The Great Fires of 1910, also known as “The Big Blowup” were a formative trauma for the American wildland fire community. These fires, scattered over six distinct areas in the northern Rocky Mountains, burned more than 3 million acres, killed 78 firefighters, and launched a national debate about fire policy.
Dr. Stephen Pyne, a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, specializes in environmental history and the history of fire. In his presentation at NFPA’s Backyards & Beyond conference in Salt Lake City, he took the opportunity of the recent centennial of the 1910 events to offer his perspective on what the Big Blowup meant – both back more than 100 years, and what we’ve learned, how we’ve changed, and where we might go next.
Dr. Pyne, who spent 15 seasons as a wildland firefighter at the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. said the 1910 fires pushed the U.S. Forest Service into a singular strategy of suppression for more than five decades. He said the fire community spent all of their efforts trying to take fire out of the landscape.
Then in the early 1960s, a new approach evolved that argued against all-suppression policies and focused on forest restoration and the healthy, natural benefits of wildland fire.
“Certainly politics were a contributing factor, but it was mostly a change in attitude,” said Dr. Pyne. “People wanted to live on that land and they knew they needed to learn how to related to fire in a different way.”
So how is America coping with fire in the wildlands today? Dr. Pyne said three approaches are at play: regressive (a revival of the suppression-centric mindset); proactive (modifying landscapes to create more fire resilient communities); and reactive (the “is what it is” mindset, just dealing with fires as they happen).
“All three approaches are at play, and we don’t know how it will all be sorted out,” said Dr. Pyne, “but it seems we are defaulting to the reactive strategy, which is most economical and safer for firefighters, but it going to produce a lot more burned areas.”