At a ceremony commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the Big Blowup, a lightning-caused wildfire that burned 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana, U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick remarked that the event was “a catalyst to modern forestry, modern firefighting and recognizing that forest resources need to be managed, can be managed."
Well, yes. It’s safe to say that the Big Blowup provided the motivation for the U.S. Forest Service to go to war on wildfire. Post-burn, the agency instituted the ten o’clock rule, requiring forest managers to stamp out fires by ten in the morning or suffer the consequences. The wildly popular Smokey Bear, adopted as the official mascot in 1942, entreated the public to join him in a fire prevention campaign. And after World War II, surplus military and industrial equipment allowed the Forest Service to aim increasingly larger resources at any fire that got away.
On the anniversary of the fire, it’s appropriate to commemorate the 78 firefighters who died in the Big Blowup and to celebrate the acts of heroism that surrounded the event. (The famed Pulaski was named after one.) But “modern firefighting” has left a legacy of choked forests and disproportionately funded firefighting at the expense of other natural resources. In 2009, associate chief Hank Kashdan reported that the ten-year average cost (inflation adjusted) for wildland fire suppression was 1.5 billion, and that the Wildland Fire Management program consumed almost half of the Forest Service budget, compared to about 13 percent in 1990. Perhaps a better way to mark the occasion would be to take a new approach to wildfire and appreciate it as a natural phenomena, one that we all have to live with.
Read a Forest Magazine review of New York Times columnist Tim Egan's book about the burn.