‘The Big Burn’: the incendiary politics of a monster wildfire

‘The Big Burn’: the incendiary politics of a monster wildfire

18 October 2009

published by seattletimes.nwsource.com

‘The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America’

by Timothy Egan

Timothy Egan is a model of contemporary journalism. With workhorse habits and stylistic skill, the Seattle-based writer has traversed mountain and prairie to report and write opinion columns for The New York Times. He’s also found time to write a half-dozen books, including “The Worst Hard Time,” a National Book Award winner about the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Egan’s sixth and latest work, “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire That Saved America,” takes on a less familiar but equally dramatic piece of U.S. history: the country’s largest wildfire, a conflagration in Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains that scorched more than 3 million acres.

Over a mere two days in August, the Great Fires of 1910 devoured timber and towns from Montana to Washington state. After a dry spring and summer, lightning strikes, locomotive sparks and strong winds fueled little fires that came together as one, consuming a rugged landscape nearly the size of Connecticut. Some 10,000 ill-equipped men fought in vain as huge stretches of timber crackled their way to oblivion.

As the subtitle implies, however, “The Big Burn” goes well beyond the flames — even if the “save America” part is a stretch. The fire did rescue the U.S. Forest Service, a then-fledgling government agency with powerful enemies in high places. It also led to aggressive fire-suppression policies that have since been debunked.

All this is a lot to bite off, creating challenges in both writing and substance. In “The Big Burn,” Egan melds a you-were-there saga (in the spirit of Norman Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire”) with the sleepier tale of a government bureaucracy. He relies on two outsize personalities to help juice the less exciting part: President Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service, both rich kids who liked to rough it in the great outdoors.

Comrades-in-arms on the issue of protecting the West from exploitation by private interests, they were instrumental in creating the Forest Service in 1905. Roosevelt left office having preserved 230 million acres — 50 percent more than the size of Texas. But his successor, William Howard Taft, and his Secretary of the Interior, former Seattle mayor Richard Ballinger, had little appetite for the crusade.

And then, as if nature had a vote, an inferno swept down on the Bitterroots.

According to one survivor, “There was no damn horse fast enough in the country to keep ahead of that fire.” Flames bore down on the crews fighting them, “devouring hair, flesh, bones, skin and cloth as one.” At least 85 people died.

Given its size and speed, the fire was probably impossible to stop. But Pinchot shrewdly used the devastation to accuse Congress of negligence for failing to fund the Forest Service. He threw his weight behind fire prevention, inadvertently setting the agency on a course that denied the woods’ natural cycle but met the needs of a burgeoning lumber industry.

In covering such a huge swath of ground and relying primarily on personalities, not policies, to tell the story, the book omits significant complexities. Pinchot, for one, was not always the adversary of business he’s made out to be, and the portrayal of a subsequent Forest Service chief, William Greeley, as a religious zealot eager to formalize aggressive fire-suppression policies seems harsher than the man deserves.

Still, “The Big Burn” shows off Egan’s writerly skills and will bring attention to both how the Northwest was won — with big timber at the front — as well as the current debate over fire prevention in the wilderness. Alas, there’s no map of the fire’s course, but the pictures included are a bonus.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and the co-author of “Between the Covers: The Book Babes’ Guide to a Woman’s Reading Pleasures.”

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