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'The Red Scourge'- 1910 Fire - article by Neil LaRubbio - Montana Kaimin

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The Red Scourge – Montana Kaimin, September 3, 2010

By Neil LaRubbio

Around 3 o'clock in the morning, A.J. Breitenstein awoke to his phone ringing.

The sky loomed outside his bedroom window in the color of old rose, and an odor like campfire lingered in the wind. An editor from the Missoulian called to tell Breitenstein that a train of refugees was chugging into Montana from Western Idaho with a hurricane of fire chasing it down. The train would arrive in Missoula within hours. Breitenstein hung up the phone and dressed quickly. As secretary for the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, he arrived at his office within 30 minutes, tasked with assembling a relief effort for what would later be called the Big Burn of 1910.

Six hours prior to Breitenstein's alarm, the drought-stricken trees surrounding Wallace, Idaho, carried crowns of fire down from the mountains. The woods of Idaho and Montana had been sick with fire that summer, like a bad case of scarlet fever. Then, on Aug. 20, a godly wind corralled the smaller fires into one another so that by the following evening, one massive sweep of flames set on a course to burn a 3 million-acre hole through every forest and town in its path.

"You never saw anything like it," recounted W.H. Barnett, from Wallace, to reporters for the Missoulian. "The fire came up Placer Creek, south of town, and crossed a heavily-timbered ridge more than 1,000 feet above the streets. A regular gale was behind it when it hit the crest of the hill, and sparks flew several hundred yards ahead of it.

"This was 9 o'clock and the business portion of the town was crowded with people. No one dreamed that we were in real danger."

Razing Wallace

Wallace, a town of 6,000 at the time and the financial, and agricultural epicenter of the region, sat in a cup-shaped basin with mining towns dotting the higher gulches and mountains surrounding. Cautious designers had attempted to "fireproof" the town's buildings using steel and brick after a previous fire had burned wooden homes and businesses to the ground.

But nothing could withstand the brutal force of this new inferno. Invading from the east side of town, it licked up the Wallace Times building first. Next, Worstell's furniture store and the Coeur d'Alene hardware store fell as the fire easily seized the entire business district.

Blinding, choking-hot smoke poured through the streets. Red-hot firebrands as big as baseball mitts rained onto the town. Everyone was ordered to evacuate. Some stubborn people stood with garden hoses on their front yards.

Through the confusion, Fred Anderson and his wife struck a lucky mode of escape. On the Northern Pacific Railway tracks, Conductor "Kid" Brown's engine and caboose waited. People packed into the boxcar. The Sisters of the Catholic hospital loaded patients and nurses onto the train. Men climbed on top when the caboose filled up and clung from the tender or any other place that could hold them. One man hauled into town with his horse. With a tear in his eye, he patted his steed's muzzle, kissed him goodbye and boarded the train.

Between 9:30 and 10 p.m., the train could wait no longer. It built steam, set motion and charged away from Wallace.

A call to arms

Operators for the Milwaukee Road and Northern Pacific were receiving telegraph and telephone communications as updates of the events streamed into Missoula, which was, and still is, the regional headquarters for the US Forest Service.

At only five years of age, the Forest Service had the barest notion of an agency objective other than to free the forests from private interests. Montana and Idaho were still vast wildernesses without many established fire access trails.

The town of Missoula, on the other hand, had a distinct social order. Fraternal organizations and churches were prominent in the community, and even the mundane facets of life weaved a tightly-knit social fabric. The Daily Missoulian, as it was known, published occurrences of visitors to town, community gossip, or brunch party announcements in their "Local Brevities" section. "A.E. Walsh of Stevensville spent Sunday in Missoula visiting with friends," reads one announcement. "C.C. Perry, bookkeeper at the Scandinavian-American Bank, and Engineer Vacain of the Northern Pacific, will spend Sunday on Rock Creek fishing," reads another.

In the forests, "All hell broke loose," chief forester W.B. Greeley reported, but in the early hours of the Big Blowup, the city of Missoula and its lucid lines of communication coalesced behind a singular call for help.

Breitenstein arranged for a hot breakfast to be served by Charlie Schrage of the Grand Pacific Hotel. He established a general headquarters for the relief committee in the upstairs rooms of a building on Front Street. Money, donations and supplies were collected and distributed from there.

Managers of the Florence Hotel on Front Street donated serving tables. Mrs. F.S. Lusk sent dozens of fresh eggs. In the dark hours before the sun rose above Mount Sentinel on Sunday, Aug. 21, Schrage and warehouse manager of the Missoula Mercantile, Tyler B. Thompson, sped through the streets of town. They arrived at a warehouse and loaded their car with ham and breakfast meat for the refugees.

With word spreading fast, donations began piling in. John R. Toole met with Breitenstein and handed him a hefty $50. After Toole, a guest of the Shapard hotel donated a $5 bill, saying another $5 could be cajoled if needed. But even though Breitenstein could orchestrate these efforts on the fringe of this great disaster, he had no idea how many refugees would arrive, or in what condition.

Fly-by-night train

When the train of refugees pulled into Mullan, Idaho, not a breath of relief filled their fragile lungs. Instead, the wind gushed smoke from the west. Backed with the force of a tornado and now generating its own weather system, the fire ripped through the forests as Kid Brown hooked another boxcar onto his locomotive. Brown's train did not stay in Mullan long before the main fire caught up with it.

Crown fires like the Great Fire of 1910 occur when flames leap from one treetop to the next like a line of matchsticks igniting. There is a terrible beauty in crown fires when viewed from a distance. Wings of shocking orange flames flick up from this rolling mass of smoke. You can hear it consuming the forest. The trees, when they're aflame, crackle like fried bacon and squeal like water pressed tightly into vapor. An ominous awe seduces your gaze into the eye of the flames, and what reaches your ears is a roaring comprehension that death is racing at you.

The Northern Pacific tracks ran roughly along what is now Interstate Highway 90. The great fire raced up behind the refugee train as it stopped in Taft, Saltese, De Borgia and St. Regis, attaching cars and collecting occupants where it could and blowing straight through towns when it had to.

Rocking along the tracks, the refugee train was no comfortable ride. The boxcars were packed with people hunched on floorboards — exhausted and filthy, some of them half clothed. Patients still rehabbing from callow surgeries or aged invalids determination engraved across their faces were consoled and cared for by nuns and nurses.

Eleven-year-old twins Dorothy and Dorris Baldwin stood among the darkened mass of boxcar refugees. Their mother was a cook in one of the railroad camps outside Wallace and did not return before the town was burned. The hysteria of the moment overtook their grandmother, who went to retrieve her purse from their little house. The twins watched her struggle to catch the departing train as fire swept up behind her.

Aristocrats and vagrants, bankers and ranchers, dignitaries and drunkards alike ferried together upon this train. Some clung close to their dog or cat. One woman suddenly slipped into labor. Her contractions arrived at shorter and shorter intervals as the train neared Missoula.

Welcome to Missoula

Conductor Brown pulled into the depot, hauling in a sallow load. An estimated 500 occupants in varying states of distress stared out from the boxcars. A.J. Breitenstein stepped up to meet the exhausted refugees as they descended from the boxcars, giving directions according to what ailed them. He had prepared the Masonic temple to accept the most fatigued into their quarters. Doctors, nurses and nuns from St. Patrick's Hospital stood by to treat the injured.

The fraternal orders, Sons of Herman and the Eagles, gathered alongside Breitenstein, as well as the Salvation Army and members of the lumbermen and railroad unions.

Others hung around the depot entrance, just waiting to see what would arrive.

Dirty-faced families dropped from the train, haphazardly dressed or wearing barely anything at all. Those who had held their sorrow in over the mind-numbing journey broke into tears. Some searched the pools of people, hoping to find loved ones they had been separated from in the rush.

Missoulians came to their side. Men carried the sick and injured to ambulances and carriages as the women served coffee and sandwiches on the lawn outside the depot to those in favorable conditions.

Two young men gleefully kissed the depot floor and strolled off down the road into town, singing and prospecting parlors for a glass of beer. One young misfit, arriving with no family, took off with an unkindly sort of character, never to be seen again.

Second night

As ash rained down from the clouds, spectators standing on Higgins and Main gazed westward and raised a fuss about what appeared to be flames brightly lit along the mountain ridge. An old man, blowing on a pipe, chided them for their nervous racket, saying it was only the setting sun. The nervous spectators were duly offended and embarrassed, but in the end, he was right. Missoula was safe.

Crooks and hobos were said to be roaming the area, and Mayor Andrew Logan enlisted an emergency team of policemen to patrol the outskirts of town. The mayor also restricted anyone from watering their lawns past 6 p.m. under penalty of fines and arrest. Volunteer crews cleared trash from empty lots to lessen fire danger within the city.

By nightfall on Aug. 22, A.J. Breitenstein held $3,500 from contributions that had poured in from around the area. In the end, he would raise over $5,000.

"We can furnish food and transportation to all of the needy who wish to return home," said Secretary Breitenstein to the Missoulian as refugees grew anxious to return and rebuild their communities. "They will be provided with clothing if they need it to travel, and also an amount of money sufficient for their need while making the trip, and until they can meet relatives or friends."

Relief trains

When fire burns as hot and as intense as the Big Burn, the fury often ends as soon as it began. After a few days, reports from the Missoulian and news at the Forest Service offices began reporting the situation was contained within the Coeur d'Alene district.

The Great Fire of 1910 changed the mindset of forest firefighters. Experts, often ex-military, were consulted, and a comprehensive strategy of attacking fires akin to warfare was adopted. Lookout systems and trails were built to detect and squash fire starts as soon as they occurred.

The tactics of fire prevention that were adopted have resulted in a larger fuel buildup within the forests than was present before 1910. Prescription burning and mechanical removal of timber is used to reduce the fuel buildup. "Science is actually teaching us more about what fire does and how often it's needed, and what are the benefits and drawbacks of using fire and tools to restore watersheds," said Rose Davis, spokesperson for the Northern Region and a Type I wildland firefighter.

Davis said that the country has seen larger, hotter and longer lasting fires over the past 15 years. She said there is a renewed emphasis on thinning the forests and prescribed fires. "Nature's going to play its course. If we get a fire in a hot, dry area and it gets a wind event, it's going to grow substantially."

John Hamilton, fire scientist for the Lolo National Forest, says the biggest difference between 1910 and 2010 is the human infrastructure in place. The "chain of command" and modes of communication, transportation systems and firefighting tools have all advanced as a direct result of the Great Burn.

"I'm not sure if you would ever get anything exactly like 1910 again," Hamilton said. "You could have severe fire seasons, no doubt, but I don't know if the conditions will ever repeat themselves where you can get another 1910, in my mind."

 

Last Updated on Friday, 18 August 2017 20:24