Timothy Egan, The Big Burn

Published in Bookforum, December/January 2010. To see the review in context, click here. To hear the author discuss the book on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” click here.

Stewardship of the land remains as contentious an issue today as it was one hundred years ago, when Theodore Roosevelt laid out his vision for conservation and ran into opposition from corporate lumber and mining interests. In The Big Burn, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Timothy Egan tells the story of Roosevelt’s prophetic vision for America’s landscape and the debates he gleefully exacerbated. The book focuses, with cinematic flair, on the August 1910 forest fire that ravaged three million acres in the northern Rockies, while providing an opportune challenge to the newborn US Forest Service.

Egan_Big_Burn_coverUnlike The Wilderness Warrior, Douglas Brinkley’s nearly thousand-page chronicle of Roosevelt’s conservation consciousness that was published last summer, Egan’s portrait moves swiftly. It emphasizes the president’s relationship with Gifford Pinchot, an enormously wealthy friend and adviser who bankrolled the Yale School of Forestry after studying the practice in France. On walks through Washington’s Rock Creek Park and during swims in the Potomac, the duo would reminisce about formative years spent in the American West and the restorative capacity of the region’s soaring mountains, dense forests, broad plains, and crystalline rivers. Building on the ideas of naturalist pioneers like John Muir, they vowed to shield millions of acres from irresponsible forms of clear-cutting, strip-mining, and other harmful development. Past presidents had rarely thought about such issues, much less acted on them. In 1905, Roosevelt appointed Pinchot the first chief of the Forest Service, and Pinchot immediately assigned graduates from the initial forestry class at Yale—who would come to be known as “Little GPs”—to begin surveying swaths of Idaho, Montana, and neighboring states. It wasn’t easy: Gilded Age robber barons hoping to profit from the West’s natural resources had stooges in Washington, among them Idaho senator Weldon B. Heyburn, who scrapped with Pinchot in congressional hearings and strangled the Forest Service’s budget.

Political obstacles left the rangers poorly paid and underequipped, and they were no match for conditions in the summer of 1910. Extremely dry weather, regular lightning storms, and the sparks thrown off by trains rushing along newly constructed tracks ignited thousands of little blazes. On the evening of August 20, a strong wind called a palouser descended from the mountains and unified the smoldering patches into a firestorm of hurricane force: “What had been nearly three thousand small fires throughout a three-state region of the northern Rockies had grown to a single large burn.” Egan’s patient reconstruction of the devastating fire, drawn from Forest Service archives, journalistic accounts, diaries, and letters, is the heart of the book. Cutting back and forth across the region—one wishes the book contained more maps—Egan tracks the efforts to save remote outposts like Wallace, Idaho, undertaken by little-known rangers like Ed Pulaski, Elers Koch, and Joe Halm. Working with a motley assortment of townsmen, laborers imported from across the West, and even prisoners—and shielding themselves against flames that looked like “an airborne stream”—the rangers dug fire lines and set backfires while helping thousands of terrified residents flee to safety.

After several days, the fires diminished. Eighty-five people were dead. The devastation, Egan implies, provoked Roosevelt into open confrontation over the necessity and purpose of the Forest Service with President Taft, his handpicked successor, who increasingly seemed an impediment to the cause of conservation despite pre-election promises to further Roosevelt’s vision. The final section of Egan’s book tracks the legacy of the “big burn,” highlighting the triumphs (increased Forest Service budgets, increased respect) and setbacks (continued logging, a later Forest Service chief who drifted into corporate arms) that attended Pinchot’s protection campaign well into the presidency of another Roosevelt—Franklin Delano. Did the burn “save America”? Based on the evidence Egan presents, a case can be made that, however important his politicking on behalf of his rangers, Pinchot’s belief that fire should always be contained was harmful to his cause in the long run. Egan’s impressive account makes clear that Pinchot and Roosevelt cared deeply for the land—a concern they shared with the rangers who heroically faced down towering walls of flame.

NB: Amazon is pushing the book; to see photographs from its pages, read an excerpt and an interview with Egan, and buy the hardcover for just $14, click here.