Fighting Wildland Fire: A Heroic Tradition
The Fire and Aviation program of the U.S. Forest Service is for many people the most exciting and interesting activity of the Forest Service. The air tankers, helicopters, smokejumpers, bulldozers and fire engines that continue to create history as part of the Fire and Aviation program will be prominently displayed at the Museum’s National Conservation Legacy and Education Center.
The modern era of wildland fire fighting and control began in 1905 with the transfer of the federal forest reserves from the General Land office to the newly created United States Forest Service. This decision prevented the loss of forest resources from forest fires, which became a top priority of the agency. The second Chief of the Forest Service, Henry Graves declared, “It is the fundamental obligation of the Forest Service and takes precedence over all other duties and activities.”
In 1910, forest fires destroyed more than 5 million acres of forests from Arizona to Montana and Idaho. The famous 1910 fires in Idaho and Montana consumed over 3 million acres of valuable forests along with numerous homes and business and took the lives of over 80 people, most of them fire fighters.
Following the 1910 fires, the United States Congress recognized the need for preventing and controlling forest fires and appropriated additional funds for the Forest Service to do that job. This new funding enabled the Forest Service to purchase the many necessary items needed to construct fire lookout towers, string miles of new telephone lines for improved communications, and improve access to the vast and rugged mountains of the West. These new funds also helped the Forest Service promote the creation of state forestry departments on non-federal lands and numerous timber protection associations for private commercial forest lands.
The first major new weapon in the battle against forest fires was the development and implementation of the smokejumpers program. On July 12, 1940, Forest Service employees Earl Cooley and Rufus Robinson made the first ever parachute jump on a forest fire. This occurred on the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho. Forest Service jumpers went on to train the first cadre of U.S. Army paratroopers in WWII. Today, the Forest Service and its sister agency, the Bureau of Land Management, have over 400 jumpers from California to Alaska. A major base is in Missoula, Montana, adjacent to the Museum’s site for the national education center.
Starting in the 1950’s, construction of thousands of new homes, even entire cities, spread from urban areas to forest lands. Urban sprawl has now occurred nationwide. This trend has required new and improved fire equipment, knowledge about forest fire behavior, and increased focus on the protection of homes, businesses, schools and community structures. Some of the actions taken include:
- The Forest Service established a Forest Fire Laboratory in Missoula, MT, where scientists study wildfire performance and methods to control wildfires. Their findings are available to all fire agencies and private industry.
- The Forest Service established two equipment development stations. As new tools for fire prevention and control are developed and tested, they are made available to any interested company, other fire agency, etc.
- New fire engines designed by Forest Service engineers are contracted out to the private fire engine companies for construction to Forest Service specifications.
- Fire protective clothing is manufactured by private companies to Forest Service specifications. This clothing is available to all fire agencies.
- The U.S. Forest Service operates eleven large fire equipment warehouses in key areas throughout the nation. Each warehouse contains over 5,600 different items varying from shovels to medical supplies with a value of about $9,000,000 or more. During a very busy fire season, much of the inventory will be turned over 3 or 4 times. These items have all been purchased from private companies. One of the eleven warehouses is located at the Forest Service Fire Center in Missoula, Montana.
- Privately owned and flown, large airplanes have been converted to air tankers meeting Forest Service specifications. These air tankers carry from 1,200 to 20,000 gallons of water or fire retardant, and operate under the direction of a Forest Service pilot.
- Privately owned and operated helicopters are under contract and equipped to Forest Service specifications to carry fire fighters and drop water under Forest Service directions.
Today’s forest fire prevention and control operations are a true cooperative program between members of private industry who build, sell or contract out their products to federal, state and local fire departments and agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service.
For communities that are shaped by the natural occurrence of wildland fire, professional fire fighting is a family and community tradition. The National Conservation Legacy and Education Center will share the story of these heroic men and women and the inventiveness of individuals, companies and fire industry researchers on the development of technologies and practices that today protect lives and property and safeguard the health of our nation’s forests and grasslands.
Through the Center’s exhibits, traveling exhibit program and interactive web site, the Museum will honor and recognize the fire fighting community. It will provide educational programs to shape citizen and community decision-making to support the management of wildland fires in the future.