Montana - The Great Burn Fire

State: Montana
Region: Bitterroot Mountains
Description: There were a great number of problems that contributed to the destruction of the Great Fire of 1910. The fire season started early that year, because the summer of 1910 was extremely hot and dry. This drought caused there to be plenty of dry vegetation, so dry fuel was abundant. Fires were set by cinders from locomotives, sparks, lightning, and backfiring crews, and by mid August there were 1,000 to 3,000 fires burning in Idaho, Montana, and Washington.


On August 20, a front blew in and brought hurricane-force winds, whipping the hundreds of small fires into one or two blazing infernos. The fire was impossible to fight; there were too few men and too little supplies. The United States Forest Service (then called the National Forest Service) was only five years old at the time and unprepared for the possibilities of this dry summer. Later the U.S. Army was brought in to help fight the blaze.

Smoke from the fire was said to have been seen as far east as Watertown, New York and as far south as Denver, Colorado. It was reported that at night, 500 miles (800 km) out into the Pacific Ocean, ships could not navigate by the stars because the sky was cloudy with smoke.

The Great Burn Roadless Area sprawls across the Bitterroot Mountains on the border between Idaho and Montana, and embodies the beauty of natural fire recovery. Huge forest fires transformed the area in 1910. It is now one of the most wild and spectacular areas found so close to Missoula. Forests of Western hemlock, cedar, larch, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir create a spectacular contrast to the subalpine tundra. More than thirty mountain lakes are found in high glacial basins along the border. The Great Burn is also part of an important wildlife corridor between the Selway-Bitterroot and Cabinet-Yaak ecosystems, as well as part of the larger Yellowstone to Yukon wildlands corridor.

The Great Burn has been in need of protection since the early '70's. Local citizens have tried to ensure that the wilderness character of the area endures, and through their efforts the Lolo and Clearwater national forests designated over 224,000 acres as proposed Wilderness. The Great Burn has been included in nine wilderness bills introduced in Congress between 1984 and 1992, none of which have become law. The only active legislation calling for Wilderness protection for the Great Burn is the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act.