Fire Fighting History

It was in 1910 after “The Big Burn” or the Big Blow up in Northern Idaho, that fire tactics changed. That fire killed 78 firefighters. August 20, 1910 was the “day the mountains roared.” This was the first great firefight by the US Forest Service. “The idea of fire protection on public lands meant firefighting was, in 1910, a novelty.” (Stephen Pyne, The Big Blow Up.)

Prior to this, fires swept through whole towns and destroyed them. The biggest of those early fires was the Firestorm at Peshtigo (c. 2002, Denise Gess and William Lutz.) It took place in Wisconsin on Green Bay and started the same night, October 9, 1871, as the Great Chicago Fire. Before it was finished, it would become the deadliest fire in the United States. It took out 2400 square miles before it was done.

On September 1, 1894 two fire converged on the town on Hinckley Minnesota and ultimately killed 400 people. It gave birth to federal agencies that monitored and fought fires. (Brown, Daniel James, c.2006, Under A Flaming Sky.)

But it was the Big Blow Up of 1910 that set our current firefighting tactics into motion. Approximately 75% of the entire fire occurred during a single 36-hour wind event that became known as the Big Blowup. The USFS was barely 5 years old, at that time, and often cobbled together a firefighting crew from a town’s population, often drunks, and shipped them into the back country. The regular army came in to assist. It was on this fire that the tale of Ed Polaski, who invented the tool of his name, became legend. (Wildfire, A Reader (c. 2001) Ed. Alias or True)