It was “fanned by a tornadic wind so violent that the flames flattened out ahead, swooping to earth in great darting curves, truly a veritable red demon from hell.”
Touted as the largest forest fire in America and quite possibly the largest anywhere, the great fire of 1910 was fueled by a seemingly perfect combination of events. No cause was ever determined after the fire but many different factors have to be taken into account when examining the great fire or what is also called The Big Blowup.
The winter’s snow had melted early and the western states of America were experiencing a drought. In fact the rain had stopped falling all together in May of 1910. The first fire was reported in Montana in the Blackfeet National Forest just days before the rain completely stopped.
Within a month there were hundreds of fires blazing throughout a vast area of land. The forest service was able to keep up with these fires to a certain extent until August. On the 10th of August reports starting coming from Missoula, Montana saying that fires had broken out there and were spreading fast to other towns in the area. The issue of the Forest Service being underfunded, undermanned, and unprepared was becoming an issue with being able to control the outbreaks.
President Taft was confronted by the Forest Service about the lack of man power so he sent 4,000 troops. The additional aid were sent to help in Montana, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, all places that fires were burning. With the help of the troops firefighters had been able get ahead of the fires, and by August 19th, employees were being released as the fires were under control and the extra man power was no longer needed.
The drought was not the only factor that contributed to the start of these fires though. Some of blazes were started accidentally by campers or loggers in the area, while some of them were thought to be started on purpose by arsonists, there was also a large electrical storm on July 15 that caused a lot of fires to start. The largest contributor to the raging flames though was the Chicago, Milwaukee and Puget Sound Railway, which had only been recently built. These trains, along with other railroads that ran through the country, were coal-powered which meant that they emitted hot cinders, not a good combination with the drought conditions. In 1911, a report was released stating that it was believed that more than 100 of the fires were started in this manner. Early in the dry season the railway actually hired what they called spotters whose job it was to walk the tracks and put out any blaze that had started caused by the falling cinders. This was a great prevention technique until the summer became so incredibly hot and even more arid that it was not enough to keep the flames at bay.
Even at this point, it was only the start of what was to come. The extra employees that were sent home on the 19th were desperately needed when a sudden storm rolled in the next day. This was no ordinary storm as hurricane-force winds came with it, whipping across the entire Northern Rockies region of the United States. These winds fanned embers and small fires creating massive fire storms that could not be stopped by any force. Flaming trees were completely uprooted by the winds making them into giant flying masses, and fireballs were even said to leap into the air in half-mile arches across the sky.
Trains were brought in to evacuate entire towns, but the flames that were said to be “hundreds of feet high” finally eased to some degree on the 22nd when the winds had calmed down and rain finally fell. The fire had already done its damage though, for those two days and nights, 3 million acres of virgin wood were obliterated. To put this into perspective, that is enough timber to fill a train that is 2,400 miles long or enough wood to build 800,000 houses.
Once The Big Blowup had been contained, the damage could be assessed and it was devastating. It is estimated that 1,736 fires had burned during those two days across the 3 million acres of damaged land completely destroying entire towns. It was documented that it was dark as night as far north as Saskatoon, Canada and as far east as New York, even ships 500 miles out on the Pacific Ocean could not navigate by the stars because of the thick smoke filling the sky. There were reports that the sky in Boston, Massachusetts was copper colored during the day and what is more unreal is that soot from the inferno fell on the ice in Greenland. The great fire affected such a large area, making this the largest forest fire in America. Nationally, 1910 was the worst fire season to date, as 5 million acres in total burned across the entire country that year.