Julie Molzahn of the U.S. Forest Service at a fire memorial in St. Maries, Idaho.
During the hot, dry summer of 1910, a wildfire dubbed the Big Blowup or Big Burn torched millions of acres in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, killing 84 people. Julie Molzahn of the U.S. Forest Service is in charge of centennial commemorations. www.fs.fed.us/r1/1910-centennial.
Q When did the blaze get going?
A Multiple fires started in June, and on August 20 they merged into a firestorm that burned 3 million acres—an area the size of Connecticut—in 24 hours.
Q How did residents deal with it?
A Avery and St. Maries, Idaho, felt it first. Trains took people to Spokane and Missoula but only had room for old folks, pregnant women, and children. Imagine sending your child away, then turning and seeing the fire coming. The trains hid in tunnels; behind them, trestles were burning. Near Wallace, Idaho, Ed Pulaski saved 39 firefighters by stashing them in a mine and threatening to shoot any who fled.
Q Why commemorate the fire?
A It’s ingrained in the culture in this part of the country. It was horrific. Natives can tell you what their ancestors were doing when the blowup hit.
Q Best commemorative events?
A The wreath laying at St. Maries will be emotional; 57 firefighters are buried there. Trout Creek, Mont., is having an old-time fire camp. I’m hosting a tribute to Lilly Cunningham, a 103-year-old fire survivor, who died this year. Her family realized their homestead was indefensible, so they helped their neighbors. The fire went around them.
Photography by Dean Davis
This article was first published in July 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.