Published on November 17, 2021.

Big Burns

100 years later: the 1921 National Fire Control Conference


On November 14, 1921, the US Forest Service held the first National Fire Control Conference near Sacramento, California. William Greeley, chief of the US Forest Service at the time, invited the 45 attendees—foresters, forest supervisors, and other personnel from Forest Service districts across the United States—to discuss the inconsistencies in fire control around the country.

The overarching question for attendees—and a key reason for the inconsistencies that existed from district to district—was whether wildfires should be tolerated in any form, including controlled burns.

Greeley was in the zero-tolerance camp, a view shaped in large part a decade earlier when he witnessed one of the most destructive wildfire events in the nation’s history. In the late summer of 1910, a complex of more than 1,700 wildfires tore across three western states, destroying more than 3 million acres of forest, decimating towns, and killing at least 85 people. This devastating event, known as the Big Blowup or the Big Burn, had a profound impact on land management officials like Greeley and their belief that the only approach to wildfire was its complete eradication.

An important question addressed at the 1921 conference was whether to allow “light burning,” the regular and systematic burning of the forest floor as a means of preventing out-of-control wildfires on federal lands. The effect of this controlled burning on forest health had been debated for years, but at the 1921 conference it was decided that the practice was dangerous and that it had no place as part of a national wildfire policy.

Despite the objections of dissenters, the official outcome of the conference went even further: Every effort should be made to keep fire out of the nation’s forests.

It was a doctrine that complemented a growing belief inside the Forest Service that the Big Burn could have been prevented if the agency had had more resources with which to combat the fires. The agency doubled down on its policy of suppression and prevention as it built the roads, lookout towers, and other infrastructure needed to fight fires, and as it studied public education and outreach techniques to teach the public how to prevent fires. The ultimate expression of the agency’s no-fire philosophy emerged in 1935 with the “10 a.m. policy,” where the Forest Service called for the suppression of every wildfire by 10 a.m. on the day following its initial report.

A century after Greeley’s fateful California conference, its impact is still being felt. Research has existed for decades demonstrating that wildfire plays a crucial role in maintaining healthy ecosystems across the country, from the Sierra foothills of California to the grasslands of Florida. But a half-century of aggressive anti-fire policies has left many wildfire-prone areas choked with fuel, a condition that contributes to the mega-fires that now regularly claim lives and property—and, ironically, can resemble aspects of the Big Burn itself.

CAITLIN WALKER is a former digital asset librarian at NFPA. Top photograph: GETTY IMAGES