Smokey Summers

03 Dec

Special Contribution by Beloved Northwest Author

Jack Nisbet



Jack Nisbet


For the past few summers, people living in the Intermountain West have spent days and often weeks blanketed by smoke. We have become familiar with websites that track fire progress, levels of evacuation notice, and terms such as “forested fuel break,” “flash drought” and “mega-fire.” After too many mornings of red sun it seems impossible to make sense of where all the chaos came from, and where it could be headed.


John B. Leiberg might provide some perspective on such matters. A Swedish immigrant who lived in Iowa and Minnesota, Leiberg first came out to North Idaho in 1883 as an employee of the Northern Pacific Railroad. He caught the gold bug and established a homestead on the south end of Lake Pend Oreille around 1886, filing quartz claims along several isolated creeks. What separated Leiberg from thousands of other hopeful prospectors was that, in addition to busily cracking rocks for assay, he also collected mosses for Elizabeth Britton of the New York Botanical Garden.Although Leiberg’s letters to his mentor consisted mostly of plant talk, they included glimpses of everything else that happened in his eventful life.


Weather always stood high on Leiberg’s list of conversation topics, so the unusually dry year of 1889 had already gained some notice when August rolled around. On the third of that month, Leiberg wrote Britton from his lakeside cabin to apologize for his meager plant take. “Immense forest fires are raging in the Mountains and all around us so collections will be nil for sometime to come. A London fog is as nothing compared with the dense cloud of smoke that envelopes us and makes existence almost unendurable.”


That smoke was no illusion – some modern Northwest foresters believe that more acreage burned in 1889 than in the better-known disaster year of 1910.


Like many people surrounded by catastrophic forest fires, it seemed to Leiberg that the world as he knew it was coming to an end. “It will be many years before the mountains at this end of the Lake will regain the mossy carpet that covered them a few weeks since,” he told Britton.


He also had someone to blame for the problem. “This Kootenai county, and I may say this western country, is cursed with a set of men whose sole aim in life seems to be to burn up and throw down the forests. Neither the U.S. nor Territorial Authorities seem to care in the least how soon the forests are destroyed.”


Since his arrival in Idaho, Leiberg had watched  fellow miners burn off slopes to expose promising rock outcrops. Road builders piled up slash beside their track and set it alight with no sense of how far the flames might travel. Poor squatters were paid off by timber companies to proof up land claims by burning off space for a small cabin, then sold their acreage back to the lumbermen for whatever trees were left standing.


On one 34-mile trip to Bonners Ferry, Leiberg counted nine separate fires burning along the railroad tracks, “some set by settlers, others apparently started from sparks from the locomotives.” Each of the extensive regional rail lines, by the very nature of steam power, scorched a wide swath through the forest.


It was a disastrous mix, especially when combined with a drought year. As if to prove Leiberg’s point, on August 4 flames engulfed the young city of Spokane Falls. The following week, Leiberg wrote to his botanical friend that, while it might be wet and cool in New York City, conditions out West had not changed. “Wish we had some of your rain to lay this terrible smoke that hangs over the country, but no rain is due in this latitude for 6 weeks or more so we have to suffer a while longer with red eyes, depressed spirits etc.”


Today, residents from the Methow to Missoula, from British Columbia’s Cariboo country to the Columbia Gorge, know all about those red eyes and depressed spirits.


At the same time, like many modern television watchers, Leiberg was fascinated by the damage. Within the next week he visited Spokane Falls, “where I have been viewing the views from the great conflagration.” But he also knew that he had to get on with his life, and at the end of the month he headed back into the Coeur d’Alene mountains to re-stake his mineral properties. By early September he was pleased to report that “In three days rain has put out the forest fires, cleared the air from smoke and made my Lakeside ranch look like itself again – the most beautiful spot on Earth I ever saw.” Even in that first moment of relief, no one understood better than Leiberg that a single clearing rain did not mark the end of the 1889 fire story.


Early in February of the following winter, Idaho’s Silver Valley was struck by a series of deadly avalanches. According to newspaper accounts: The town of Burke, Idaho, in the Coeur d’Alene mining district, has been nearly destroyed. … Yesterday afternoon and this morning with scarcely a moment’s warning a tremendous mass of snow and rocks swept upon the town from the west side of the narrow gulch in which it is situated. Five men were buried beneath the snow. … Half the business houses are in ruins. … Yesterday another disastrous avalanche swept down upon a boarding-house connected with the Custer mine, which is situated about five miles from Burke.


John Leiberg responded to these avalanches with an energetic letter to his botanical friend. “You have probably read about the great avalanche and landslide and loss of lives occurring in the Valley of the South fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. They are now reaping what they have been sowing for many years,” he told Britton.


“During the last 27 years, since the Mullan Military Road was built, every yokel traveling on it along the South Fork has considered himself commissioned to destroy with axe and fire the magnificent forest that once covered the hills there, until now but small patches of wretched lonely looking trees remain.” Leiberg continued. “So comes the avalanche and the landslide and a whole long train of ills.”


Most contemporary accounts attributed the avalanches around Burke to unusually heavy snowfall followed by several days of rain, but Leiberg’s logic here was sound.


Forest cover, healthy duff around trees, and uncompacted soil all do their part to slow runoff in mountain forests, and contemporary photographs clearly show that the Silver Valley’s mining frenzy of the 1880s had destroyed much of that protection.


Over the next two decades, John Leiberg monitored many more burns as he pursued mining ventures, collected plants for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and carried out timber and land classification work across Forest Reserve tracts that would become our current national forests. Along the way, he described destructive fires in the high Cascades around Mount Stuart and lightning-strike blazes on the shoulders of Arizona’s San Francisco Peak.


While surveying Oregon’s Siskyou Range he visited sawmills to count burn scars on yarded logs. He observed “the natural regenerative power of the forest” in the aftermath of relatively low-temperature forest fires in the Coeur d’Alenes. In the Clearwater and St. Joe drainages he saw much hotter burns where he estimated that the sterilized soil would take decades or even centuries to recover.


Leiberg tried to raise public awareness of fire in countless letters, reports and magazine articles, working against the grain of local opinion as he lobbied for reasonable management and wise use of the region’s precious timber resource. All of this seemed to grow as a determined response to those eye-burning, fog-like summer days of 1889, when the world went up in flames around him. While those events happened more than a century ago, today we still struggle mightily with issues surrounding forests and fire. John Leiberg would have told us to rub our eyes, get out into the woods, and try harder to figure them out.


Jack Nisbet is the author of Sources of the River and Ancient Places. His book on John and Carrie Leiberg will appear in the fall of 2018.

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