Opinion: My father’s forest fires

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Commentary by Ward Degler

I’ve been thinking about my dad recently. He was a forester and spent a lot of days fighting forest fires. His career started with the U.S. Forest Service in the Civilian Conservation Corps camps of Wisconsin during the Great Depression.

This has been on mind because much of California has been ablaze recently, and these fires may prove to be the worst ever in terms of acres burned and homes destroyed. Although to my knowledge Dad never had to fight any big fires, he did have an ironic connection to two of the biggest fires in history.

Dad was born in 1910, one month after the fabled Big Burn fire destroyed 3 million acres of timberland in just two days in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana. Twenty years later, he spent the summer as a Purdue forestry intern on fire watch in the same mountains. He once told me he had read reports of the Big Burn and spent that summer in constant fear of a new fire.

In Wisconsin a few years later, his CCC colleagues stood fire watch just a few miles from the site of the deadliest fire in U.S. history. The Peshtigo Fire destroyed nearly 4 million acres and killed between 1,500 and 2,500 people – virtually the entire population of the town of Peshtigo, Wis. Dad said the scars of that fire were still visible many years later.

The thing that made this fire so deadly was it created its own wind and raced across the land at speeds exceeding 100 mph. Despite the staggering death toll, the Peshtigo Fire got very little attention because the Great Chicago Fire happened at exactly the same time. That legendary fire, which destroyed much of the Windy City, reportedly started when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern. The Peshtigo Fire started from a controlled burn set by railroad workers to clear the right-of-way for new track.

Most of Dad’s work in Wisconsin was spent building firebreaks and planting trees in the Chequamegon National Forest. In 10 years, his CCC workers planted more than 10 million trees in those woods.

Years later, Dad managed the Forest Cropland program for the Missouri Conservation Commission – an initiative that applied new forest management practices in state and privately owned forestlands. 

He fought few fires during the latter years of his career. Even so, each morning he would go outside and sniff the air. If he didn’t smell smoke, he would have a second cup of coffee.

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