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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
* Setting: National Forests in Idaho and Montana
* Date: Late summer, 1910
* Means: Forest fire.
* Doomed Heroes: Italian immigrants and volunteer
* 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.
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.
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?
Anything you read by Timothy Egan is thoroughly researched, extremely well written, and immensely informative. This is another terrific book.
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.