The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America

by Timothy Egan

Hardcover, 2009

Call number

NWC 973.91 E



Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2009), Edition: First Edition, 336 pages


Narrates the struggles of the overmatched rangers against the implacable fire of August, 1910, and Teddy Roosevelt's pioneering conservation efforts that helped turn public opinion permanently in favor of the forests, though it changed the mission of the forest service with consequences felt in the fires of today.

Media reviews

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.
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Egan has already proved himself to be a masterly collector of memorable stories. His new book, “The Big Burn,” continues in the same tradition. It is also a clarion call for the conservation philosophies of John Muir and others as Egan details the saga of “the largest wildfire in American
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history”... A masterwork in every sense
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User reviews

LibraryThing member msf59
In 1910, the Boy Scouts of America was established, Halley’s comet was visible and Mark Twain died. Also, in August of that year, one of the worst wildfires in American history started in the Rocky Mountain high country, bordering Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Devastating three million acres, an
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area roughly the size of New England, burning five towns to ash and killing a hundred firefighters.
Egan, in his usual intrepid, riveting manner, examines this harrowing moment in our country’s history. He also explores the fledgling forest service, which was under-funded, poorly staffed and under-appreciated and how this fire galvanized their future. Ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, who started the forest service in 1905, casts a large shadow here. Egan also puts a human face on this rag-tag group of firefighters, mostly immigrants and cast-offs, who were given the insurmountable task of battling this raging inferno.
Egan has quickly became one of my favorite non-fiction writers and here he has done it again. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member dypaloh
Death by forest fire is not pretty. Timothy Egan, author of The Big Burn, relates, “When he started to burn, his hair and clothes aflame, his voice turned into a murderous cant, the sound of life at its end…when, days later, the man’s body was found, it was mistaken for a burned-out log.”
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The behavior of people facing forest fires was not always pretty either. When the “Big Burn” threatened Wallace, Idaho in 1910, a brave cast of volunteers did everything they could to save the town, but many men the mayor had known since he was a kid, “bankers and business owners, insurance brokers and builders, families who had names on sides of buildings,” did not. They “elbowed, shoved, and bullied their way onto the exit trains…almost taunting” the mayor to try making them behave like honorable men. One wonders what lies these heels told later to impress their sycophants.

By contrast, “Buffalo Soldiers” (Negro troops) earned much praise after saving the town of Avery, though peculiarly expressed praise it was. One citizen said, “They were black, but I never knew a whiter set of men to breathe. Not a man in the lot knew what a yellow streak was . . . They never complained. They were never afraid. They worked, worked, worked, like Trojans, and they worked every minute…my attitude toward the black race has undergone a wonderful change since I knew those twelve heroes.”

The Big Burn’s accounts of the fires raging in the northern Rockies read as breezily as an action novel yet carry the gravitas of terrible fatality. The fury of the firestorm is brilliantly detailed. We learn (yet again) that the American West operated differently than did a lot of other places. For example, Taft, Montana had an estimated 500 prostitutes among its 2,500 citizens—clearly a busy citizenry and one taking care to be adequately provisioned. Egan examines the politics of natural resources and free enterprise, and attends to the ethnic bias directed at anyone not of northern European descent. The burgeoning conservation movement is central to the story, with Gifford Pinchot (who had an exceedingly odd relationship with a former love) and Theodore Roosevelt figuring prominently in that effort.
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LibraryThing member Kristelh
This is my second book by Timothy Egan. I think he does a really great job of making me angry with government bureaucracy but it was also a great read about life in America in 1910 and Teddy Roosevelt and other big names in the early years of Conservation, Forest Rangers and the battle between
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private versus public use of land in America’s wilderness.

Teddy Roosevelt; 26th president. I think he was the youngest president at the time. Teddy loved to box and wrestle and do athletic and outdoor activities. A republican was the man who birthed conservation and environmental protection.

President Taft: 27th president, Teddy groomed in for the presidency because he thought Taft would carry on Teddy’s designs. Taft was a weak individual who was easily influenced by big business interests over the interest of conservation or public use of land.

Gifford Pinchot: the man Teddy appointed to start the Federal program of Forest Rangers.

Edward Pulaski; a man who worked for the forest service and was poorly treated by the U.S. Government after he gave his money, his health in service during the fire of 1910. What a shame. He invented the Pulaski axe but was unable to get patent. Unable to get health care, unable to receive any recognition for his service during the 1910 fire.

Woodrow Wilson, 28th president; Democrat, defeated Teddy Roosevelt

Franklin Roosevelt: cousin of Teddy, 32nd president, president during the depression, his work programs actually helped finally to establish forest service, public lands.

As a young person, I was in love with the Forest Ranger and read lots of books about forest rangers. Now I have a better picture of the historical roots of forest service. In the end, the early conservation ideas were faulty and it took some time before there was an understanding that fire could not and should not be prevented altogether, Our lands do require careful tending to preserve them. Forest industry and conservation can work together. Thankfully, we the public can enjoy our country in many recreational ways because of the foresight of people in 1910.

A great book, this author does a wonderful job of researching and writing so that it is enjoyable and emotional experience.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
A history of early park rangers, the corrupt oligarchs who opposed them, and the people in the new western towns growing out of logging and mining. Many of the debates are eerily familiar: demands that all resources be opened up to private exploitation; deliberate underfunding and constraining of
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government; then complaints that government workers aren’t doing a very good job. The fires seem almost incidental.
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LibraryThing member Smiley
Didn't live up to the brag. When Egan is writing about the Bitteroot Mountains or the actual fire of 1910 he is spot on. The weakest parts of the book are his attempt @ a capsule biography of Gifford Pinchot and trying to set the fire in a national political context. In addtion, the final chapter
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is not only a soapbox, but feels like padding. I didn't learn much that I didn't already know as folktales growing up in the area.

The publishing industry's lust for lurid subtitles continues undiminished, "Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America" is completely overblown. The fire may have saved the US Forest Service but even Egan admits in the final chapter that big business returned to the woods with a clear cut vengence less than 25 years later.
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LibraryThing member CasaBooks
These are my kind of books.
Who knew . . . .
about these fires in 1910 ? - none have ever been worse!
about the towns lost and the heroes who fought the fires and how they failed or succeeded ?
about Roosevelt's involvement with founding the National Forest Service ?
about Gifford Pinchot and his
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role in saving forests throughout the country ?
about the Big Lumber barons and their battle to clear cut the country ?
about the politics involved in all the above ?

Well composed to lay out the various facts and interweave them - interesting and educational.
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LibraryThing member AmberTheHuman
What an intense book! This was a gift from my fiancé, since he knows I am interested in reading about disasters. And the Big Burn of 1910 certainly is one. This book gives you a lot of context, but doesn't give a lot of opinion, which is nice, allowing the reader to create their own thoughts.
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There are parts of this book you don't want to read while you eat ... people did die in the fire, after all ...
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
Teddy Roosevelt, national parks, wild fires, this nonfiction book offers a fascinating glimpse into America at the beginning of the 20th century. A huge wild fire in Idaho changed the nation’s view on protecting our country’s beautiful landscapes. Roosevelt and a man named Pinchot were the
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driving force behind the change.
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LibraryThing member setnahkt
From the disaster response reading program. Disaster narratives are always popular but get to the point where they can be summarized in a few bullet points:

* Setting: National Forests in Idaho and Montana

* Date: Late summer, 1910

* Means: Forest fire.

* Doomed Heroes: Italian immigrants and volunteer
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firefighters Domenico Bruno and Giacomo Vettone. (Lots of other people died but Domenico and Giacomo get the print).

* Saved Heroes (and Heroine): Forest rangers Ed Pulaski and Joe Halm; homesteader Ione (Pinkie) Adair, and the United States Army 25th Infantry (Colored).

* Backstory Heroes: Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt, the United States Forest Service

* Villains: The Big Corporations (of course); United States Senators William Clark and Weldon Heyburn.

* Backstory: Pinchot and Roosevelt establish the National Forests, against the bitter objections of The Big Corporations and Senators Clark and Heyburn, who think the best thing to do with the forest is cut it down.

* The Grist: After Ominous Forebodings, the Forest catches fire. The Heroes head out to put it out, but are hampered by the lack of funding (engineered by The Villains). The Heroes nevertheless perform heroically, but are in desperate straits. The Doomed die horribly. The Saved come through due to grit, determination, and luck.

* The Aftermath: The Heroes, because of continuing machinations by the Villains, are never adequately compensated for their heroism. The Forests become “multi-use” lands and are logged, grazed and generally Not Left the Way God and Teddy Roosevelt Intended. The Forest Service learns the wrong lesson from the fire and continues to put out forest fires rather than Letting Them Burn.

Well, that’s the story. Not much help in the way of disaster response; the entire population of the United States probably couldn’t have put out that fire no matter how they were deployed. Evacuations were conducted with reasonable efficiency under Forest Service direction; in fact much of the scene was totally chaotic and thing just managed to sort themselves out. The 25th Infantry (Colored) performed well, with many locals commenting on how “white” they were.

Gifford Pinchot comes across as a pretty interesting character; while Roosevelt was governor of New York he invited Pinchot to come to Albany to discuss forestry, wrestle, and box. Roosevelt pinned Pinchot, but Pinchot knocked the future President of the United States unconscious; something that should happen more often. Pinchot also had a long relationship with Laura Houghteling, a beautiful and accomplished socialite; the relationship was only slightly marred by the fact that Miss Houghteling was dead of tuberculosis through most of it. Pinchot had long conversations with her ghost/spirit/whatever, which he committed to his diary – and sometimes to bystanders; Laura gradually faded away, eventually no longer speaking but merely appearing, then finally just a “presence”. At some point she gave permission to Pinchot to marry somebody else, which seems to have been a considerable relief to Pinchot’s family.

I shouldn’t protest too much, I suppose. This is well written and holds interest, I just get a little tired of the same plot over and over again and yearn for some heroic corporate executives and venal government employees to break the monotony. Author Timothy Egan wrote [i]The Worst Hard Time[/i], about the Great Depression; I haven’t read that one but I bet I can predict a lot of it.
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LibraryThing member marshapetry
Excellent. Good story, great narrator ... told well. This is (was) an excellent book for a long car trip because it keeps you engrossed and time flies by. I knew the basic story but this brought the story to life for me. Highly recommend.
LibraryThing member stretch
Over 3-million acres burned to the ground over a 2-day period in August 1910. It’s mind boggling to think about a fire so hot and intense that an area the size of Connecticut could go up in smoke over a long weekend. A once in a century fire that caught the country by surprise. By late August of
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1910, the drought stricken national forests spanning Washington, Idaho, and Montana were a tinderbox ready to burn. With only a hand full of underfunded forest rangers of the newly minted United States Forest Service and guided by a wrongheaded philosophy standing in the way of firestorm of unimaginable scope.

The Big Burn is an account of the formation of the National Forest Service and the experiences of this untested group of men charged with fighting the largest wildfire in American history. At the turn of 20th century, America and American industry were expanding into the west at an unpressecentdated rate. It was also, a time of progressive policies to curb the power of industrial trusts and the promotion of fair and safe labor laws. Two forces in almost constant tension with one another. At the head of this progressive era was the ever-enigmatic Theodore Roosevelt, whose personality and toughness was a force of nature in itself, and seemed unstoppable when it came to pushing his progressive agenda through congress. Early on in his political career Roosevelt a great lover nature befriended a young and equally enthusiastic Yale forester by the name of Gifford Pinchot, along with the influential works of John Muir, they hatched a plan to save as much of the natural west as possible for generations to come. (The birth of the conservation movement is anti-climatic, but its ramifications have helped define America’s legacy in a way that will outlast our contributions to democracy.) Once taking the highest office in the land, Roosevelt and Pinchot wasted no time in using executive power to carve huge tracks of land in the still coming of age west for conservation. Over the next 7.5 years, the president and the country’s first forester were able to set aside an additional 16 million acres to the already large 45 million acre National Forest System and form the United States Forest Service to manage this new experiment. In the process, Roosevelt and Pinchot created lifelong enemies that would do anything and everything in their power to undermine the National Forests. On one hand the preservationist, like John Muir, were disappointed in the new organization whose mission was not to preserve the forest as they are, but to manage the forest in way that allows for reasonable commercial exploitation and saving they’re wild nature as much as possible (the early days of conservation was full of high-minded idealism, short on practicality). At the same time there was industry and its bought members of congress who opposed all forms of conservation.

The first rangers of the forestry service were all graduates of Yale, and were influenced by the good and bad optimistic philosophies of the early 20th century, especially the idea that with enough knowledge humans could control nature. With that came the false notion that a handful of determined men armed with the latest scientific knowledge could go up against any size wildfire and win. Gifford Pinchot became so enamored with this idea that he made absolute fire suppression one of the primary missions of the forestry service. The little GP’s (the rangers nicknamed for their hero worship of the 1st ranger) didn’t question Pinchot mission and set off into some the most hostile terrain of the west, the towns of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, and did their best to manage the vast amount of land that made up the 1st national forests. By 1910, underfunded, hated, and stretched to the breaking point forced the forestry service dealing with serve drought conditions and an outbreak of fire in the Bitterroots into one of the toughest battles in its hundred year history.

What started out as hundreds of small fires started by an electoral storm on August 19, 1910 turned into a massive firestorm when strong winds blew in form the west. Exhausted after months of fire the duty the little GP’s could not contain the smaller fires fast enough before it turned into beast that would consume anything in its path. At this point in the season the rangers were paying for supplies and the wages of volunteer firefighters, mostly immigrants and out of work mine laborers, out of their own meager salaries. Demoralized and running out of cash all they had were empty promises and guts to fight the coming nightmare.

On August 20th, the rangers were clearly losing the fight, desperate for a work force the rangers tried and mostly failed to enlist the townspeople living in the forest to stay and fight for their own homes. Most migrants to the region were only looking to turn a quick buck from the abundant resources and the railroad; they had no intention of saving the very thing they wanted to exploit. So, it was left up to a hand full of rangers, forge in immigrants, broken and used mine/timber labor, and a division of black buffalo soldiers to fight a monster of a fire. They lost. The night of August 10th was a night of shear panic, some heroic moments, but mostly it was a night of destruction.

Once the fire had burned itself out on August 21st, what was left was utter destruction. Eighty-seven people were dead or dying, many missing, hundreds of firefighters disabled from the flames, and whole towns burnt to the ground. Sadly, little to no government support was offered to the now scarred and disabled firefighters. It was left to the rangers to continue paying for the medical bills for themselves and their crews. It would be decades before sacrifices of these crews were formally recognized. Many men and their families were left dissolute and broken.

Death and destruction were not the only lasting effects of the “the Big Burn.” The fire galvanized the public and with the help of some political stumping by Teddy and Pinchot, the national forest system and the United States Forestry Service was not only saved but was expanded into the east, many more millions acres were to be conserved. The enemies of the forestry service were soundly defeated and routed from the public sphere. Thanks to the men that braved the fire of 1910 and some dramatic changes in the timber market we now have a growing national forest system, much of it set aside as nature preserves. The conservation and preservation of nature is now firmly a part of national identity. However, we are still practicing an absolute fire suppression methodology resulting in larger and hotter fires that continue to threaten large population centers. The US Forestry Service still has the uphill battle of striking a balance between conservation and commercial interests that aren’t always in sync with the smart thing to do.
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LibraryThing member EBT1002
The Big Burn is nonfiction and is about the creation of the US Forest Service and a huge fire in eastern Washington, Idaho, and Montana in 1910. The chapters about the fire itself were gripping. The horror of men (and women) caught in the conflagration is clear but Egan is not writing for
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shock-value. His bias (he likes the rangers) is apparent, but he only gives in to some preaching about the importance of healthy forests and preserved wilderness in the last 20 pages or so. I live in Seattle and spent many years in Oregon, so the territory is familiar and beloved. I continue to learn about Teddy Roosevelt -- I still don't think I'd want to have dinner with him, but I think he was truly a good guy and possibly one of our better presidents (i.e., willing to take risk, willing to lead, committed to something greater than the next election). The book chronicles the importance of Gifford Pinchot, Ed Pulaski, and other early players in the setting aside of wild lands in the US. Very readable.
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LibraryThing member delphica
Oh, this was a great read. I think I must be turning into my father, because more and more I find myself riveted to books that describe severe weather or other natural disasters. This is a great story (true story) about the serendipitous timing of the the 1910 fire that took out most of Idaho --
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coming at a time when Theodore Roosevelt's proposed National Forest system was being undermined by Congress and big business, especially mining and timber.

In essence:

Before the fire:
TR: You know what we need? A system of national forests with forest rangers.
Big Business: OH NO WE DO NOT.
Everyone else: Um, we don't really know what that is.

After the fire:
Everyone: OMG, we need forest rangers!
TR: Uh huh.

Okay, some of that is my fascination with TR. The book is just as much (maybe more) about his appointee as the first director of the forest service, Gifford Pinchot. John Muir makes a cameo.

The chapters about the fire itself and the impact on the small towns in its path, and the individuals charged with fighting it, are edge-of-your-seat amazing. It's a great look at the natural American landscape, as well as the development of Deadwood-esque communities. And a cast of (real life) wacky characters to round everything out. The book closes by talking about how the fire rallied a lot of support for a well-funded forest service with the intention that the rangers would prevent all fires, and then of course it turns out that forests need fires to replenish themselves -- this seemed a bit rushed, or maybe the author felt it was not central to the primary focus of the book, I don't know. Or maybe he felt it was obvious, what else do you say?
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LibraryThing member esswedl
This excellent book brings alive the magnificent horror of the massive wildfire a century ago, and does so through great characterization of the people involved. I wonder at the stark contrast between heroes and villains, but they're so vividly drawn that I was completely taken. I have a newfound
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respect for Teddy Roosevelt and the odd Gifford Pinchot.
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LibraryThing member jepeters333
On the afternoon of August 20, 2010, a battering ram of wind moved through the drought-stricken national forests of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, whipping the hundreds of small blazes burning across the forest floor into a roaring inferno that jumped from treetop to ridge as it raged, destroying
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towns and timber in the blink of an eye. This is partly the story of overmatched rangers against the implacable fire and partly the story of president Teddy Roosevelt and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot. Pioneering the notion of conservation, Roosevelt and Pinchot did nothing less than create the idea of public land as our national treasure, owned by and preserved for every citizen.
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LibraryThing member GShuk
I enjoyed this book as much as his book on the Dust Bowl. It was a great historical story where he explores the issues between conservation of the forest with big business and political needs as well as the hard choices individuals caught up in the fire had to make. While it’s historical accuracy
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needs to be questioned (huge bias in favor of Teddy Roosevelt) there was still enough truths to give one a better understanding of the creation of the forestry service and the Big Burn.
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LibraryThing member rightantler
The amazing story of a fire which set the course of American conservation, even if took decades to realize it! So many individual tragedies and triumphs wrapped in terror and sorrow this book you be read by everyone and anyone interested in the distruction of the environment.
LibraryThing member co_coyote
This is a fascinating true story by one of America's best storytellers. As someone who spends a lot of time in our National Forests, I had no idea how hard Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot and all the early forest rangers had to work to make it happen. Our country would be a whole poorer without
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the far-reaching vision of these incredible men.

Anything you read by Timothy Egan is thoroughly researched, extremely well written, and immensely informative. This is another terrific book.
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LibraryThing member dele2451
I read the final chapters of this book while driving through the still-smouldering, fire-ravaged acres in the Alpine, Arizona region. With that backdrop it would have been hard not to be riveted by Egan's powerful account of the massive wildfire of 1910, but I was already hopelessly enthralled even
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before I got there. I have to admit I usually find history books a bit tedious, but this author has made me a zealous convert. This justifiably acclaimed author provides a riveting and detailed account of a nation-changing event that is still possible, and probable, even with the advancements we've made in firefighting during the past 100 years. By recalling the events from the vantagepoint of everyone from on-the-ground firefighters, ordinary citizens, forest rangers, soldiers, politicians and policy makers the story truly comes to life. Educational, action-packed, and (dare I say it?) entertaining. I'm not sure the details of the fire-related deaths would be suitable for teen readers--although it might make them mind their campfires and fireworks a bit closer--but I'd definitely recommend this to any and every adult who isn't a pyromaniac. Egan's work is truly a historical and environmental masterpiece.
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LibraryThing member zmagic69
This book tells the story of the 3 million acre fire in Montana and Idaho in 1910 as well as the creation of the forest service 4 years prior. On the whole the book was interesting but the first half is a bit slow detailing more than you would ever need to know about president Teddy Roosevelt who
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created the Forest Service and Gifford Pinchot who was the first to run the department. What the firemen who fought this fire faced was horrific and the treatment they received from the U.S. government was almost worse. A sad state of affairs from our government. One thing I found surprising was that with all the wealth both Gifford and Roosevelt had, neither one of them ever compensated the forest service workers for doing the work these two men expected of them, knowing full well the government also did not help them. I found this fact to be equally shameful.
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LibraryThing member addunn3
An excellent telling of the origin of the national forests during the Roosevelt era. Well written and informative.
LibraryThing member moekane
Fascinating discussion of Gifford Pinchot and the beginnings of the conservation movement in the US told from the perspective of the event that Pinchot made into the USFS "creation myth," the forest fire of August 1910 that engulfed Washington state, Idaho and Montana. This is a bio of Pinchot, a
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political history of the TR years and efforts to initiate conservation including the creation of the Forest Service, and an account of the individuals and events surrounding the event referred to by the title. I listened to this book unabridged on CD and the narration added immensely to my enjoyment.
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LibraryThing member bookswoman
This is the kind of history book I love to read. The author spends the time to get as many actual quotes as possible and then weaves them into the story as narrative rather than as statements. Egan brings alive Teddy Roosevelt, his "forester" Pinchot and the many people in the Bitterroot Mountains
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of Idaho/Montana who were there in August of 1910 when the entire forest burned in a couple of days. The ones who survived tell compelling stories of what it was like when the fire came at them pushed by hurricane force winds.

The back story of how the U.S. Forest Service was established and so underfunded that it almost ceased is fascinating although not as compelling as the story of the fire. It is necessary so you understand how something that destroyed so much was responsible for saving an agency and establishing a firm foothold for our National Forest system today.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member nmele
Egan has written an informative book about the early days of the US Forest Service, the conservation movement and the struggle of progressive politicians against big business, a struggle reminiscent of today's struggle around renewable energy vs. fossil fuels. I most appreciated learning about
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early rangers like Elers Koch and Ed Pulaski.
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LibraryThing member lindap69
found it slow in parts, but overall an interesting look at a time period I am not that familiar with; includes some great quotes by Teddy Roosevelt that are as timely today as when he said them




0618968415 / 9780618968411

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