National Geographic News
Firefighters.

Volunteers battle a wildfire near Madison, Tennessee.

Photograhp from AP/World Wide Photos

Johnna Rizzo

National Geographic

Published July 19, 2013

A century ago, fighting wildfires was a makeshift affair. In this 1925 photo, volunteers use branches and burlap sacks to stanch the flames.

"Beating back the red terror," read the notes on the back of the photo. "Volunteer firefighters combating the flames that swept hundreds of acres near Madison, 9 miles from Nashville, Tennessee, after a blaze had been started by some careless camper in an area parched by mid-summer sun and a prolonged lack of rain."

A century later, with human populations sprawling out and natural resources scarcer, wildfires—some started by accident, some by acts of nature—are an increasing concern. Between 1999 and 2008, about 5.7 million U.S. acres burned annually, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Five miles of brush fires, ignited by lightning, are ravaging Nevada just this week.

Though the methods and tools have advanced since this image was taken, wildfire-fighting is still waged by people in close proximity to the flames. For these specialized firefighters—called hot shots or, if they parachute in, smokejumpers—battling blazes is perilous work. Last week, a memorial service was held to honor 19 who died fighting a wildfire in central Arizona.

This photo, unpublished by National Geographic for 80 years, was finally printed in 2002, in connection with a story called "Russian Smokejumpers"—the first, and at the time the largest, such team in the world.

That piece quoted John Ragsdale—then the fire district chief who would have overseen the region visible in this photo, by then engulfed by the city of Nashville—who added that in the area old-school tools, like the tree limbs and sacks in the photo, were still occasionally employed.

"I've used brooms too," Ragsdale added. "You can just sweep that kind of fire out sometimes." And if the bristles burn? "You get yourself a new broom."

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