The History of America's Largest Fire and the Impact on Society

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In the year of 1910, one of the biggest fires in american history took place burning 3 million acres of land which is approximately the size of connecticut giving it the name “the big burn. Fires engulfed North Idaho and Western Montana, further extending into Eastern Washington and Southeast British Columbia. This fire lasted 2 days and due to the strong winds ultimately caused several other smaller fires to uprise. It ended up killing 87 people and destroying many homes. With such a big fire many questions arose as to how the fire was started, and how it has affected the future course of the fledgling US Forest Service and the implications of those policies on today’s forests. The national forest was created as a source of resources for neighboring towns.

During the year of 1910 the spring and summer had been extremely dry, temperature being extremely hot. This combination caused a drought which then resulted in a very dry forest, which is a hazard. Fires because of uprise from various types of things such as hot cinders which flung from trains, along with lightning striking down. This was just the beginning of it all, as the smaller fires began to spread By mid-August, there were approximately 1-3 thousand fires burning in Montana, Idaho, the British Columbia, and Washington and then on August 30th the strong winds caused the small fires to conjoin into one big fire creating what we now call “The Big Burn”.Even though the fire was more than 100 years ago it has affected the way we live and how we prevent futures fires like this from happening again. During the time of the fire the US forest service was greatly appreciated and on the verge of being shut down. At the time they thought that since fires were needed to replenish dead and dying areas that it was okay to let them take their course and naturally burn out. After the “big burn” Ferdinand A. Silcox, was elected to be the fifth chief of the fire service. He promoted a new policy called the “10 a.m.” policy, in which they vowed to have all fires out by 10 a.m the day after said fire is reported therefore concluding that It was important that the Forest Service were to prevent and battle every wildfire. Along with the new policy of putting out every fire. Policies now have proven that we need contained fires to allow for the ecosystem to properly flourish.

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Today we have policies in place that state that controlled fires are necessary as long as they are kept contained. Another step they took to promote awareness and prevention was the creation of smokey bears in 1944. The campaign featured Smokey the bear with the slogan “Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires” and then was later changed to “Remember… Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires” in 1947. This Ad was shown to greatly impact the care of the forest and helped decrease the accidental human made fires. Many social and political concerns have arisen due to these changes as well, some stating that since we are quick to put out any and all fires it’s causing changes in the vegetation which are resulting in fuel loads that exceed historical levels and are seen as a hazard to both forests and cultural resources if ignited. Along with this urbanization is seen to be a huge contributor to wildfire danger within the urban interface, which has now further complicated fire management and is now becoming a huge problem due to our limited physical and financial resources. With this It’s becoming a very controversial topic as to whether us putting out fires as quickly as possible is helping to sustain or forest and/or if it’s actually leading to further complications and more vulnerability for forest fires in the future. Some may argue that putting out fires as often as we do is burning through money and is unnecessary, people believe that small fires are good for the ecosystem and allow for a cleanse of dead or dying plants to be rid of.

Others state that putting out every fire is what’s necessary to preserve our forest and is worth the money we pay to do it, because preservation is what they believe will ultimately help keep our forest sustainable. Although controversial science has proven that it is necessary for fires to burn in a contained and controlled environment in order to keep from a buildup of fuel loads within the ecosystem. According to an article written by Claire Asher for BBC earth “Eucalyptus trees actually produce flammable oils in their leaves, encouraging fire when they drop to the floor. As soon as a fire catches, the trees’ bark peels away in long streamers, providing more fuel for the flames”. So by allowing for controlled fires to burn we prevent any human fires that could possibly get out of control due to the fuel. In 1995 a forest fire policy was put in place that states that fires are an important part of some ecosystems and it’s necessary to reintroduce fires and reduce mean fire intervals.

Before the Big Burn happened policies that they followed were very different than the new, more progressive policies we have today. The U.S forest services wildfire management policy was to allow wildfires to burn as long as they were under control, this started because in those days the budget was low for the department and they did not have enough men to be able to suppress every single fire they had. They believed that human caused fires were the most dangerous and aimed to focus mainly on those .The Big Burn changed the way we deal with wildfires now, it allowed for us to grow and expand our knowledge as to how they start, and the best and most efficient way to contain the fires. With this newfound knowledge we are able to help preserve our forest and wildlife, creating a more sustainable ecosystem. The Big burn although tragic helped us shape the U.S forest service and allow for people to realize how truly important the department is, without them pushing to help save not only the lives of people but our forests we might today be without a lot of the natural resources the forest provides us. The big burn changed history along with the brave men who helped set the tone for a future of sustainability.

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