Straight from Timothy Egan about Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot:
“These were two easterners, born into wealth, who crusaded a century ago for the Progressive Era idea that a democracy and public land were inextricably linked. They always talked about land belonging to ‘the little guy.’ It was a radical idea then, at a time when the gulf between the rich and poor was never greater. Roosevelt and Pinchot were both traitors to their class, in that sense. And both were—how to say this—odd people.”
As Egan explains it (I’m poaching from his interview on Amazon) he means it in the positive sense. “They went skinny-dipping together in the Potomac, boxed and wrestled, climbed rocks and rode horses through Rock Creek Park, all while at the pinnacle of power, while hatching these conservation ideals,” said Egan. “And Pinchot, the founding forester, on top of everything else, was married to a ghost—a dead woman, a true spiritual union—for nearly twenty years.”
At the center of “The Big Burn” are these two “odd” men and the biggest wildfire in American history (based on acreage). In less than two days, the fire covered three million acres, burned five towns to the ground and killed nearly one hundred people.
Three million acres? That’s about the size of the state of Connecticut.
Half politics and half action, “The Big Burn” is a gripping story about the seminal event that led to the creation of the national forest system. Egan humanizes not only the politicians and policy-makers of 1910, he also brings to life to the characters in and around Wallace and the northern tip of Idaho.
“The Big Burn” is fascinating from start to finish. Egan shows how the monster fire shaped national policy and influenced the effort to strike a balance between the hunger of big business and the public’s interest in protecting one of this country’s most important natural gifts—the forests.
For those who didn’t know Pinchot (I was fairly clueless) “The Big Burn” is worth reading just for learning about one man’s relentless passion, unique personal story and tireless efforts. Egan sets up the political battles in the first section of the book, recounts the fire in the middle part and covers the policy fallout in the wrap-up. The political tensions between Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, are as easy to read and just as gripping as the fire brewing in the woods in northern Idaho.
The Idaho scenes are epic, told with straightforward prose. “These flaming fusillades meant townsfolk were vulnerable to an unseen terror, something bigger, more distant, random and less predictable than anything that had threatened Wallace over the last month. It meant that they had to think seriously about getting out, or losing everything. Within days, several hundred people gathered what they could carry, by carriage or horseback or in the compartment of the train–and fled.”
Only occasionally does Egan let his flair for words run toward snazzy color.
A backfire “took off up the hill, orderly at first, then scampering off to one side, toward Spike Kelley’s empty manse. It sniffed at the house for an instant, like a newly awakened bear examining fresh prey…The two-story home, so large some people mistook it for a hotel when they stepped off the train in Avery, was destroyed in a great crackling burst, its combustibles reduced to snuff.”
Egan populates the book with those battling the blaze and those caught in its ferocious heat–firefighter Ed Pulaski, Italian immigrants Domenico Bruno and Giacomo Viettone, an isolated homesteader named Ione Adair.
The 1910 fire was the Hurricane Katrina of its day–a natural calamity that impacted national policy. You can’t help but read “The Big Burn” and wonder if we have the wherewithal and stuff to work—together—on such big policy questions today.
(Picture is one I took just outside the Flat Tops Wilderness in Colorado, looking down the South Fork of the White River. August 2009.)