Monday, November 22, 2010

The Big Burn

In August of 1910, three million acres burned, fueled by a drought-stricken summer and whipping winds, in two days; the land located in the new national forests of northern Idaho, Montana, and Washington.

The wildfire, deemed "The Big Burn" by the newspapers of the time, threw together almost ten thousand men made up of college boys, day workers, prisoners, immigrants, and foreigners to do a job that they were not trained for --- to fight a wildfire, not that even an army trained to -- could have controlled this "monster" of a fire.

Timothy Egan's well -researched work, The Big Burn, highlights not only the wildfire itself, but the men and history behind the establishment, under the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, of not only US forest land but the men who would oversee them -- the US Forest Service.

Roosevelt's idea of setting aside public land for the enjoyment of every citizen was not popular. Contested by some of the richest and most powerful men of the time, Roosevelt and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, fought to make millions of acres "preserved" before the "robber barons" could come in and strip the land bare for timber or copper -- or even the railroad.

Interesting enough -- according to Egan, " the Big Burn saved the forests even as it destroyed them: the heroism shown by the rangers turned public opinion permanently in their favor and became the creation myth that drove the Forest Service, with consequences still felt in the way our national lands are protected -- or not -- today."

Egan has a flair for building the narrative in just the right way ---from the prologue titled "A Fire at the End of the World" to his last chapter "Ashes" -- he propels the reader to turn the page as he tells this story of the worst wildfire in American history.

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