Book Review: The Big Burn

Timothy Egan. The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. 352 pages.

Forest fires are a perennial concern, particularly in the American West, as is government stewardship of public lands. This was no less true in 1910, when the Forest Service was young and the worst fire in American history swept through three million acres of western forest-land.

In this book, Egan looks at the personalities behind the creation of the Forest Service, with a focus on President Theodore Roosevelt and the first Chief Forester of the US Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot. Conservation guru John Muir is a little more distant, but nonetheless important to the story, as are several “Little G.P.s,” Yale-trained foresters who fanned across the West in the 1900s spreading the word and deed of forest protection.

Those who wanted to create national forest reserves had their enemies, including those who owned railroads and timber companies. William Clark, who founded Las Vegas and for whom Clark County was named, was one of them; he strenuously opposed Pinchot’s efforts.

But this is all prelude to the big story: the “big burn,” a simply massive fire that scorched much of the forest that covered the Bitterroot Range (a northern arm of the Rockies in Idaho and Montana). Pinchot’s rangers fought heroically to contain the blaze, but they were completely overwhelmed by the size and savagery of this “once in a century” fire.

The Big Burn is at its center the story of the fire, told from a variety of sources. It’s a story of both horror and heroism at the same time, as mere humans confront–with little success–a force of nature several orders of magnitude greater than them.

The book does is good job of covering the fire; I’m not so sure that it sells the reader on the idea that this fire “saved America.” Indeed, the fire in many ways demolished Muir’s idea of preservation for the sake of preservation and eased the way for the “management” of forest reserves, which included commercial logging. Though Pinchot, in his tenure as top forester, hadn’t been opposed to this concept, he attacked one of his successors, Bill Greeley, for taken this agenda further than he would have liked. In this sense, the big fire led to a repudiation of Pinchot’s founding ideals, since fire control became more important to the USFS than conservation, so it’s hard for me to see how the fire vindicated Pinchot. It gave the Forest Service a new purpose, but it didn’t stop commercial use of forests.

That being said, this is a good book that tells an story that should be interesting to any Westerner, or anyone who is interested in the evolution of government control of the of forests.

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