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  • Fleeing the Big Burn:Refugees, Informal Assistance, and Welfare Practices in the Progressive Era
  • Thomas A. Krainz (bio)

On August 21, 1910, a newspaper in Missoula, Montana, announced that 300 refugees would be arriving, "probably at 7 o' clock this morning," on a train originating from Wallace, Idaho.1 Riding on that train, in a coal car, Mr. and Mrs. O. W. Bass came to Missoula covered in black dust but thankful to have escaped any harm from the massive forest fire burning in the surrounding area.2 Residents first greeted the Basses and other passengers with "sandwiches and coffee spread out in the railroad station park" before arranging overnight lodging and meals.3 Missoula was not, however, the only community to receive a sudden influx of displaced people. "Thousands of settlers have been left homeless and refugees are constantly arriving in towns," stated a telegram sent to Idaho's governor.4 For the next several days, approximately 1,200 people arrived in both Missoula and Spokane, Washington, and another 1,600 to 2,100 refugees fled to other nearby towns. An immense, fast-moving wildfire in the border region comprising eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana—an area collectively known as the Inland Empire—quickly drove these residents from their homes to seek safety, shelter, food, and clothing.5 [End Page 405]

While the fire in August 1910 was no doubt unprecedented, the practice of caring for refugees was not particularly unique. In fact, providing for those fleeing from catastrophic events was a familiar experience for many turn-of-the-century communities throughout the nation and within the Inland Empire. Fires and floods, along with a number of other natural and manmade disasters—earthquakes, storms, wars, and labor conflicts—repeatedly drove people from their homes. At the time, early twentieth-century residents used a much broader definition of "refugee" than we use today. The term "refugee" included internally displaced people and did not necessarily connote being persecuted or unable to return home. We know surprisingly little about how refugees were treated by receiving communities, including those people fleeing the forest fire in 1910.6 Most of the literature on the fire, which was commonly referred to as the Big Burn or the Big Blowup, focuses on the heroic actions and tragic deaths of firefighters, the dramatic escapes from rapidly advancing flames, the immediate influence of the fire on national politics, and the long-term effect of the fire on Forest Service policies.7 How communities aided the 4,000 to 4,500 refugees receives minimal attention.

The historical examination of catastrophes is in a state of flux. In the past, somewhat surprisingly, researchers of welfare practices have left the investigation of natural and manmade calamities to other scholars.8 Recent tragic events, however, such as the devastation of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, have spurred a renewed interest in natural disasters as fertile topics for historical inquiry, including studies of welfare practices.9 Michele Landis Dauber, for instance, has extensively examined one component of aid to refugees, the development of federal disaster relief.10 Dauber charts the evolution of federal assistance from "private bills for the relief of individuals" to legislation encompassing "a defined class of claimants" suffering from a particular catastrophe.11 She explains that these appeals for direct federal assistance increased in frequency in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and were successful when claimants presented themselves as "morally blameless victims" of a sudden disaster.12 Most important, Dauber emphasizes that federal disaster relief established the political, legal, and rhetorical framework for creating much of this nation's modern welfare policies. "Proponents of the New Deal," argues Dauber, "built their programs over the scaffolding of disaster relief."13 Thus according to Dauber, the significance of federal disaster relief rests with its lasting, permanent, influence on this nation's welfare policies. The responses to refugees after the Big Burn, however, cast a different light on assistance to refugees. This article reasons [End Page 406] that relief for refugees at the local level reveals highly responsive, yet varied, informal community welfare practices that generally, but not always, succeeded in caring for refugees. These local responses to refugees...


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