Fire a primary concern for ANF in its infancy
About a million acres have burned in the Canadian wildfire that has impacted our air quality here in recent weeks.
Fires of that size pale in comparison to anything we see in the eastern United States, like a fire in Glade Township in 2021 that burned 259 acres.
But don’t tell that to Loren Bishop, the first supervisor of the Allegheny National Forest.
I don’t mean to minimize the concern that fire can pose today, but Bishop thought the future of the ANF was at stake: “To a very large degree, the project (the ANF itself) stands or falls dependent upon our ability to prevent and suppress forest fires.”
He called fire the “one arch enemy of forests.
“If the Allegheny National Forest does not come to be a national forestry demonstration area, it will be because forest fires consume the examples of forestry practices.”
By 1925, 20 years before the birth of Smokey the Bear, Bishop realized the important role that the public would play in preventing forest fires.
“Until the general public becomes forest-minded and realizes the seriousness of fires in the woods and does its part to prevent and suppress them, the annual forest fire loss will be very great,” he wrote. “Practically all fires in Pennsylvania are man caused and thus preventable. It is much more economical to prevent fires than to put them out once they get started.”
The most common causes he identified included smokers, campers, brush fires that get away, engines that were “improperly screened” and “hunters smoking out game or bees.”
“Every truly good citizen will see to it that he does not cause a forest fire and will take a constructive interest in seeing that others exercise the care that is necessary to protect our forests,” he wrote.
Bishop said that fire protection was a “priority” for planning work on the national forest.
“Lookout towers are built so that the fires may be properly discovered and located, men and tools are stationed throughout the forest and every effort is made to reach all fires quickly and put them out with the least amount of expense and loss,” he wrote. “Roads are being built into the most remote sections so as to cut down travel time.”
The towers were manned and the towermen were directed to immediately contact the forest supervisor or ranger who would then take trained men to where the fire was discovered.
There were specific strategic goals for how much of the forest could burn year over year – 1/20th of one percent year over year. When he was writing in 1925, the current burn rate was 1/2 of one percent.
But there was a knowledge then that fire towers and equipment weren’t going to be ultimately what kept fire at bay.
“One of the principal Forest Service activities has to do with the development of public sentiment against forest fires,” Bishop wrote. “It is cheaper and more constructive to fight fires before they start, in other words keep them from starting.”
That’s awfully familiar to today though the means in 1925 looked different – exhibits at fairs, printed folders, newspaper articles, signs and posters, moving pictures, talks and what Bishop called “novelties.”
An article written for the 50th anniversary of the ANF in the 1970s detailed the response to a fire that occurred in May 1924. Much like this spring, there had been little precipitation and winds were high.
“A large smoke at Loleta was reported from the Marienville Tower. The fire had taken off like a scared rabbit,” that argument explained. “Our organized fire crews hit it hard and we thought we had it nailed down by dark of that same day. But an erroneous report by a line scout had caused a shifting of line crews and the fire – driven by high winds – roared out of control. Several line crews had to run for their lives due to unauthorized backfiring. Within two days the fire had covered about 10,000 acres and was still burning.”
A second fire picked up and the end result was over 2,000 people working 24-7 on the fires, including the on-site presence of then-Forest Service Chief Col. William Greeley.
The second fire burned 18,000 acres.
“It cost more than a million and a half dollars to control. There was a heavy loss of cut timber and chemical wood and the Pennsylvania Gas Company suffered extensive damage to gas wells and pipelines,” the article explained. “Many lessons were learned by all the men who worked on the Bear Creek and Loleta fires. They learned what organization, cooperation and good supervision meant in fire control. The public as a whole learned how destructive forest fires could be.”
Though fire was considered the prime threat to the success of the ANF, Bishop was optimistic that there were “few areas within the Allegheny National Forest that have been so often and severely burned that they will not satisfactorily restock themselves naturally if protected from fire in the future.
“The soil fertility and climatic conditions of the region are such as to result in very great recuperative capacity and high productivity. In most instances were planting attempted, the natural reproduction would get the start of the planted stock and crowd it out.”
“It is gratifying indeed to know that such efforts are producing results and it is expected that forest fires will become more and more unpopular and hence fewer and fewer,” Bishop concluded. It is most important that the public come to feel the sense of ownership as to the Allegheny National Forest. In no other way will it be possible to satisfactorily protect and develop it. When the average citizen comes to realize that a fire in the forest is burning up his property, and that anyone who is responsible for fire in the woods is not only guilty in the sight of the law but is inflicting injury upon him or every other citizen, then will it come to pass that the causing of a forest fire will be realized as the abhorrent thing it is. The Allegheny National Forest is your forest. Don’t let it burn up.”