Fighting Wildfires in Northern Montana 1911-1960s

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by Pat Jaquith and Barbara Boorman

Editor’s note: Captions on these images are transcribed from the reverse side of the photo. For more images from Barbara’s collection, click here.

In 1910, there were disastrous fires in northern Idaho and northwestern Montana when
hundreds of thousands of acres of timberlands were destroyed; many lives were lost, and much
property outside of the forests was destroyed.

In May, 1911, many timberland owners and other owners of other property in northwestern
Montana met and organized the Northern Montana Fire Association (NMFA), a non-profit organization for protecting life and property in the region. A.E. (Albert) Boorman became the Chief Fire Warden and secretary/treasurer of the organization.

The boundaries of the area covered by the NMFA were from Whitefish south to Nirada (north of Hot Springs) and from Kalispell west to Lost Prairie, McGregor Lake, and Flathead Mine. In 1921, the NMFA charged $0.015 per acre to anyone – forest owner, rancher, homesteader – who appreciated the availability of a firefighting crew in the area should the need arise. As A.E. Boorman said in a Daily Interlake interview in 1921, the organization charged just enough to cover costs “and no more.”

A. E. Boorman, Blacktail Lookout. Probably July 10, 1934.
A.E.B. and Pete Calder looking over a map at station on Haskill Mountain Lookout. Monday, Aug. 5, 1935.

During the Fire Season (June – September), a force of 65 patrolmen were kept at work within
the association boundaries. NMFA had three lookouts: Blacktail, west of Lakeside; Haskill
Mountain (near Kila); and Hubbart Lookout (in the Hubbart Dam area).

Lookout tower on Blacktail Mountain. Constructed by the F. S. for use during the 1935 fire season.

Before roads were built to the lookouts, they hired pack strings to supply them. The association had field equipment for a crew of 300 firefighters in case of need. The Association had a warehouse in the basement of a building north of the Depot in Kalispell where all the firefighting equipment was stored; their office was upstairs in the Noffsinger Building on the corner of Main Street and 2nd Street East.

George Colby, Glen Locke, James Adams at base of Blacktail Mt. ready to install man and equipment on mountain for 1938 – Alfred Williams, Lookout Man for the season. June 27, 1938.

A bit of Boorman history: B.J. Boorman came from Wisconsin in the late 1800’s; he settled in
Smith Valley where he set up a lumber mill, establishing himself in the timber industry. A.E.
(Albert) Boorman followed his uncle to the area; after returning to Wisconsin to marry, he and
his wife settled in Kalispell. A.E. Boorman had 3 children: Paul, Maurice, and Bertha.

Bertha Boorman and her pack outfit on her way to Blacktail Lookout over trail #231. Tuesday, July 30, 1935.

Maurice attended Flathead High School and went to work for the NMFA where he held the
position of Chief Fire Warden and Secretary/Treasurer. Maurice made firefighting his life’s work.
His daughter Barbara recalls her dad coming home covered with soot and ticks and smelling
like smoke. She also recalls going with her father in his pickup circa 1946 to post “Smokey
Bear” signs in the spring. They’d go out to Pleasant Valley and Lost Prairie vicinities and
connect with many of the private landowners.

Fritz. Lillian Boorman (Mrs. Maurice B.), Maurice Boorman, Bertha Boorman (sister of Maurice). 8-5-1935. Haskell Mountain Lookout – near Kila.

In the late 1960’s, the NMFA was disbanded, and firefighting in the region was taken over by the
Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). Maurice Boorman was hired by
the DNRC. Since he held the knowledge of the area, the roads, and how it all worked, he was a
valued contributor to the firefighting arm of DNRC. DNRC built the Maurice E. Boorman Fire
Station north of Bitterroot Lake. The Fire Station location is used by DNRC and USFS for
training purposes. It is manned in summer by DNRC as a staging area for fire suppression, road
maintenance, etc.

One of the local fires that NMFA and other agencies fought was the Lost Creek Fire. On August
25, 1931, the fire broke out almost simultaneously in four places along the ridge by Lost Creek
northwest of Kalispell, just north of the Bissell neighborhood. By the following morning the
fast-moving crown fire, pushed by 25 mph winds, had consumed 2,000 acres. A reconnaissance
flight made by Supervisor Nagel of the Blackfeet forest on the morning of August 26 estimated
that the fire was within two or three miles of Whitefish and the same distance from the Whitefish
Road. The wind shifted before the flames advanced farther in that direction. Between 450 and
500 men fought the fire. In all, between 7000 and 8000 acres of land and several homes and
outbuildings were burned. An eye witness reported that even in the intense heat of the fire, men
were working to stop the flames at the road.

Drove up on new road from Kila. Blacktail Mountain Lookout, Flathead County, MT. Maurice Boorman. 8-13-51.

Resources: Barbara Boorman; pictures by A.E. Boorman and M.E. Boorman; Daily Interlake archives; book “The Gift of Little Things” by Alice S. Hutchens.

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