The Northwest’s most infamous fire

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For several weeks, I’ve been talking about the big fires in California. The Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, as of early Sunday, has claimed 76 lives and left over 1,000 people unaccounted for. Nearly 10,000 homes have been destroyed and close to 150,000 acres have been burned.

The massive blaze began Nov. 8 and is believed to have ignited from a powerline downed by strong winds on that day. I have relatives in the Sacramento, Calif., area and they told me last week that the air quality levels were in the “hazardous” category, making many people feel ill from the smoky air.

Perhaps the worst fire in this region occurred on Aug. 20-21, 1910. The “Great Fire of 1910,” or the “Big Blow Up,” was a massive wildfire that burned 3 million acres in only two days across northeastern Washington, the North Idaho panhandle and western Montana. In the spring and summer of that year, conditions were extremely dry and hot.

In 1910, small fires were set by hot cinders flung from locomotives, and by sparks and lightning from isolated thunderstorms. Then on Aug. 20, a weather system brought hurricane-force winds, whipping many of those small blazes into a gigantic inferno.

One of the most amazing survival stories from that fire was that of Ed Pulaski, a U.S. Forest Service ranger. While fighting this massive blaze, prior to being overtaken by the flames, he led a large group of men to safety in an abandoned mine outside of Wallace. He knew that if anyone ran, there was no chance of survival. Pulaski threatened to shoot the first one who tried to leave.

The men passed out in the mine due to the smoke, but only five out of the estimated 40 were lost. Ed Pulaski is credited for saving their lives and for the invention of the Pulaski hand tool still used for firefighting in wooded areas.

That firestorm raised public awareness concerning nature conservation and helped shape the U.S. Forest Service. It also displayed the bravery and dedication of firefighters, and we owe them a great deal of thanks for their service for battling so many huge blazes.

Last week, I received an email from Jim Petersen, who devoted many years of his life to providing in-depth investigations into the nation’s wildfires. Here is part of his email:

“Of particular interest to me is your coverage of the West’s wildfire epidemic. It is a topic about which I know much — having devoted the last 32 years of my life to an in-depth investigation of our nation’s misdirected effort to manage and conserve western federal forests. Abundant evidence of this fact resides on our website www.evergreenmagazine.com.

I grew up in North Idaho and have been steeped in the story of the Great 1910 Fire since I was a boy. My grandfather emigrated from Norway in 1902, and built his first sawmill near Murray, Idaho in 1905. His crews battled the 1910 Fire, while my grandmother and the wives of millworkers escaped down the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River on a narrow-gauge train that normally hauled freight from Kingston to points upriver.

North Idaho has not experienced a major forest fire since 1933 — a re-burn of the 1910 Fire. My father, then a 17-year-old CCC worker, was one of hundreds on the fire lines. I also knew several old loggers from Kellogg who battled the 1933 blaze near President’s Camp, about 6 miles above Yellow Dog. Likewise, the 1967 Sundance Fire on the Priest Lake Divide, which I witnessed from a dock in Luby Bay.

The fact that we haven’t experienced a major wildfire for so long is an ominous sign. The fuel buildup, dead trees and their residues, is measured in thousands of tons per acre.

What happened in Paradise, Calif., was different, but the tragic result that could easily replicate itself in the Coeur d’Alene area, with far more disastrous results. We have a big problem here, and it begins with a complete lack of public awareness of the dangers we face, or what we should be doing to reduce the risks we face.”

Thanks, Jim, for your email.

•••

In terms of our local weather, the big high pressure ridge continues to dominate the western U.S. Coeur d’Alene has seen precipitation of rain and melted snow this month totaling 1.64 inches. The normal is 3.07 inches of moisture and the average snowfall is 8.7 inches.

Rain showers are likely across the lower elevations during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. It’s also quite possible that we could see some snow around Coeur d’Alene during this time, so be careful on the roadways.

The rest of November will have occasional rain and some snow, which should bring our precipitation figures close to normal. However, most of the moisture is expected to go to the south over much of California, where rain is desperately needed to help with the fires and clean up a lot of the bad air. It does look like we’re finally going to see the big change in the weather pattern across the western U.S.

•••

Contact Randy Mann at randy@longrangeweather.com

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