America: In Big Burn centennial, values rise from ashes

BITTERROOT MOUNTAINS, Montana and Idaho: The centennial of the 3-million-acre Big Burn, the biggest fire in America’s recorded history, is changing the lives of a retired Ohio truck driver and his wife, a former staff editor at Wright State University in Dayton. Beyond changing their home for the summer, the Big Burn is changing their understanding of American values as well.

Connie and Jim Steele are among many Americans who travel to volunteer, and volunteer to travel, via the website that links willing men and women to the United We Serve network of opportunities to help with projects nationwide. Avid hikers and bikers, the Steeles volunteered to staff a historic site: the Ninemile Redmount Ranger Station in the Lolo National Forest. One century ago in mid-August, 1910, the Great Burn exploded across this region destroying entire towns, killing nearly 100 people, most of them heroic firefighters. Front-page news of a fire the size of Connecticut moved U.S. government policy to greater conservation of our collective woodlands.

The Steeles originally were looking for some good outdoor fun in the mountains, then checked the government website and finally agreed to camp at Lolo for free this summer in exchange for staffing the historic site with exhibits about the forest service. Then, reading up on their destination, they discovered this summer is the centennial and devoured the Timothy Eagan bestseller, “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America.”

“The Big Burn really changed our whole national agenda. That’s when men like Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir finally were able to put U.S. Forest Service protection over so much of our public lands,” Jim Steele explained. “Now, not everything about the Forest Service always was great. I think most of us would agree with that. They did allow clear-cutting of trees for years, for instance. But the important thing is: That 1910 fire led to victory for the idea that these lands belong to all of us.”

Connie and Jim Steele’s whole approach to life depends on that assumption. They love to travel through America’s wild areas, lands that U.S. Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot once called “the very stuff of which American democracy is made.”

Jim Steele puts it this way: “Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and these others understood that there are masses of Americans like us who are just yearning for the relief of these lands.”

“These lands can be put to so many uses,” Connie Steele said. “And that’s how it should be, I think.” On days they aren’t showing tourists around the historic ranger station, Connie and her husband are hiking or biking one stretch after another that were overrun by the Great Burn’s hurricane-force blaze. Next, they plan to bicycle through a 2-mile-long tunnel in the mountains where a trainload of people sought refuge from the whirlwind fires that could outrun a race horse at full gallop.

“There’s no railroad through the tunnel now and it’s a good challenge either hiking or biking the stretch. We’ll have to wear miners’ lights on our foreheads,” Jim Steele said. “Once it was for railroading and mining and timber. Now? Great for people like us.”

Wallace, Idaho, after the Big Burn swept through in August 2010.Accepting dramatic change still is part of surviving in the mountains, said Mary Vipperman, who helps to staff the Northern Pacific Depot museum in Wallace, Idaho. Wallace was the town that triumphantly hosted Teddy Roosevelt in 1903 and thought of itself as a blossoming frontier metropolis, a booming center for timber, mining and railroads. Then, in 1910, the complete devastation of Wallace produced some of the most shocking newspaper stories of the fire, including a story of an old man hobbling toward a departing trainload of refugees while carrying his pet parrot in a cage. Both man and bird were overwhelmed by the fire and were found dead together on the town’s main street.

Wallace, Idaho, today: Railroad museum is a popular tourist attraction.Vipperman was 6 when she moved with her family to a renewed Wallace in the 1940s. “Dad moved us here to work in the mines. With all the mountains around us, we couldn’t imagine that Wallace wouldn’t be a mining town forever. And now? We rely on tourism mainly. In the winter, this place is big for skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling. But if you’d have told me as a young woman that, one day, we’d all depend on tourists, I’d have told you: You’re crazy!”

A few of the antique stores and restaurants in Wallace have flame-themed centennial signs in their windows and the railroad museum has added a special gallery on the blaze.

Until their limited supplies are exhausted, Jim and Connie Steele are giving out full-color Big Blaze posters to keep the memory alive. “This is uniquely American,” Jim Steele said, rolling up a poster for us. “As Americans, we know we have all these natural resources in this great big, wide-open country of ours and we all feel a part of it. That’s what we learned 100 years ago. And, right now in 2010, we know it’s not going to survive forever if we’re not careful.”

(Story and photos reported by Editor David Crumm and his son, Benjamin, who are traveling 40 days and 9,000 miles in search of values that divide and may unite Americans.)


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