Promethean Fire, Smoldering Still by Neil Genlinger Jan. 31, 2015

The great fires in American history are generally identified with a city or a building: Chicago in 1871, Boston in 1872, the Iroquois Theater in 1903, the Triangle shirtwaist factory in 1911. But a wildfire in August 1910 in the northern Rockies dwarfed all of those in geographic scope. An episode of “American Experience” on Tuesday on PBS that examines that blaze borrows one of its nicknames for its title: “The Big Burn.”

The fire burned more than three million acres in Idaho, Montana and Washington, destroying several towns and killing at least 85 people, many of them firefighters. The United States Forest Service had only recently been established, its purpose and support in Congress both still uncertain. The program (whose source material includes a book by Timothy Egan, a columnist for The New York Times) traces not only the devastation but also its role in giving the fledgling service credibility. Most interesting are the fire-suppression practices that emerged in the aftermath, policies that more recently have come into question.

Members of the 25th Infantry helped fight a raging wildfire in 1910. Credit The Museum of North Idaho

Members of the 25th Infantry helped fight a raging wildfire in 1910. Credit The Museum of North Idaho