The cemetery in St. Maries, Idaho, is full of the ghosts of 1910. That summer, lightning and the railroads ignited hundreds of small wildfires across the tinder-dry forests of the northwest. Without the benefit of the modern firefighting machine, the fires continued to burn, slowly gaining in size. But on August 20 and 21, a strong dry cold front hit the region, bringing winds that were estimated to exceed 60 miles an hour in places. These winds fanned the flames into a conflagration, and the fires blew up. 85 men were killed, and it is estimated that over 3 million acres burned. Many of the heroes and victims are buried in the cemetery at St. Maries where a memorial also stands, a reminder of how powerless we truly are against wildfires.
In the century since the Great Fires of 1910, science, technology, and ecology have taught us a few things about wildfire. We now understand that wildfire is a critical component of most western ecosystems, crucial to renewing grasslands and thinning forests to keep them healthy. We also understand that no matter how many men and women are sent to fight it, our best efforts will never be able to stop wildfire from occurring. A century of fire suppression taught us that we can also make the problem worse by increasing the density of trees and vegetation through fire exclusion, only to ultimately see them burn even hotter when a fire finally does occur.
We have also expanded human settlement throughout the rural west over the last 100 years, building homes and communities in the mountains, where the forests are beautiful and peaceful, a welcome respite from the cities. Until they ignite.
Today, many of our wildland fires are fought not because they threaten lives (though there are quite a few of those), but because they threaten homes. Wildfire is usually slow enough moving and provides enough warning for people to evacuate; only a handful of civilians have been killed by wildfires in the last half-century.
Firefighters have not been so lucky. Each year between one and three dozen wildland firefighters are killed in the line of duty. They have heart attacks, crash in aircraft, are struck by falling trees, and are overrun by advancing flames. Rather than saving lives, most of the time wildland firefighters are killed trying to protect inanimate things that can be rebuilt or regrow: homes, outbuildings, trees, shrubs, and grass. Lost lives cannot be reclaimed. Everything else can. So why are fire fighters still dying trying to save homes?
On the 105th anniversary of the Big Blowup of 1910, a dry cold front that promises strong winds is again advancing on the northwest. Forests and rangelands are tinder dry on the back of a year-long drought and the hottest summer on record so far. Hundreds of fires, small and large, are already burning and promise to test containment lines and the firefighters trying to hold them.
The similarities to 1910 are eerie.
When the winds hit, I hope that fire bosses everywhere remember 1910. I hope they pull their crews off the line, and wait until the blow-up is over to re-engage with the fire. I hope that across the region, every firefighter will survive the day, and that we will have learned something from our past. If we haven’t, the deceased will have died in vain.
But I also hope that the public begins to accept that trees, shrubs, and homes are not worth the lives of our firefighters. That because we choose to live in forests that have always burned and will continue to do so, we must learn to live with wildfire, even if it means rebuilding. I hope that more homeowners will build homes that are fire-resistant, and thin the vegetation to create what we call “defensible space,” instead of asking firefighters to risk their lives for possessions and sticks.
The Dutch have slowly evolved their perspective on flooding over the centuries. Today, instead of trying to keep the water out and avoid flooding at any cost, they are re-engineering their cities to let the water in. They are living with floods and minimizing losses through innovative approaches, like building parks and sport courts in low-lying areas that are intentionally allowed to flood. We need to take the same approach in the U.S., by re-engineering ourselves to live with fire instead of trying to avoid it. It’s the only way to end the cycle of burning and needless firefighter fatalities, particularly in and era of climate change.
A photographer captured a sign that one homeowner in Washington left on his gate: “Firefighters. This is just a house – please stay safe.”
If only every homeowner in the fire-prone west had that mentality. No house is worth a life. It’s time to learn to live with wildfire.
Crystal Kolden studies wildfire as a function of human and climatic influences. After starting her career as a wildland firefighter in northern California, she is now a professor of Pyrogeography at the University of Idaho.