Skip to content
Interpreting the Evidence

Forest Fire Control, c. 1920

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Lower Elementary
    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:


  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Forest Fire Control, c. 1920 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
Men trying to control a forest fire by cutting down a smoldering bush, circa 1920.
Historical Context
The Forest Ranger Service was established in 1885 to protect New York State’s forests. The Service still plays a vital role in environmental conservation today. New York has about 22 million acres of forested land to protect. When a forest fire breaks out, the forest rangers coordinate and supervise the firefighters who come to extinguish the fire. In addition to firefighters and forest rangers, volunteers from local communities also help fight the fires.

In the early twentieth century, forest fires ravaged eastern New York. In 1903, a forest fire started near Lake Placid in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. Powerful gusts of wind that blew through those high elevations spread the fire quickly, until it was out of control. From April 20th to June 8th of 1903, 600,000 acres of land were burned. People were forced to evacuate their homes, animals that were trapped in the forest died, and fish died in streams and rivers from the intense heat and ashes.

That same year, 643 other forest fires burned 464,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks and the Catskills, and caused around $700,000 worth of damages. In the year 2000, the Department of Environmental Conservation reported only 594 acres burned thanks to conservation and awareness efforts by the forest rangers.

Essential Question
How do human settlement patterns impact the environment?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and explain why this process was necessary.
Historical Challenges
Research the origins of Smokey the Bear.
Interdisciplinary Connections
Math: Between April 20 and June 8, 1903 600,000 acres burned. If each day the same number of acres burned, how many were burned each day? How many square miles is that?
Science: What are some natural starters of forest fires? Are these fires ever good for the environment? What is a controlled burn? How does it help the soil for agriculture?
English Language Arts: Write a letter to a nearby park or the state Forest Service requesting information on forest fire prevention.