Above: In a fire lookout tower in Kentucky, 1939, a forest ranger and a CCC enrollee demonstrate a turntable device that helps pinpoint wildfires. Photo from The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), September 10, 1939, provided courtesy of Newspapers.com, used here for educational and non-commercial purposes.
CCC Firefighting: A history of speed
From 1933-1942, millions of men in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built firebreaks, fire lookout towers, and forest access roads. They also fought wildfires and removed wildfire fuel. How successful were these efforts?
Consider the following six points:
1. Ponderosa Way: During the California fire season of 1934, the CCC's 800-mile-long "Ponderosa Way" firebreak stopped 9 of 11 large wildfires ("Ponderosa Way Is Lauded By Officials," The Sacramento Bee, December 28, 1934, p. 7).
2. Fewer Acres Burned: California's 1934 fire season was the least humid and most windy since 1924. In 1924, there were 1,932 fires that burned 762,150 acres. In 1934, there were 2,054 fires that burned only 82,773 acres. The CCC's role in the reduction was explained: "Each C.C.C. camp had a special fire crew ready for call at all times of the day or night, but the whole camp, or several camps, often would take part in suppressing a large fire. Forest officers give high praise to the spirit and determination of these boys, to whom a large part of the credit is due in the saving of valuable forests and watersheds" ("More Fires, Lower Cost," Los Angeles Times, November 4, 1934, p. 66).
3. More Money for the CCC! In 1940, U.S. Congressman Francis Case (R-South Dakota) argued for more funding for the CCC because the CCC boys were so good at their job that they had saved South Dakota more money than what the CCC program had cost for his state. "In the Harney forest alone," he said, "there were more than 100 fires last year, but CCC control had held the burned area to an average of one acre per fire ("Case Fights Cut in CCC Funds," Rapid City Journal, March 8, 1940, p. 2).
4. Manpower and Speed: Similar to the previous point, CCC Director James McEntee wrote that quick response was the main firefighting strategy of the CCC: "If men and equipment can catch a fire when it is small, the war is won. That is the principle upon which the CCC operates. CCC men build small roads and truck trails into the forests so they can quickly move men and equipment into the areas where the fires start" (Now They Are Men: The Story of the CCC, 1940, p. 22). U.S. Department of Interior statistics highlighted the success of this CCC strategy (as well as the value of overwhelming manpower). For example, in the National Parks, where the CCC was the main firefighting force, the average acreage burned, per wildfire, ranged from 20-86 acres between 1930 and 1932 (before the CCC), but only 3-18 acres from 1933-1939 (Department of Interior fiscal year report, 1940, p. 209).
5. Saving our Forests: In 1937, it was reported that fires in the national forests, during the season, were only a third as destructive as normal. Credit was assigned to favorable weather conditions, improved equipment, and "the presence in most national forests of trained, mobile firefighting corps of Civilian Conservation Corps workers" ("Report Smallest Forest Fire Record in Service Annals," Associated Press, in St. Louis Globe-Democrat (St. Louis, Missouri), October 24, 1937, p. 24).
6. Saving Private Land Too: When the CCC ended in 1942, the head forester for the southern region of the United States wrote, "Largely through the fire control improvements and facilities constructed by the CCC it has been possible for the state foresters in the southern region to provide fire control for millions of acres of privately-owned timber lands that otherwise would have continued to suffer severe damage annually" (Perry H. Merrill, Roosevelt's Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942, 1981, p. 51).
Above: The description for this image reads, "Millions of these stickers are distributed annually in National Parks over the country. They help to make park visitors conscious of the need for fire prevention. Constant vigil is needed to spot fires from the lookout towers before they get beyond control. The C.C.C. firefighters then go out and put them out as quickly as possible. Image from The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), September 10, 1939, provided courtesy of Newspapers.com, used here for educational and non-commercial purposes.