The Big Burn Teddy Roosevelt and The Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan (Houghton Mifflin, $27) For those of you who enjoyed Ken Burn's National Parks, I suggest this excellent history of how our National Forests came into being. We saw terrible fires in California this past summer, 100,000 acres burned and many houses were lost. This is small in comparison to the fire that swept through the Northwest in 1910, burning 3 million acres in just two days. The town of Wallace, Idaho was completely destroyed. 85 (or perhaps 87) lives were lost. This fire raced across the landscape, pushed by Chinook winds and updrafts the flames created, blasting up to 85 mph. That speed cannot be out run. Trains were unable to carry people to safety as bridges and tracks were destroyed.
Theodore Roosevelt had set aside the National Parks during his presidency, and put Gifford Pinchot in charge of managing these forests. Pinchot, newly graduated from Yale with new theories of Forestry, had amassed his staff of Forest Rangers, or "little G.P.s" as they were known. John Muir had traveled west and sent back reports of Yellowstone and the glorious Sierras. Their conservation ideals were often ridiculed by the hard scrabble homesteaders and Railroad and Lumber Barons of the region. By 1910, Roosevelt was out of office, replaced by his own pick of Taft, whose ineffectiveness was blatant in this disaster.
Egan gives a good narrative of how this time period produced the break from Republicans as the Progressive party of Lincoln and Roosevelt to what we know today. The scope of the burn also allowed him to push his Conservation goals and add to the Parks with the National Forest lands. Much of the eastern parks owe their existence to this tragedy.
Timothy Egan has written some of the best Western histories including The Good Rain, about this part of western Washington we call home and The Worst Hard Time, about the dust bowl years and the western migration it produced. His research brings out the personal narrative in these histories. In The Big Burn we learn of how after Gifford Pinchot's young wife died after just 2 years of marriage he spent the next 20 years haunted by her presence. His diary notes "days of light" when he believed he had been in her presence, or "dark days" when she did not appear. He sought out seers and seances to call her forth. He was often seen carrying on conversations with her as he dined alone in Washington DC's finest restaurants.
Taft and Roosevelt's lives and presidencies are detailed with personal details and the political aspects of the day. The firefighters are given good tribute here. Drawn from the logging and mining operations and joined by the Buffalo Soldiers, these are the lives that were lost that weekend. The 1,200 firefighters hired by the Forest Service often weren't paid for their time, or medical bills. Ed Pulaski, who herded his men into a cave and pulled his handgun to keep them from running into the inferno, was left destitute after the fire. Denied a patent number, he is remembered today for the axe/blade tool that bears his name and is invaluable to firefighters everywhere.
The Big Burn is available at Jackson Street Books and do check with your local independent booksellers to see if Timothy Egan will be reading. Listen to the audio from a recent radio interview on KUOW's The Conversation (begins at 40 minutes in).
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