The Path from 1910 to Today
by Erik Apland, Field Operations Specialist
Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center
Most of us are familiar with the enormous fires of 1910, sometimes called the Great Idaho Fire or simply “The Big Blowup.” What we don’t necessarily know as well is the history of traumatic and historic fire seasons that followed 1910. In the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies, uncontrollable fires recurred again and again, in 1919, 1929, 1933 and 1934, just to name a few big seasons. None of these fires matched the scale or human toll of 1910, but it was evident that in the decades that followed The Big Blowup, wildland fire remained an unmastered force of nature.
The McLendon Butte Fire, Nez Perce National Forest (Idaho), in August 1934.
That was the state of things in 1935, when the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, himself, wrote that in terms of line construction techniques: “We are much nearer where we were in 1910 than where we ought to be.” This was the first year of the famous Forest Service “10 AM Policy” which relied on rapid and effective initial attack. The Chief suggested that handline could be constructed as fast as a person can “make a slash with his brush knife every step or so” in heavy brush.
As we recently dug into the archives for the Summer 2023 issue of Two More Chains, one particular rabbit hole led to this unexpected find. The first issue of the U.S. Forest Service’s quarterly newsletter, Fire Control Notes, published in December 1936, describes a “new” way to construct fireline. The article, written by Kenneth P. McReynolds of the Rogue River National Forest in Oregon, informs: “Everybody deplores the slow speed at which fire line is usually constructed and recognizes that many fires get away because of inefficiency in converting available energy into held line.”
A fire crew constructing handline in Oregon in 1926.
The One Lick Method
The progressive line construction technique, first conceived of as the “One Lick Method,” has now been universally adopted. But in the mid-1930s, it was being tested against the existing “Sector” system, in which each firefighter was responsible to complete a chunk of line from start to finish, cutting trees and brush, scraping litter, and digging to mineral soil.
In testing on a real wildfire on the Rogue River National Forest, these two techniques were tried head-to-head, with a crew each taking a flank of the fire and constructing One Lick vs. Sector line. In this real-world experiment, the One Lick Method was shown to produce line three times faster!
As with most major changes in established work practices, it appears the new method wasn’t adopted across wildland fire response organizations overnight. By October 1940, the National Park Service’s short lived publication The Region III Quarterly printed a piece that still served as kind of introduction to this method. Written by ranger Clair Cooke of Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico), the piece “Progressive Fire-Fighting” lays out some of the advantages of the new system, as well as discussing some refinements since the mid-1930s.
Cooke starts by clarifying that despite the name, it was often necessary for people to take more than one “lick” with a tool before they moved on. The piece goes on to explain that whereas with the Sector method, where each firefighter needed to use every tool from axe to McLeod, this new system allowed for firefighters to become experts at one or two particular tools they would always use. As Cooke writes: “Even the least experienced man can do some good with a shovel or McLeod tool, while the inexperienced axemen may do practically no good.”
Anyone who fought fire with me early in my career can attest to the wisdom of this statement.
Above are two suggested crew organizations from the 1940 Fireman’s Guide published by the Northern Region of the U.S. Forest Service. Note that before chainsaws were adopted, the axes were in front and the crosscut saws were in the back of the line. The smokejumper sawyers on the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949 benefitted from this arrangement; when the line reversed to escape the fire, they were suddenly in the front.
More Than a Curiosity
The firefighting workforce in the Great Depression was not at all what it looks like today. Initial attack might be accomplished by a single smokechaser, a trail crew, loggers, local ranchers, or all of the above. Large fires in that era were often staffed with scores or hundreds of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers based at the literally thousands of camps throughout the nation. One early test of the One Lick method involved a single hand crew comprised of 200 CCC crewmembers.
The 1930s were a period of intense focus on wildland fire management and innovation, involving experiments in every part of wildland fire, down to how we dug line. Adopting the 10 AM Policy in 1935 stretched the existing system to find ever greater efficiency, pools of labor, infrastructure improvement, and technological breakthroughs. Many of these only came after the Second World War, which propelled advances in parachute personnel delivery, airplane and helicopter design, and field radios. Programs that had been in “experimental” status on the eve of the war were, by the 1950s, essentially recognizable to us today.
A fire crew in the Northeastern United States in 1937.
I find it useful to learn how thoroughly everything we do had to be theorized, experimented with, before they were adopted — down to the way we dig fireline. To me there is freedom knowing that everything we do is a choice, that we can experiment to do it better, down to these core fundamentals. Assignment length? Prescribed fire risk tolerance? PPE technology? Fire crew size? Nothing is set in stone.