Cody Heartz: Timothy Egan’s book ‘The Big Burn’ poignant, vivid
Account of a huge 1910 wildfire uses real stories and accounts
April 1, 2011
Steamboat Springs — In summer 1910, the forests of the Northern Rockies were under attack. Timber barons, mining syndicates and railroad magnates had besieged the woods. These agents of industry had set up shop in the new frontier, in defiance of the conservation ethics imposed by President Teddy Roosevelt and the chief of the newly founded U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot. In the midst of this ideological maelstrom, the rangers of the understaffed and underfunded Forest Service were preparing to combat the largest wildfire in American history.
The worst drought ever known in the Pacific Northwest created the conditions for what would become a hurricane of fire. All summer long, small blazes pocked the forests of Idaho and western Montana, ignited by electrical storms and the sparks cast off by the railroads that were cutting their way through the country. It was all the Forest Service could do to try and contain the isolated fires closest to mining and timber towns like Wallace, Avery and Taft.
So, in late August, when the winds picked up — to nearly 80 mph at times — and a now consolidated wall of flames pushed west over the Continental Divide, there was little anybody could do. In all, nearly 10,000 men — the fledgling Rangers, conscripted immigrants and the all-black soldiers of the 25th Infantry — took up the hopeless fight against an inevitable fire. By September, an area the size of Connecticut had burned completely.
The firestorm of 1910 was the Hurricane Katrina of the young 20th century, a natural disaster exacerbated by mismanagement and a fundamental misunderstanding of natural processes. By fall of that year, America's relationship with the forests of the western frontier would be forever changed.
Timothy Egan's "The Big Burn" is a charged and poignant narrative history of the radical sea change in environmental politics that happened during Theodore Roosevelt's administration, and the fire that changed everything again just a year after he left office.
As much about the destructive power of greed as it is about wildfire, "The Big Burn" tells the story of two eccentrics — Roosevelt and Pinchot — who created the Forest Service to protect our natural resources, not only from fire, but from forces of nature like the Carnegies, Vanderbilts and Weyerhaeusers.
This kind of historical nonfiction often can be too dry to attract readers who aren't already interested in the subject. However, by drawing from telegrams and personal diaries of Rangers who survived the fire, Egan manages to vividly re-create the drama and horror of the event: "They wrote of giant blowtorches flaming from treetop to treetop, of house–size fireballs rolling through canyons, pushed by winds of seventy miles an hour. They told of trees swelling, sweating hot sap, and then exploding; of horses dying in seconds; of small creeks boiling, full of dead trout, their white bellies up; of bear cubs clinging to flaming trees, wailing like children."
As Egan weaves together the history of conservationism, the Forest Service and the fire of 1910, some readers might find him too subjective. He certainly makes no secret about where his sympathies lie. Roosevelt and Pinchot are painted as eccentric visionaries, fearless leaders and champions of the "people's forests." Meanwhile, Roosevelt's successor in the White House, William Taft, has all the unflattering characteristics of a feckless "pile of mush." Egan regards Taft as an obvious puppet in a time when politicians were openly bought by robber barons, men who saw nature in terms of board feet and unrealized profit.
The only problem I have with the book is its subtitle: "Teddy Roosevelt & The Fire That Saved America" seems to be a misnomer. Despite the individual heroics of the Rangers, for whom Egan has boundless admiration, the Forest Service's perceived inability to control the fire — an unfair criticism, but one that was pervasive at the time — lead to the revision of the organization. As the book draws to a close, Egan documents some of the misguided policies and compromises that were the result of the fire — clear cutting, overzealous fire mitigation, and a bias in favor of industry. Modern day Roosevelts and Pinchots still are fighting against many of these practices.
— Cody Heartz is a full-time resident of Steamboat Springs and is pursuing a master's degree in creative writing.