Behind the scenes at “The Big Burn”

The Big Burn
Actors simulate taking refuge in Pulaski’s cave, during the filming of “The Fire that Changed Everything – The Big Burn”. Screen shot from the video below.

After the confusion about when “The Fire that Changed Everything – The Big Burn” would be aired, it now appears certain that it will be on PBS February 3. As you probably know, the fires of 1910 affected wildland fire management for the next 100 years.

Below is a “behind the scenes” video showing some of the filming as it occurred, and candid shots of the actors between shots.

It took 3 days to build Pulaski’s “cave” on the set. An excerpt from Timothy Egan’s best-selling book, “The Big Burn”, about which the film is based, describes what happened that day in 1910:

Pulaski led his men through the inferno, until, at last, he came to one of the old mining shafts along the creek. “In here,” he ordered, his hand on his sidearm, “everyone inside the tunnel.” After an agonizing moment of indecision, forty-four men rushed into the opening and threw themselves on the ground.

The Big Burn
An actor breaks for lunch at the filming of “The Fire that Changed Everything – The Big Burn”. Screen shot from the video above.

On January 25 we posted a 30-second video “tease” about the film. Back in September we first wrote about the film when it was scheduled to air on September 9. The videos still say “coming this fall on PBS”.

filming the big burn
Generating smoke for the filming of “The Fire that Changed Everything – The Big Burn”. Photo by Insignia Films.

Rob Chaney wrote an interesting article about the film for yesterday’s edition of the Missoulian. Below is an excerpt:

…The filmmakers scoured old archives of early fires and firefighters, and combined them with black-and-white versions of modern wildfire behavior. They also used animation techniques to make still photos of places like Wallace appear threatened by moving flames and smoke.

Explanations come from Egan, along with Montana writer John Maclean, fire ecologist Steve Pyne and environmental historian Char Miller. Buffalo Soldiers National Museum chief docent Charles Williams adds some fascinating details about the seven companies of black soldiers who played crucial roles in defending the mountain communities.

The story of a fire that burned more than 3 million acres in 36 hours would be compelling in itself.

But Egan’s research revealed how it happened just when the U.S. government was defining its role as a public lands manager. President Theodore Roosevelt and his champion of forest policy, Gifford Pinchot, were reining in the free-for-all logging and mining that threatened to shred the forests of the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains. And a large part of their strategy was the claim that forests could be cultivated and protected like farms.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

13 thoughts on “Behind the scenes at “The Big Burn””

  1. Three million acres in thirty six hours, 1910. How could have this happened? Lightning and Native American’s kept the forests clear of unwanted fuel, at least that is what some folks tell us? Or was this Mothers Nature doing exactly what she was suppose to do? Today, sure makes a good case for aggressive fixed wing initial attack. (fire aviation site).

    1. I think that unrestrained logging and railroad building, without any kind of fuels treatment, may have aided Nature in 1910.
      Tim Egan’s book is a great read, especially on these winter evenings! Not quite as “heavy” as Steve Pyne’s version.

        1. I agree, Robert. But that wasn’t the case in the 1890s and early 1900s. We’re 105 years down the road from those days.

  2. The only contemporary photos that I have seen were those taken right after the fire outside the mine tunnel where Ed Pulaski and his crew took shelter. They appeared to show burned old-growth trees. I will be curious to see how the PBS program addresses this issue.

    1. I met a doctoral candidate from Colorado State University who was doing her PhD research on a fire history in the Sangre de Cristo Range in southern Colorado. She documented a few fires from the late 17th century, several from the 18th, and, of course, lots from the 19th century.

      Apparently the 1840s were a big decade for fires? Who knew? There were no Anglo or Hispanic settlements there then, just the Utes and Kit Carson and whoever else wandered through.

      1. Santa Fe has been nearly continually inhabited since 1692, and by 1840, the Mission at San Francisco was almost 70 years old. Hardly “no Anglo or Hispanic settlements”

  3. Chas Clifton is right; what is now southern Colorado behind the Sangre de Cristos was guarded by the Utes and Jicarillas until 1852, when the recently arrived USA constructed the first fort near La Veta Pass. Hispanic settlers from further south began filtering in. Further north, a big influx of Anglo settlers came after the Likes p the 1858/1859 Pukes Peak

  4. Of course the old standby that PBS is pretending to usurp is The Great Fire of 1910- Documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3lsUEO0kJk

    I appreciate the honest and clear text at 8:59 and the Pulaski tribute at 26:59.

    I wish I knew more about the burned area map at 11:19. What is the map’s source? Is the map accurate and is it to truly scale?

  5. Good story so far

    1905 thru 1910 VS 2015……
    Same Ol stories of politics and issues that have not been totally remedied except regulation that now limits logging

    I am sure there will be current day critics of this show……..but for the non forester lay people …a fairly good history

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