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History Of Western Firefighting In The US Forest Service

Photo by Edward Olsen, courtesy of Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries
A firefighter works to suppress a forest fire, circa 1920-1930.

Every season, wildfires pose a threat to lives and property throughout our region. And those on the front lines of fighting those fires are often in the greatest danger of all. Historian Alicia Barber looks back at the history of fighting wildland fires in this segment of “Time & Place.”

In 1905, the federal government transferred the country’s forest reserves to a new division of the Department of Agriculture they named the U.S. Forest Service. After a massive fire in 1910 burned three million acres, mostly in Northern Idaho and Western Montana, the Forest Service started a system-wide program of fire detection and prevention. They constructed lookout towers throughout the West and manned them with forest rangers who were responsible not only for detecting fires, but putting out the smaller ones before they got out of hand.

Archie Murchie began his long career as a forest ranger in 1929, working first in Montana, and eventually moving to Nevada in 1947 to work in the Ely District of what’s now called the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Interviewed in 1990, he recalled his earliest years in the Forest Service, working alone on what they called “smokechaser” fires.

"A 'smokechaser' fire is where you’ve just had a lightning strike," Murchie said. "The fire hasn’t had time to spread. Most of the time it’s a single tree burning, and maybe with a small area burned around the base of it. The lookouts, when they could, would go to that fire. They’re all one-man fires."

The “smokechaser” would head out, with a pack horse or on foot with tools like an axe and maybe a shovel, to clear out the brush around a fire to keep it from spreading and to bury any burning embers. In the peak fire season, there would be one or two additional rangers at the lookout who gave the smokechaser a certain length of time to get the job done.

"We didn’t have any form of communication, of any kind. And that’s why they would leave a man three days on a fire and if he didn’t come in, they would send somebody out," Murchie said. "Of course, now they can get water on their fire. They can always call in a retardant drop, or call a copter in with a water drop. In fact, they have so many things now fighting fire that I wouldn’t even try to guess how they fight fires now."

Fighting wildland fires has become even more sophisticated since Murchie retired in 1965. But the goal is always the same: to make sure that those who are fighting the fires have the best possible chance of suppressing and surviving them.

Historian Alicia Barber is the editor of the website and smart phone app Reno Historical. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.

Alicia Barber, PhD, is a professional historian and award-winning writer whose work focuses on the built environment and cultural history of Nevada and the American West. After earning a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2003, she moved to Reno, where she taught at the University of Nevada, Reno for the next ten years, and directed the University of Nevada Oral History Program from 2009-2013.
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