Saturday, August 20, 2016

August 20, 1910 - The Great Fire of 1910 begins, destroying 3 million acres (an area the size of Connecticut) in Idaho, Montana, and Washington. Hurricane-force winds created a firestorm that lasted 48 hours and killed 87 people, mostly firefighters. It remains the largest fire in U.S. history.

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As was typical of the Pacific Northwest in late summer, a number of small forest fires were burning throughout eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana. On August 20, a fast-moving cold front passed over the Cascade Range, bringing hurricane-force winds to the area. The wind whipped the hundreds of small fires into two blazing infernos. The fire was so widespread, it was impossible to fight.

At the time, most of this area was covered with vast Western White Pine forests. The hydrocarbons in the sap of the Western White Pine boiled out and created a cloud of highly flammable gas that blanketed hundreds of square miles. This cloud spontaneously detonated dozens of times, each time sending tongues of flame thousands of feet into the sky and creating a rolling wave of fire that destroyed anything and everything in its path.

In Idaho, the towns of Falcon and Grand Forks were completely destroyed, while a third of the town of Wallace was burned. The Idaho towns of Burke, Kellogg, Murray, and Osburn also suffered extreme damage. In Montana, the towns of De Borgia, Haugan, Henderson, Taft, and Tuscor were completedly destroyed.

The fire moved so swiftly, freight trains had to be loaded with fleeing people and race to safety. A train with 1,500 people escape through cinders to Spoke, while a train with 1,000 people fled to Missoula. A train carrying 1,000 people from Avery was trapped by the fire, and was forced to take refuge in a tunnel and wait out the blaze.

Smoke from the fire was seen as far east as Watertown, New York, and as far south as Denver, Colorado. It was reported that at night, 500 miles out in the Pacific Ocean, ships could not navigate by the stars because the sky was cloudy with smoke.

The fire did not burn further after a second cold front arrived on August 22, lowering the temperature even further and dumping several inches of rain on the area -- extinguishing the fire.

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