In "The Big Burn", author Timothy Egan skillfully weaves the story of a massive August 1910 forest fire in Idaho and Montana into the histories of the U.S. Forest Service and the conservation movement. The book begins with its two leading characters, Theodore Roosevelt and his close friend, forester Gifford Pinchot. The reader who is unfamiliar with either of these two will receive a superficial biography which enables him or her to understand their roles in the forestry and conservation contribution to the Progressive Era. TR was the outdoorsman who strove to preserve natural resources and wilderness areas for future generations. Pinchot was the wealthy heir who invented the forestry profession and made it the cause of his life. It was Pinchot who taught TR how to protect virgin timber from the lumber industry. This book illustrates the forces and personalities which contended over the issues concerning the preservation or utilization of America's timber resources. Among those opposing TR and Pinchot were President William Howard Taft and timber interest defenders, Montana Senator William Clark and Idaho Senator Weldon Heyburn. The conservationists' disputes were not all fought against industrialists. Pinchot, who favored wise use of the forests, would even clash with his mentor, John Muir, who preferred uncompromising preservation.
After laying out the tale of the conservation efforts, Egan switches to stories of the settlers and Forest Rangers who fought against and live through or died in the Big Burn. These are stories of heroism and tragedy, survival and death.
The title says that this is about "Teddy Roosevelt & The Fire That Saved America." As I was reading about the fire, I wondered how he was going to tie this back into the saving of America. Egan brings the preservation of the Forest Service into the story by pointing out that the Big Burn made heroes of the Rangers, thereby increasing public support for funding and defeating the efforts of the industry and its political agents to destroy the Service which stood in the way of unfettered exploitation of the timber lands.
The writing is excellent. This narrative moves seamlessly from one story to another. You will always be longing for the next page.
Whether you are a devotee of the history of the Idaho-Montana region, Theodore Roosevelt, the Conservation Movement or the Progressive Era, this is a valuable addition to your library. Among my interests are Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Era. Although I already knew much about those subjects before I began this book, I learned many new things and deepened my understanding. However familiar you are with these topics, you will learn much from this work.
"Then the LORD rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the LORD out of the heavens." --Genesis 19:24
This story has a little bit of everything: A compelling human drama of people up against the worst that nature can send, Forest Service and African-American heroes, noble service, invention, greed, corruption, Robber Barons, ruthlessness, Teddy Roosevelt, magnificent forests, conservation philosophies, political history, spiritualism, and deep depravity. I'm sure you'll never look at a forest the same way after reading this book.
I grew up near the national forests in the west and always considered it miraculous that so much wonderful forested land had been preserved for all to enjoy. Most people had far more respect for forest rangers than for any other government official.
I never knew where it all started. I do remember having dinner with one of Gifford Pinchot's grandsons many years ago and being impressed by the reverence shown for what the grandfather had done for the west. This book filled in the gaps.
Few people in the book come across unscathed. That made the book more appealing because it is realistic: Even those who do great good have their weaknesses, foibles, and create many problems for themselves and others.
Mr. Egan is a talented storyteller and he assembled this tale in a very effective way. I really enjoyed what he had to say.
The book opens with a mad rush to evacuate the women and children from Wallace, Idaho as a seemingly unstoppable wildfire descends . . . pushed forward by hurricane-force winds. Naturally, you'll race through the pages until you reach that point in the story again. You won't be disappointed when you do.
This story is so interesting that I feel compelled to be silent about the details, as though I was describing a thriller rather than a nonfiction book.
... is Timothy Egan. And I'm not talking about promoting the wonders of Vegas; rather it is places that are truly interesting and evocative, like Dalhart, Texas, and Keys, Oklahoma, both towns in the respective "panhandles" of their states. Egan's excellent book, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl concerning the Dust Bowl days of the `30's, inspired a journey to the aforementioned unlikely travel destinations, so that I could see today some of the lingering effects of this man-made environmental catastrophe, and the efforts to overcome the problems this disaster caused. Egan has done it again, with "The Big Burn," which has inspired a much longer journey, all the way to the Idaho "panhandle," and the Bitterroot Range.
The subject is as topical as today's headlines: forest fires in the American West. Egan provides vital perspective on the most recent one in Los Angeles. The "Big Burn" concerns the forest fires in 1910, in northern Washington State, Idaho and Montana, which in two days burned 10 times the area that was burned in the recent L.A. one. And there were no planes, helicopters, and all the navigational and communication equipment in the 1910 one. It was fought with axes, shovels, and messengers.
Egan masters his material, and weaves a good story, in equal measure addressing the drama of individuals who actually fought the fire and the larger backdrop of the powerful interests and characters who set the stage when nature erupted. Memorable are the poignant details of the fire-fighters, from the two Italian immigrants who left their native land in Northern Italy, supporting their small family farm, and left the dangers of mining in Arizona for the "great outdoors" of Idaho, only to die in the fire, as well as the Irish chef who arrived wearing his toque. There was much courage, from Joe Halm, a former football star who had numerous obituaries written about him that he could later read to Ed Pulaski, who saved most of his men by seeking shelter in a cave, and who himself was badly burned. And there was the cowardice of the men who pushed women out of their seats of evacuation trains, and in the town of Taft, others decided not to fight the fire, but to die drunk.
The "macro" story was equally fascinating, and centered on Theodore Roosevelt. A double personal tragedy led him to seek solace in the wilderness, in the American West, and it transformed his outlook on the "value" of the wild spaces, converting him to a life-long conservationist who opposed the interests of his "class," who saw value only in the dollar and cents bottom line of exploiting the nature's resources. Fortunately Roosevelt was pugnacious, enjoying the good fight, and indeed we need someone more like him to take on the vested interests of today. Roosevelt designated large areas as natural forests, and appointed another "class traitor" Gifford Pinchot, as his first Chief Forester. Pinchot was more than a bit odd, but had the passion for the forests, and rallied a young group to the mission, even with the abysmal pay available.
Lots of insights into the period, which resembles our own now tarnished "Gilded Era," with its Robber Barons, and their incredible sense of entitlement. One of the "baddies" in the book is Senator William A Clark, of Montana, who literally purchased his position, in the days prior to direct senatorial elections, by crisp $100 bills, delivered in envelopes monogrammed with his initials. Egan recounts an incident in which hundreds of American citizens are jailed, with habeas corpus again ignored. Egan quotes Pinchot concerning the Biltmore castle in Ashville, saying that it was: "a devastating commentary on the injustice of concentrated wealth." Of course, Pinchot lived in his own castle! Egan is never heavy-handed with the points all too relevant today, but they are there, including one for the health care debate today: "...Roosevelt, Pinchot knew that public policy revolutions needed more than outrage--they needed a master narrative."
In terms of criticism, at times I felt that Egan was belaboring the point of the absolute evil of the Robber Barons, and the idealistic goodness of the young "G.P's" (Gifford Pinchot's) who opposed them, but since we have the same problem 100 years later, concluded that it was a point worth belaboring. I did read an "Advanced Reading Copy," which is in fairly good shape, but Egan deserves another editorial pass before final release which would catch such items as Word (sic) War II (p 270). A re-writing of the paragraph on page 257 that starts with FDR and ends with their son being born in 1915 (!) would also be in order. Technically it is correct, but it sure is confusing.
Overall though, another masterful job by a writer who focuses on neglected bits of American history, makes them most readable, and relevant for today. Certainly 5-stars.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on September 09, 2009)