Fire Fighting July 1921

As we compare the news of the first week in July 1921 with present day, it seems at least one fire was burning in the state back one hundred years ago, a far cry from our situation in Arizona July 2021. The men fighting the fires in the early 1900s were not professional firefighters as we have today but ordinary men – prospectors, timber men, sheep owners and any others, who were willing to fight the fire.  These men brought their own tools, camp outfits and chuck wagons and remained fighting the fire until there were no hot embers left. Sheep men and cattle men had good reason to go fight these fires as the land being burned was where their livestock would graze or were grazing. So, we will look at that fire but look at other pertinent news about fires and what was being proposed for school children.

Big Fire

A headlines in the Coconino Sun, Flagstaff,  read “Big fire south end of forest” in the Coconino National Forest. It burned 5,000 acres!  The newspaper went on to describe the fire,

“It is a rough country, filled with box canyons, about ninety miles from Flagstaff, and 25 miles from Payson. The men had to be walked in the last ten miles to the fire, over new trails recently built by the forest service. Dave Haught’s services were requisitioned as guide, as he has busted that country for years and knows all of it. Bill Conley, Winfield Beard, A. Peck, Elmer Selck, Earl Sick and others were requisitioned with their cars to carry the fire fighters down from here.”

The newspaper further stated that the fire had started in two places at once and had been fueled by winds blowing below the Mongollon Rim the previous days. At the time of the newspaper going to press, a cause of the fire was unknown. To the detriment of the stockmen in the area already suffering from the drought which kept their sheep and cattle from good winter grazing, the area of the fire also was where J. D. Newman, John Verkamp, D. W. Hudson and the Clear Creek Cattle Co. grazed their stock, further hindering these men’s economic recovery of poor lamb crop and wool as a direct result of poor winter feed,

Earlier editions of the Coconino Sun, Flagstaff, that year also mentioned fires. In the March 11 edition, it had been reported that the forest fires had started early for the southwest. In the first ten days of March, six fires had been reported in Arizona and New Mexico. Fortunately, these fires were not extensive and did little damage. Two of the fires in the White Mountains had exceed 25 acres as they were fanned by high winds which always made controlling fires difficult. The forest service was anticipating a severe fire season due to the lack of precipitation over the winter months. Fast forward four months to July 1921, and a fire had consumed 5,000 acres. 

In that same March 11th edition of the Coconino Sun an intriguing article appeared: “To Teach Boys and Girls Fire Prevention Methods.” The Fire Marshals’ Association of North America wanted to secure legislation making the teaching of fire prevention methods to school children compulsory. The Forest Service and the United States Department of Agriculture strongly agreed and they hoped that such knowledge would make the task of protecting the forests easier.  “The whole question of adequate timber supply for the future needs of the American people, the chief forester points out, hinges on the protection of our forests. ‘Millions of acres of tree growth,’ he declares in urging the need for a law of this kind, ‘are destroyed each year by fires, and as a result of these repeated burnings we have in the United States today 245,000,000 acres of cut-over lands that are only partially restocking and more than 80,000,000 acres that are wholly non-productive. A great majority of the forest fires are man-caused, and therefore preventable. There are things which every child should know, for it is on them that the heaviest part of the future burden of curtailed timber resources will fall’.”  The paper reported that one eastern state, New Jersey, was the only state to have passed the compulsory teaching of fire prevention to school children. It was expected for other states to follow suit. Do you wonder if Arizona was one of the states that passed such legislation?  My next research project! But I digress.

Continuing further in the Coconino Sun, Flagstaff, the April 15th edition continued to bring fire awareness to the public. Francis A. Chisholm, the County Agricultural Agent wrote, “In the past ten years 4800 fires which burned over 297,176 acres were reported on the National Forests of Arizona and New Mexico, according to District Forester Franck C. W. Pooler, of Albuquerque. Of this number, 45 per cent were man-caused and the remainder resulted from lightning. It cost the Forest Service and cooperators nearly $100,000 to extinguish these fires while the actual loss in timber and forage runs well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.” The district forester reported that these lightning caused fires were less damaging in area than those caused by human carelessness.  Maybe teaching school children and adults about fire prevention would be a great idea!

Firefighting Today

A lot has changed in firefighting in the last one hundred years. Just like today, a fire can be pushed in an instant by gusting winds into an area that is hard to manage by firefighters on the ground. Those canyons and chasms can only be safely reached by the air support of water tankers today.  One hundred years ago, the ordinary men, many of whom were livestock owners, would be the ones traveling into that canyon with primitive firefighting equipment. How they managed to keep the fires under control with unsophisticated equipment just goes to show the hard work and determination of the men fighting these fires as this was the land that provided their grazing for their animals. They wanted to protect it for it was their livelihood. They did not or would not intentionally destroy the land that provided for them and their families. Why would they? 

With the high spring winds that come each year and seemingly has not stopped this year and the excessively dry conditions which create a double hazard to fighting fires, why does the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management and other governmental agencies put such tight restrictions on the number of animals on the land, how long the animals can graze that land, and when they have to move?  Is it better for a balance between grazing and forest management then to see the forest burned up? What about the wildlife that also are killed in such forest fires and the loss of grazing lands in their future? See two pictures below. I am sure that there are many more on the internet that could be added here. Wildlife and people do not win in such an environmental catastrophe. Environmentalists have had too much say in the management of our forest lands. Livestock raisers do not want to destroy the land that allows them a livelihood.  They build water tanks and provide salt links for their animals but the wildlife also take advantage of these too. They were environmentalists before the environmentalist even knew what that word meant. It is ludicrous to even think that farmers and ranchers are not good stewards of the land! 

May be an image of animal and nature
Photos by Marina Amaya Diaz

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