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Missoula exhibit shows innovation in Forest Service communications

Posted at 7:13 PM, Jul 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-13 22:40:42-04

MISSOULA — Nowadays, you can depend on satellites and sophisticated communications systems to manage wildfire, or just run a National Forest.

That's a lot different than decades ago but it doesn't mean there wasn't innovation -- and it happened right here in Montana.

The Fire Call One exhibit at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula first opened last summer. But with the pandemic, very few people have actually seen this fascinating time tunnel into the early days of the Forest Service in Montana.

Collector Steve Bixby says the idea for the exhibit came from a lot of curious people.

"Out here at the museum we've got the old Slide Rock Lookout tower that we've set up to look like the 1930s or so. And there's an old crank telephone in there."

"And just the questions that people ask and such an epiphany for so many people to look at that and say, 'you know, I never really thought about how you would communicate with the outside world if you saw a fire back there," Bixby continued.

Bixby has collected some of these gadgets for years. Others are on loan from the Forest Service and private collectors. It's a tale of trying anything to communicate in the backcountry, from experiments with carrier pigeons to tenuous telephone lines.

"Because in the early days the radios just weren't up to snuff yet. They just couldn't do the job. And especially out in the woods. In dense trees it just didn't work well," Bixby told MTN News. "And so to be able to get the word out as quickly as possible.

"You've got to get people in there quickly to put that fire out with hand tools. So speed was of the essence. Especially after the 1910 fires when it was just really proven how important it was to get to that fire when it was small."

That legacy of "The Big Burn" led to innovation, from some legendary characters like Ralph B. "Ring Bell" Adams of Missoula, all committed to keeping in touch.

"We had such a, right from the early days such a nice connection to the Forest Service and the forest products industry," Bixby relates. "And so there were so many things, so many people right here in Missoula that were innovating new ideas. It was too small a market to really get the big boys interested. A lot of that early day stuff, they had to make it themselves."

The exhibit shows the fascinating march of tech but also gives a glimpse into that backcountry life, including journals, complete with political cartoons to pass the time. And it helps us understand it wasn't just about fighting fires but keeping rangers and others safe.

"Very true. And even for the sanity of the lookouts," Bixby says, halfway in jest. "They talk about that a lot. Of just helping to know that somebody else out there and can communicate with them. Or if you're going to go fight a fire you're not doing it on your own. Some help is coming."

The "Fire Call One" exhibit is upstairs at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula and the time for the display has been extended through at least the end of this year.