Human geography class seems as important as US history now, even if this modern world has us teaching it online.