Why a 10A.M. Fire Policy?

Why a 10A.M. Fire Policy?

Ferdinand Augustus Silcox seemed destined for a career in chemical engineering via Johns Hopkins University when he stumbled across an article titled “Forestry, the New Profession” in the February 9, 1901 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. Rene Bache’s essay caused him to instead enroll in the Yale Forestry School in 1905, the year the Forest Service was formed with Gifford Pinchot at its helm.

Life’s twists and turns culminated in Silcox being appointed Forest Service Chief in 1933. By reputation, he was a brilliant engineer with exceptional listening and organizational skills that would serve him well during his six years as Chief.

It was Silcox who, in 1935, instituted the 10 a.m. fire policy. It was dropped in 1978, a year after President Carter signed the National Forest Management Act [NFMA] and four years Gerald Ford signed the Forest and Range Renewable Resources Act [RPA]. John McGuire was then Forest Service Chief.

NFMA and RPA fundamentally changed the Forest Service. I know this because John became an Evergreen donor after he retired in 1979. We talked many times about how NFMA and RPA added layers of procedural bureaucracy that his predecessors, especially Silcox, would have found unnecessarily messy.

Silcox was revered by Forest Service employees who understood that his conservation bonafides were very real in a classic sense – meaning that he abhorred waste of any kind. Silcox replaced Bill Greeley as Northern Region Forester in Missoula, Montana in 1911, the year following the Great 1910 Fire.

Silcox knew and worked with Greeley and Pinchot and thus understood that the first and third chiefs of the Forest Service were both hellbent on making certain there would be no more 1910 fires. Silcox would become the fifth Forest Service Chief after the fourth Chief, Robert Stuart, fell to his death from his seventh-floor office in Washington, D.C in October 1933.

The stars in Gus Silcox’s course had begun to line up years earlier. Because of his forestry background, the U.S. Army sent him to the Puget Sound in 1917 to deal with the International Workers of the World, a rough and tumble union that had hoped to organize woods workers. IWW workers had refused to help fight forest fires in western Washington.

Silcox had faced the IWW in Missoula in 1911 after they threatened to burn down the Northern Region’s 26 million acres of forest and grassland. Millworkers and loggers of that era were overworked and poorly paid and Silcox knew it. He was able to negotiate a settlement that put IWW workers on fire lines and more money in their pockets.

When World War I broke out, Silcox was commissioned an officer and sent to Europe with the 20th Engineers. Less than a year later, the Army sent him to the Puget Sound to again deal with the IWW. Following the war, the government dispatched him to New York to reorganize several offices. Thereafter, a large Chicago printing firm hired him as their Director of Industrial Relations.

Silcox maintained friendships with several former Forest Service colleagues during his 11 years in the printing industry, including Pinchot and Greeley. It seems likely that they recommended him to Agriculture Secretary, Henry Wallace, as did his friend, Rex Tugwell, who was Wallace’s assistant secretary.

Silcox quickly accepted Secretary Wallace’s invitation days after Stuart fell to his death – and four years into the Great Depression with more than 100,000 jobless young men living and working in remote CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] camps scattered across a desperate nation. Among them: my father.

Dad spent two summers on Crooked Ridge overlooking the North Fork of the Coeur d’ Alene River here in northern Idaho. He battled blister rust, planted trees and fought forest fires in the summers of 1933 and 1934, but in 1935 he opted for a 25-cent-an-hour ditch digging job – twice what he was making at Crooked Ridge. That spring, Silcox implemented the Forest Service’s 10 o’clock fire policy.

Greeley, Stuart and Silcox had all seen action on the front lines of the 1910 fire. Pinchot had not, but he had thrown a very public hissy fit over Congress’s refusal to provide adequate firefighting equipment to early crews. Public anger over the three-million-acre fire was immediate but deeply rooted in history.

Thousands had been killed in wildfires in the Great Lakes Region beginning in 1871. Public anger boiled over following the 1910 fire, but Congress would not acquiesce until 1924 when it finally put the Forest Service in the firefighting business alongside privately funded fire cooperatives formed in the West by the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company syndicate following the 1902 Yacolt Burn.

Greeley, who was Forest Service Chief from 1920 to 1928, had been a significant behind-the-scenes force in ratification of the Clarke-McNary Act. He was Northern Region Forester during the 1910 Fire and had presided over the burial of more than 80 firefighters killed in the inferno. During Senate debate he hid in a cloakroom and passed favorable questions and answers to senators who were supporting the Act. President Calvin Coolidge signed it into law June 7, 1924

With his 10 o’clock fire edict in place, Silcox quickly cashed in on the availability of CCC crews hired in the months after President Franklin Roosevelt added the Corps to his long list of New Deal programs. Between 1938 and 1942, the aptly named “Tree Army” built 611 fire lookouts using detailed architectural plans drawn by T.W. Norcross, the Forest Service’s chief engineer, and displayed in a well-illustrated 27-page booklet.

The towers, between 60 and 120 feet tall, were constructed from steel, wood, or stone, depending on what was readily available. Tower equipment was standard: binoculars, two-way radios and an Osborne fire finder, a compass-like device that could be rotated 360 degrees.

Yale Forestry graduate, W.B. Osborne, assembled the first fire finder in his home workshop in Portland, Oregon in the winter of 1910-1911. The rotating disk with a survey map positioned on it proved so accurate that it soon went into commercial production at Leupold-Volpel [later Stevens] lab in Beaverton, Oregon. Outfitted with cameras, they could take 360-degree pictures of forested landscapes. We have several “Osborne” photos from the 1920s in our Evergreen library.

Osborne tested an early version of his invention atop Mt. Hood in the summer of 1914. In one month, lookout Elijah Coalman spotted and reported 131 fires with the device. For decades thereafter the men and women who summered in towers - used fire finders with localized survey maps to pinpoint the locations of fires they had spotted with their binoculars.

Two-way radios were the most common means of reporting fires. Although Silcox’s 10 A.M. edict meant what it said, initial response was slow because, while there were many old forest trails, there were few roads and radio transmissions from remote areas often had to be relayed through several towers before reaching firefighting crews.

Everything changed when the first Missoula-trained smokejumpers - Earl Cooley, and Rufus Robinson - parachuted on a small fire on Martin Creek on the Nez Perce National Fire, July 12, 1940. Since then, tens of thousands of jumpers have been deployed on forest fires.

Despite Chief McGuire’s 1978 decision to abandon Silcox’s policy, there are still nine jump bases scattered across the West. Unfortunately, given current Forest Service misuse of fire, jump crews aren’t used nearly often enough. I am told that about 100 jumpers in crews of six currently sit idle each day – enough to conduct Initial Attack on 16 fires.

The old Ford Trimotor's and DC 3’s that transported smokejumpers for decades have given way to retrofitted DC-10s and 747’s that drop borate on big fires near communities. Twin rotor Chinook helicopters and single rotor Sikorsky S-64s are used to drop water on fires – again mostly near communities, though we have photographed Chinooks miles from anywhere.

SEATs [Single engine air tankers] are gaining popularity because they can be deployed in remote areas, scoop their own water from rivers or lakes and flown from crude airfields. We've photographed Dauntless amphibious SEATS practicing water pickups and drops in Coeur d'Alene Lake. Very impressive.

Helitack crews rappelling on ropes into fire zones are also very effective. You don't have to be nuts to do this kind of Initial Attack work, but it probably helps. It seems likely that many crewmembers have military training.

Technological advancements, including remotely operated and monitored infrared cameras that rotate, tilt and zoom have replaced Osborne fire finders around Lake Tahoe in northern California. Great idea. Unfortunately, as with all firefighting tools, decisions as to why, when, where and how to attack wildfires, or whether to deliberately set fires for what the Forest Service euphemistically calls “resource benefit,” rest solely with the agency.

A massive heart attack killed Gus Silcox on December 20, 1939. He would not recognize today's Forest Service but his 1939 Christmas letter, published in the agency's December Service Bulletin, says a great deal about who he was, what he believed and why he implemented the 10 A.M. fire policy. He titled his message Guarding Democracy. With Hitler’s armies already on the march in Poland and Czechoslovakia, this is what he wrote:

“We are soon on the eve of another Christmas. Another New Year will soon be here. And although these are days when armies march as dictators command, America stands firm for democracy.

It is the job of every one of us to help maintain that stand.

As a Nation we draw civic and spiritual guidance from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. For most material things on which our strength is based we turn to the earth, its minerals, its soils and waters, and to the plants and animals they yield.

As members of the Forest Service we therefore rededicate our efforts to securing wise use of our natural resources. For, as sources of raw materials, of necessities of life, and of employment and income, these resources are fundamental to our national defense against military aggression and against the undermining of economic and social structures within our borders.

But abuse and depletion of natural resources are not the only threats to democracy as we know it. Freedom must also be guarded; freedom to seek the truth, and courage to apply it without prejudice or rancor through established institutions in defense of human rights.

You and I are members of an organization permeated by the spirit of public service. Foresters, we are also citizens of democracy. I am confident, therefore, that our efforts and our lives are also rededicated to preservation of tolerance, kindness, and those ideals that guided our forebears when, seeking blessed sanctuary, they founded the United States of America.”

Sound vaguely familiar?

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