On August 20 and 21, 1910, forest fires in northern Idaho and western Montana burn more than three million acres of timber and kill 85 people. The fire, which also extends into a small sliver of Northeast Washington, is the largest fire, in acreage destroyed, in recorded United States history. The disaster, known as the Big Burn, will result in the U.S. Forest Service adopting a nationwide policy of aggressive forest fire suppression and prevention.
The summer of 1910 was abnormally dry in the West. Dozens of fires broke out in the Rocky Mountains from a variety of sources, none ever established conclusively. Temporary crews hired by the new U.S. Forest Service, and employees detailed by railroads, timber companies, and mining companies with private holdings fought the various fires. Fire suppression in the region was complicated by the lack of communications, roads, equipment, and personnel. Even though 1,200 to 1,500 men had been hired as firefighters, Forest Service managers asked President William Howard Taft for help from the U.S. Army. African American soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment from Fort George Wright and from Fort Missoula pitched in to help.
On August 20, immense winds of hurricane force (more than 75 m.p.h.) rose to spread the fires. Under conditions of that magnitude, the crews could not begin to stop the fires. Trapped men fled their camps and most found safety by immersing themselves in creeks with their heads covered by coats and blankets. One crew hid in a mine tunnel, but five suffocated to death because the fire consumed all the oxygen. Homesteads, sawmills, and railroad structures were destroyed.
When the town of Wallace, Idaho, was threatened, the mayor ordered all able-bodied men into fire duty. Women and children and hospital patients were evacuated by train. The mayor had to order soldiers to pull from departing trains men who had been pressed into fire service. Refugees made their way to rail lines hoping to catch passing trains. Wallace lost the railroad station, a foundry, two breweries, other businesses, and more than 150 homes.
After two days, the winds abated. On August 23, light rains dampened the fires. A total of 85 (possibly 87) people lost their lives including 75 firefighters. Some bodies could not be identified and were buried as "unknown." The loss in timber was estimated at three million acres, more than 10 times the size of what was then the largest fire to have burned entirely within Washington, the Yacolt Burn of 1902, and larger than any other burns in recorded United States history. By comparison, commercial logging in Washington felled approximately 100,000 acres of timber a year.
The conflagration was a turning point in national fire policy. The Forest Service began to aggressively suppress fires with full-time, trained crews, a system of fire lookouts, and campaigns to prevent fires. In Washington state, this policy fit with programs started by the state and by private timberland owners through the Washington Forest Fire Association.