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Fireside Chat at UCSB

How the ‘Big Blowup’ of 1910 Changed Everything


A great firestorm that blazed across the northwestern states exactly one century ago is the reason why America’s fire service looks the way it does today, fire historian Stephen Pyne told a lecture hall of UCSB-goers Thursday.

The Big Blowup, or the fire that destroyed nearly five thousand square miles in Washington, Idaho, and Montana, is believed to be the greatest fire ever recorded. Killing 78 firefighters in its two-day entirety, this blaze advanced firefights into the tenacious, technical, and political events we now know, Pyne said.

“It all formed in this crucible in 1910,” he said.

With a PowerPoint remote in hand and a Smokey Bear pin centered on his tie, Pyne addressed more than 60 attendees in UCSB’s Buchanan Hall. The History Department’s Center for Science and Society and the Geography Department sponsored Pyne’s lecture, “The Big Blowup, Fire’s American Century.”

Pyne served as a firefighter in the Grand Canyon wildlands for 15 seasons. Now a regent’s professor at Arizona State University, he has authored more than 20 books on the history of fire, and the cultural and environmental changes that follow. UCSB Assistant Professor Peter Alagona introduced Pyne as a “foremost historian of fire.”

Before the Big Blowup, the United States was a country much like present-day Brazil, Pyne said, with increasing population and industrialization. People were burning away wildlands to pave way for railroads and dairy farms. Forest fires were a “childhood disease,” he said, “something you pass on before you grow up and mature.”

After 1910, forest reserves and emergency fire funding expanded. Fire service evolved, and the U.S. Forestry Service began its fire hegemony, Pyne said. The firefight became political, with a “with us or against us, no 3rd choice” mentality, he said.

America has since nationalized fire prevention, making natural disaster a common enemy. And California has become a center for fire interventions, because the state is so prone to wildland fires.

“California is to this kind of fire what Florida is to hurricanes,” Pyne said.

But today, the firefight is not the best for all landscapes, he said. Improper land use and fire practices, such as lack of prescribed fires, are decisions that prove to be detrimental. These decisions create “crummy statistics,” Pyne said, because the burn areas are blamed on other things.

Also, American mentality has become adverse to fires in general, and “it’s become impossible to burn off your leaves,” Pyne said, but “we are indeed destroying the forest in order to save it.”

Firefights have also become a form of political theater. Through the use of “CNN drops” as “something that looks good on TV,” he said battling fire has become highly politicized.

“We don’t have a fire problem,” Pyne said. “We have lots of fire problems.”

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