Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan

It was a good bet that I would eventually read The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan. I had already enjoyed Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher and The Worst Hard Time, and I was inspired by Egan's appearances at this summer's American Library Association conference in Chicago. The week after our return from Yellowstone was a great time to read The Big Burn. The Bitterroot Mountains which are central to the story are hundreds of miles to the northwest of Yellowstone, but both have forests of lodgepole pine that must burn to reseed. Having just been to the firefighting exhibit at the Grant Village Visitors Center and seen recently burned areas of the park, I can imagine the fire vividly.

The Big Burn is about more than just the fire that burned forests in Montana, Idaho and Oregon in 1910. Egan recounts the formation and early history of the United States Forest Service, its claim that it could protect forests from fire, and the birth of the conservation movement in the United States. The central characters are pioneering forester Gifford Pinchot, governor and then president Theodore Roosevelt (who never liked being called Teddy), and several early forest rangers who worked for Pinchot. While there is much about Roosevelt in the book, there is more about Pinchot, and I think Pinchot's name deserved to be in the subtitle.

The central part of the book is a dramatic account of the fire for which few had prepared. An area the size of a small New England state burned, and many firefighters and settlers died. Unlike the Galveston residents in Isaac's Storm by Erik Larsen, however, the people living in the mining towns of the Bitterroot region had a fair warning of the coming destruction. The huge fire that trapped miners, saloonkeepers, and merchants while they complained about government interference was frequently compared later to a hurricane, and like the Galveston hurricane, changed the American public policy landscape.

The Big Burn serves as a good introduction to forests, conservation, and the idea of public lands, as well as a great disaster story. Roosevelt fans will, of course, want to read it, as his friendship with Pinchot well described. The book can be found in many public libraries.

Egan, Timothy. The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire That Saved America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. 324p. ISBN 9780618968411.

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