1942 typewritten account of the 1910 Big Burn Fires uncovered

Britt Rosso of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center discovered a 23-page typewritten account of some of the stories from the 1910 Big Burn fires that blackened huge areas of Idaho and Montana — the fires that changed the course of fire management in the United States.

Mr. Rosso describes his find:

As I was digging through some boxes at work, I came across a hard copy of this report on the 1910 fires. It was written in 1942 by Elers Koch, who was the Forest Supervisor on the Lolo NF in 1910. He created this 1910 fire summary so history would not be forgotten. It’s now posted on our LLC web site.

There are some amazing stories in here, and there are also reports from seven different fire crews on how they dealt with the “Great Fire”. There is a crew story in here about “burning off a large area…thinking that they would have absolute protection”. Maybe Wag Dodge wasn’t the first FF to ever use an escape fire.

Take your time and read it slowly.

Since documents at the Lessons Learned Center are known to be moved around and become difficult to find, we stashed a copy here for our readers.

One of the stories features the 30-person Moose Creek Crew led by Deputy Supervisor Ed Thenon, who wrote the account. (It is not clear what Forest Mr. Thenon was from.) They were working on a fire in Idaho in the upper Selway River area near Moose Creek. The sleeping crew, which was in an unburned area not near the fire edge, was aroused at 10 p.m. by debris falling in their area. Soon what one of the men thought was a “falling star” landed nearby and started a spot fire. When they could see the fire approaching they moved their camp and their food, or “grub”, to a small six-foot wide sand bar, or strip, in a creek that had water six to eight inches deep. Mr. Thenon told the men to lie in the creek and put wet blankets over their heads. Wet blankets were also put on their horses.

Below is a brief excerpt from his account. Click on it to see a larger version:

1910 Fires excerpt

Even though two men ran off and took refuge in another area, all 30 of them survived. However “the ‘lullaby boy’ was taken to an asylum”.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Mike.

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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.

5 thoughts on “1942 typewritten account of the 1910 Big Burn Fires uncovered”

  1. Bill, you’re right about rediscovery. After reading the above post, I queried Peter Koch, Elers’s grandson and a childhood friend and fishing partner of mine–our cabins at Seeley Lake were next door to each other, and I actually met Elers once, when he was very old and I was very young. He was sitting in the main room of the Koch cabin wrapped in a buffalo hide, a truly mysterious presence. Here’s Peter’s response: “I have known about this report since I inherited Eler’s papers that were kept at home. I went through them closely while we were constructing FORTY YEARS A FORESTER.” Just FYI, Forty Years a Forester was published in 1998 by Mountain Press in Missoula, with a foreword by Jack Ward Thomas, retired chief of USFS. Sadly, it’s been out of print for some time. Peter asked my opinion about a second printing and I encouraged him to see it done. If anyone would care to express similar encouragement in a comment here I would be happy to forward it to Peter.

    1. John, I would welcome a reprint of 40 YEARS A FORESTER as I missed it’s first printing.

      I do remember reading all (or perhaps part) of Elers Koch’s type written account of the 1910 Big Burn in my early years on the Angeles NF (likely one of many type written copies). At the time I didn’t appreciate how fragile such historical documentation is and didn’t see a need to make my own hand written or typed copy (this was before common availability of any form of copy machines). I simply assumed Elers account was widely circulated throughout the USFS and would always be seen as valuable (i.e: “canonized).

      My message for the Koch family is there are, or used to be, copies out there. To what extent those copies still exist or are read by this current generation of wildland firefighters and managers I can’t say.

      greenfire6, USFS Fire 1970-2000

  2. Thanks for posting this story Bill, but Brit Rosso’s discovery is not new. Elers Koch’s account has been around for a long time. I have a copy at my desk–sent to me by my brother who used it five or six years ago when researching the 1910 Idaho Fire staff ride. It is still, however, something every fire professional ought to read.

    1. Ken, I suspect that the Elers Koch document has been uncovered or “discovered” a number of times since it was written 73 years ago. Perhaps being placed on the Lessons Learned Center’s web site will reduce the interval between future uncoverings.


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