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Section D Page 7 Missoulian Centennial Forest Fires Principal Concern of 1920 - 40

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Forest Fires Principal Concern of 1920 – 40

No one ever dropped out of a dirigible to fight forest fires in Montana – not that there weren’t plans to do just that in 1920. It was left up to an old World War I DeHaviland to pioneer the air age for the Forest Service five years after the dirigible plans were put on the shelf.

Fire was the big concern in Montana and Idaho in the 1920s and 1930s. Foresters had to think first of protection, but they did find time to promote other phases of forest management. Progress in protection and management of regional forests during the 20s was directed by Regional Forester Fred Morrell. Evan W. Kelley was regional forester during the busy years from 1929 until in the 1940s.

New Methods Used

New fire-fighting plans, new fire-fighting methods and new types of equipment were the order of the day. Mules and bulldozers, burros and airplanes, CCC kids from the Bronx and seasoned foresters worked together to get on top of the problem of forest fire control.

After Howard Flint made the pioneer flight in the DeHaviland, airplanes became more important year by year. In 1926 two Army DeHavilands droned back and forth on fire patrol. In 1928, the Northern Rocky Mountain Region of the Forest Service got authority to hire private planes for fire patrol and in 1929 Johnson Flying Service was awarded the first contract for air freighting into the back country.

1929 On of Worst

The fire season of 1929 was one of the worst in the region. More than 1,600 head of horses and mules were hired and shipped to a single fire. Clyde Fickes ran a “horse hospital” out at the end of Higgins avenue until late that fall. This began a project which resulted in the Remount Depot being established the next year at Nine Mile, west of Missoula.

In addition to organizing and handling pack strings and saddle stock, the depot crew organized several plaw (sic) teams. These teams soon proved their effectiveness by building and holding 30 miles of fire lines. In an attempt to help lighten transportation problems, several carloads of burros were shipped in from the southwest. Burros and northern foresters failed to see eye-to-eye and the burros passed into history.

Transportation Problem

Transportation, whether by burro, mule, airplane or truck was the big problem in fire control. Without roads or trails, fast movement of larger fire camps and crews is difficult at best. In 1931 work started on a fire transportation plan for each forest in the region. The Forest Service was about to enter a period of expansion in road construction and the advent of the machine age. Bulldozers and graders clattered into the forests to build truck trails and roads.

In 1933 the Civilian Conservation Corps arrived in the region. Two camps were set up near the Remount Depot at Nine Mile and other camps were located around the region. With the added help of the CCC – the Forest Service managed during the next several years to build about 2,000 miles of truck trails.

5,000 on One Fire

Fire was still the big problem. In 1934, nearly 5,000 men, mostly CCC boys, were called out to fight a single fire on the lower Lochsa and Selway River drainages.[1] But, step by step and trail by trail, the fire problem was cut down. Foresters were able to give more time to other forest uses.

In 1931 the regional office took a new look at recreation use on Region 1 forests. Recreation facilities had been looked at mostly as another way of preventing forest fires. Money for recreation was listed as “Sanitation and Fire Control” for several years, and that money was scarce.

Recreation Recognized

One former district ranger received two prefabricated toilets and $21 as his allotment for recreation facilities in 1931. But the fresh viewpoint recognized that recreation was a forest resource and that it could be an economic asset to nearby communities. CCC crews were used to build more and more campground and recreation facilities between 1933 and 1941. A recreation planner was added to the regional office staff in 1933. As early as 1936 an inventory of forest recreation areas was started, and the recreation staff was given another man.

The concept of wilderness areas originated with the Forest Service in the mid-1920s. The first such area in Region 1 was the South Fork Primitive Area, now a part of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Many of the wilderness, primitive and wild areas in the Northern Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service were set up in the six years after the South Fork was set aside.

Research Essential

Research on forest problems was essential to wise use of forest resources. Research on insects got under way in Missoula as early as 1913. In 1922 headquarters for the Priest River Experiment Station was transferred to Missoula and in 1925 the Northern Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station was organized in Missoula with R. H. Weideman in charge.

Fire and insects don’t restrict themselves to national and forest lands. In 1936 a Division of State and Private forestry was organized in the regional office to work with other land managers on mutual forestry problems.

When the regional office moved from the Post Office to the new Federal Building in 1938, there were about 300 persons on the staff. Among them were researchers, recreation planners, range men, engineers, and other specialists assigned the tasks of getting the best use of forest resources for the greatest number of citizens.


[1] See Hagenstein’s Interview for commentary about this huge ¼ million acre fire called the “Pete King Fire”. See link below:


Sutliff commentary on 1934 fire:


Last Updated on Sunday, 20 November 2016 22:28