In pops and cracks and snaps and gulps, in gasps and whistles, the fire metastasized--more clamorous with every fresh intake, charging ahead. Any leftover little fire that might have smoldered and smoked in a last gasp was given new life by the wind, yanked from the ground, pitched into the river of flame, into the current of the now unrecognizable Palouser…What had been nearly three thousand small fires throughout a three-state region of the northern Rockies had grown to a single large burn.
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A Palouser? What’s that? It’s a terrible wind out of the American West that tumbles like a rollercoaster, a weather system that can become ferocious when caught between extremes of dry and moist air. One erupted the afternoon of August 20, 1910 in a region that had suffered drought conditions, continuous smoke and small fires all summer. Teddy Roosevelt’s Forest Service, hand-picked though they were, was very young, mostly inexperienced and not well-funded a year after he left office for a bully African safari, ‘bully’ being his favorite expression. The ghastly horror and tragedy of these fires and how the experience changed the Forest Service and America is indelibly captured by Timothy Egan in his 2011 book The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America.
The 1910 fires destroyed over three million acres of old, national forests, a handful of mining towns, and officially eighty-five human lives. Many horses and other animals died, too, unable to escape the raging inferno that ran faster than they could in unbreathable, furnace-hot air. Egan includes a map in front that shows the affected areas in Washington State, Idaho and Montana. His book starts out with a teaser about a town (Wallace, Idaho) facing down the fire, then transports us back in time to before Roosevelt was president and growing concerned about corporate industry grabbing up his beloved forests to cut them down. He fiercely believed that they should belong to the public and be part of America’s heritage. After meeting Gifford Pinchot, who became his chief forester, Teddy would soon become president after McKinley dies in office and then be elected to a full term with more popular and electoral votes of any president since.
I really like this guy. He was a radical Republican with progressive ideas that became the conservation movement and he battled the rich cats like an alley cat. John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil and worth two hundred billion dollars by today’s standards, sent him $100,000 as a campaign donation and Roosevelt returned it. Instead of playing billiards with guests, he wrestled and boxed them for fun. Pinchot is an interesting character as well, considered one of the nation’s most eligible bachelors while nursing a secret love affair with his dead fiancee. He outlived his hero by a couple of decades (Teddy dying early at age sixty), his life spanning the end of the Civil War to the end of WWII. FDR became a friend who enjoyed his advice and implemented much of Teddy’s vision for America.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ BOOK
Egan really did his homework for The Big Burn, citing first and foremost the U.S. Forest Service, especially the northern regional office in Missoula, Montana, and many other museums, libraries, universities and lovers of the West in general. He acknowledges a couple of pioneering books about the fires. The last major player involved with them, a redheaded, homesteading young woman who trudged about thirty miles through fire to get to a train, gave an interview in 1977 where she called the time exciting.
Egan also tells us of the cowardice of the rich businessmen who fled quickly instead of trying to save their towns. Ed Pulaski, Joe Halm, William Weigle, Elers Koch and Bill Greeley are rangers who survived (barely) to carry on, but the Forest Service lost its original goal of conservation and turned its focus on fire prevention at all costs. Forests became a commodity for the rich. Only at century’s end did they return to Roosevelt’s and Pinchot’s vision, realizing that forests need fire sometimes, and now it’s more economical to grow tree farms in Canada.
This was a very compelling book that made me picture the chaos and terror of that fire, the largest one in America’s history. I also greatly enjoyed getting to know the heroes and some victims of it, such as the Buffalo Soldiers who saved a town and many lives and changed white peoples’ minds about them. It was a moving, rewarding experience described in detail and with some pages of black-n-white photographs. I became a little impatient in the second section that talked about everyone but Roosevelt and Pinchot, but their stories continue in the last section. I hope you’ll agree that The Big Burn is a timely book that should not be ignored.
Timothy Egan won the National Book Award for The Worst Hard Time. The new book is rated Best of the Year by many top papers.
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