The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Forest Fires

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FOREST FIRES. Fire is probably the worst of the many destructive agencies at work in the forests of the United States. Until recent times, however, the attitude of settlers and lumbermen toward fires in the woods was either one of indifference because the supply of timber seemed inexhaustible or of inertia because fires were considered unavoidable. It required enormous losses of life and property to arouse the people to the necessity of systematic fire protection. During the last 50 years an annual average of about 70 people lost their lives in forest fires and at least $25,000,000 worth of timber a year was destroyed. In addition, immense damage was done every year to young tree growth, crops, livestock, buildings and improvements, water courses and the soil. Some of the great fires have become historical on account of the number of lives lost or the property destroyed. The Peshtigo, Wis., fire in 1871 burned 1,280,000 acres of timber and cost 1,500 human lives. The Hinckley fire of 1894 burned over 160,000 acres in Minnesota, destroyed property valued at $25,000,000 and cost the lives of 418 persons; the great Idaho fire in 1910 burned 2,000,000 acres of timber and caused the death of 85 people. But these great fires, though they partake of the nature of national calamities, are not the ones that cause most of the damage; it is the smaller fires, of which little notice is taken but which occur year after year and with great frequency, that cause the greatest loss in the aggregate. At least 35,000 of these occurred in the United States in 1915. It is customary to distinguish three classes of forest fires; surface fires, which burn dry leaves, grass, brush and small trees; ground fires, which burn the vegetable mold; and crown fires, which burn through the crowns of the trees. Surface fires are fought by beating them with blankets, gunny sacks, green brush, etc., by throwing water or dirt upon the flames, or by running a trace in front of them by raking away the leaves and other litter and then beating out the flames when they are checked. Sometimes a furrow is plowed as an emergency fire line. Ground fires are usually hard to check. If the layer of vegetable mold is not very deep, it may be possible to put out the fire with water or sand. Otherwise it is necessary to dig a trench down to the mineral soil. Crown fires are very unusual and extremely hard to check. They usually burn themselves out, are stopped by some natural obstacle such as a stream, or are checked by means of back firing. The most important of the known causes of forest fires are lightning, sparks from locomotives and carelessness with camp fires, matches, cigarettes, etc. Though lightning causes a great many fires, much the larger proportion are started through the malice or carelessness of men and are therefore preventable. The most effective safeguard against fire in the woods is an enlightened public sentiment in regard to it. Such a sentiment is now being created not only in the national forests and their vicinity but, through the co-operation of the State and Federal agencies, in other timbered portions of the country. It is impossible to prevent all fires, however, and a patrol and fire-fighting system is necessary. Great progress in this direction has been made lately. Organized fire protection has been established in the national forests and in most of the State forest reservations. On the national forests the protective system is highly organized and efficient and over 45 per cent of the fires that start are put out before they have covered more than a quarter of an acre and over 70 per cent before they have covered more than 10 acres. This result is secured by means of patrols and lookouts, the building and maintenance of roads, trails and telephone lines through the forests and the preparation before the opening of each fire season of plans for the mobilization of fire-fighting forces. Thus the moment a fire is seen by the lookout or patrol it is necessary only to ascertain its exact location, its size and the direction and force of the wind; the ranger in charge knows from his plan just where he can secure most quickly men and equipment and how to get them to the fire. A number of States have developed systematic fire protection on private lands through the organization of State fire wardens. In some instances private owners have formed co-operative associations for fire protection and employ a regular force of rangers for patrol during the fire season. Fire protection in the States has been greatly stimulated through the operation of the Weeks Law. In spite of all that has been done, however, a large proportion of the forests of the country, particularly those that are privately owned, are inadequately protected from fire. See Forestry in the United States.