A Spy on Pinkham Creek

Well, maybe we should call him an undercover agent.  In my youth, the term would have been narc.  Still, this story, from the old Forest Supervisor, C.S. Webb, is the closest to an official story of a Forest Service spy, working from the Supervisor’s office, monitoring the Pinkham Creek residents.  His whole story is at

In 1933, we were allotted 4 CC camps, and in 1931 the 4 CC camps returned and sufficient Dev-Nira and Imp-Nira funds were allotted to hire 200 men all season. In these two years, we built many miles of low-standard road, new towers and houses on dozens of lookouts, and telephone lines to serve them. A good start was made on a topographic map of the forest, and we built all the ranger stations as they stand today, except the Libby Station and the residence structures at Sylvanite, Warland and Rexford. The latter three were remodeled. The airfields at Troy and Libby were also constructed during those years. Times were hard, men plentiful, and the local populace was very appreciative of the employment provided by the Forest Service.

It was in 1932 that Charlie Powell, ranger at Rexford, overheard a conversation at a trail camp between two Pinkham Ridgers, indicating that the Ridge-runners planned some incendiarism. He promptly reported this to me. The Ridge-runners were a rather canny clan who migrated from the mountains of West Virginia and Kentucky years earlier and took homesteads on Pinkham Creek and Pinkham Ridge. Their chief pursuits were stealing tie timber and moonshining, but occasionally they would set a few fires, “just for the hell of it – to bother the ‘Govment’ men,” and also to provide a few days’ work. A bad epidemic of these fires was experienced in 1922.

Their planning in 1932 was to make lots of work. Bill Nagel, supervisor of the Blackfeet, and I hired an undercover man to go to Eureka to loiter and fish and get in with the Ridgers. He took an old Ford, rambled around the country, got acquainted with all of them, and finally joined their planning discussions after being accepted into their confidence. They completed their plans and set a date (August 22) for setting a string of fires from Edna Creek on the Blackfeet clear through to Sutton Creek on the Kootenai. A man was appointed to go into each drainage and the approximate spot was prescribed where he would set his fire. The complete plan, which was pretty thorough, was reported by our man directly to Nagel at Kalispell. This man was always around Eureka in the daytime, and whenever he had anything to report he drove into Kalispell during the night and was back before morning. We never phoned or wrote to him, nor did he to us. He was an ex-forest officer known to Nagel and me as a fully reliable man.

The day before the scheduled setting of the fires, we had two or three men in the vicinity of where each fire was to be started and quite a few others at anticipated places of travel by the Ridgers in or out of the woods. Our men met several of the Ridgers, who appeared very surprised to see someone. Our fellows saw others they did not meet, and likely our men were seen, too. We had hoped to catch at least one or two Ridgers in the act, but not a fire was set. Our undercover man was out on the fire-setting expedition with one of the Ridgers and joined in their talks after they returned to Eureka. They had tumbled immediately to the fact that we had gotten wind of their plans, since everywhere they went they encountered someone. But, they never suspected our undercover man, and to this day, old timers there are wondering how we got next to their plan. I have never heard since of any attempts at incendiaries in that area. Previously, there had been several outbreaks, and one man served time in Deer Lodge for setting a fire on Pinkham Ridge.”


Wildfire Resources- useful links

This time of the year, it’s hard to tell where the smoke is coming from – there is just so much of it. Given how dry things are, and how thin our resources are spread, it’s good to keep informed.

So, where do we go?

State Map– helpful to get a quick glance and see if there’s anything new in the area.

InciWeb– Good for a broader map- the website also includes tables that list the reported incidents.

Code Red– Receive notifications of emergencies in your area.

TFS Volunteer Fire Department– they post information on Facebook, and they can always use help and support.

Fire Restrictions– What do the different stages mean? Find out here. Wondering which stage an area is in? They have a map!

Fire and Smoke Map– National level map. More useful to answer “where is the smoke coming from” when we don’t have as many fires nearby. Speaking of those…

Nearby Fires:

Burnt Peak and South Yaak Fires– Burnt Peak was 2,715 acres and 31% contained, as of about 7 pm July 26th. South Yaak was 1,523 acres and 10% contained. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office has been putting updates out on Facebook. The South Yaak fire has seen both evacuation and pre-evacuation notices.

Closer to home, while not in Lincoln County, is the Hay Creek Fire. It is 4 miles West of Polebridge. As of 6 pm July 26th, it was 1,158 acres. The area receiving pre-evacuation notice for the Hay Creek Fire has been expanding.


Fires by Year and Partial Duration Series

When I listened to the explanations that the California and Oregon fires were worse than ever, and resulted from anthropic climate change, I did what I usually do.  I checked for data and found statistics at the National Interagency Fire Center.

The table I found lists both number of fires, and acreage burned by year, starting in 1926. That’s almost a hundred years, and a lot of numbers. Since graphs tend to easier to read, line graphs follow. The drop in number of fires in 1984 is a dramatic shift, The drop in acreage burned that occurred in the fifties is an equally dramatic shift.

Number of Fires, by Year, in the United States. Data from the National Interagency Fire Center

Both sets of data are partial duration series – and a significant part of my life has been making projections from partial duration series, and teaching how to do it. Not predicting the future, you understand just projecting the data. It would have been nice to have this data for the classroom – you can see how taking either the left half of the graph, or the center half, or the right half, and projecting a line through it, would lead to very different projections.

Our largest years for fires were pretty much between 1926 and 1952.  I had remembered 1988 as particularly bad – but the statistics show that it was perspective – Yellowstone Park burned, then at the end of the year, Dry Fork was almost in the backyard.  Five million acres burned is a lot – but compared to 52 million in 1930, it seems small. Memory is influenced by perspective, and my memory of the 1988 fire season was “Montana-centric.”

Acres Burned, by Year, in the United States. Data from the National Interagency Fire Center

The graphs look very different if you cut the data down to just 20 years. Most of the time, our data is a partial duration series. Tweaking reality from a partial duration series isn’t always easy – and the past century’s forest fire data shows the challenges. The projection can’t be better than the data.