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The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire…

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009)

by Timothy Egan

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Perhaps Teddy Roosevelt’s greatest legacy is his acting to set aside land for the masses. He set aside millions of acres for national parks and national forests. And he started the National Forest Service for the lands’ protection under its first chief, Gifford Pinchot. The Big Burn is its story. And it is the story of the worst wildfire this country has seen in August of 1910. Over 3.2 million acres were burned in the course of a weekend. And it is the story of the many brave souls who tried to tame the fire with its hurricane strength winds.

I’ve driven out west and seen miles of mountains covered in black. It gives you a real respect for the power of Mother Nature and for the people who try to tame her. The burn of 1910 laid open many questions about conservation in this country, with many of those still being debated today. And lest we think the acrimonious politics of today are anything new, the book will show that much remains unchanged
( )
  punxsygal | Jan 16, 2016 |
When I started reading The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan, I was not thinking about current events, but as I read it, the parallels with current land use controversies was unmistakable. Some of the anti-conversationist rhetoric of Senators William A. Clark and Weldon Heyburn can be heard among the armed insurrectionists who have taken over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. The debate between those who think all land exists merely for economic exploitation and those who believe in preserving land for future generations still continues more than one hundred years after these events.

The Big Burn begins with the Teddy Roosevelt and his friendship with Gifford Pinchot and how these two formed the US Forest Service and set aside millions of acres of national forest as public lands under its management. Today’s anti-public lands extremists describe this as taking the land from private ownership, but it was federal land that was transferred from the jurisdiction of the Federal Land Bureau to the new US Forest Service. Meanwhile their opponents Clark and Heyburn advocated just giving all the public land to the major oligarchs like Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Weyerhaeuser, suggesting that people who have proved they know how to make money would make best use of it. While they did not use the terminology, Clark and Heyburn had the same ideology as the present day Wise Use Movement.

When Roosevelt ended his second term and was replaced with the weak, ineffective and easily manipulated Howard Taft, the Forest Service was at risk of being shut down. Its enemies were ascendent and Roosevelt absent on a long African adventure and its founder Gifford Pinchot fired for insubordination. Its budget was cut and rangers were paid next to nothing and had to cover all their expenses including equipment and horses.

In 1910, after a long dry summer, a forest fire began that soon joined other fires and covered more than 3 million acres from Washington to Montana. The new Forest Service had its first and greatest challenge, fighting this massive fire. However, they lacked the people and the equipment. Nonetheless, with incredible courage and grit, they did their best.

for more see my blog https://tonstantweaderreviews.wordpress.com/2016/01/07/the-big-burn-teddy-roosevelt-the-fire-that-saved-america-by-timothy-egan/ ( )
  Tonstant.Weader | Jan 7, 2016 |
In lieu of a review: A really good historical presentation of a really huge, early 19th century fire in the United States NW. Mr Egan does a wonderful job of tying this natural event to the politics and cultural dynamics of the day. Read it. ( )
  pamur | Jul 26, 2015 |
This book was the story of the US Forest Service and how the debate regarding the fight over land for development and protection of huge forests was answered by Mother Nature with a huge fire that wiped out vast tracks of trees. The "Big Burn" brought conversation back to the public eye and helped to preserve many of our natural resources. ( )
  cyderry | Dec 7, 2014 |
Very engaging history of the big fire of 1910 and everything that led up to it along with the background politics of creating the National Forest system. Fascinating and easy to listen to. ( )
  St.CroixSue | Aug 11, 2014 |
This is my second book by Timothy Egan. I think he does a really great job of making me angry with government bureaucracy but it was also a great read about life in America in 1910 and Teddy Roosevelt and other big names in the early years of Conservation, Forest Rangers and the battle between private versus public use of land in America’s wilderness.

Teddy Roosevelt; 26th president. I think he was the youngest president at the time. Teddy loved to box and wrestle and do athletic and outdoor activities. A republican was the man who birthed conservation and environmental protection.

President Taft: 27th president, Teddy groomed in for the presidency because he thought Taft would carry on Teddy’s designs. Taft was a weak individual who was easily influenced by big business interests over the interest of conservation or public use of land.

Gifford Pinchot: the man Teddy appointed to start the Federal program of Forest Rangers.

Edward Pulaski; a man who worked for the forest service and was poorly treated by the U.S. Government after he gave his money, his health in service during the fire of 1910. What a shame. He invented the Pulaski axe but was unable to get patent. Unable to get health care, unable to receive any recognition for his service during the 1910 fire.

Woodrow Wilson, 28th president; Democrat, defeated Teddy Roosevelt

Franklin Roosevelt: cousin of Teddy, 32nd president, president during the depression, his work programs actually helped finally to establish forest service, public lands.

As a young person, I was in love with the Forest Ranger and read lots of books about forest rangers. Now I have a better picture of the historical roots of forest service. In the end, the early conservation ideas were faulty and it took some time before there was an understanding that fire could not and should not be prevented altogether, Our lands do require careful tending to preserve them. Forest industry and conservation can work together. Thankfully, we the public can enjoy our country in many recreational ways because of the foresight of people in 1910.

A great book, this author does a wonderful job of researching and writing so that it is enjoyable and emotional experience. ( )
  Kristelh | Aug 9, 2014 |
The biggest forest fire in U.S. history was in August 1910. It was only a few years after Teddy Roosevelt and his friend and conservationist, Gifford Pinchot, had formed the U.S. Forest Service with rangers to try to keep Western forests for the public and protect the forests from logging companies. The hired rangers (which by then, with a change of government, were barely being paid, if at all, as the current government no longer wanted the rangers around) were then tasked with fighting these fires.

I really liked this. Not only was reading about the fires interesting, but reading about the conservation movement in the early 20th century was also very interesting. It makes me sad how the Forest Service has evolved, however. ( )
  LibraryCin | Jun 21, 2014 |
Excellent. Good story, great narrator ... told well. This is (was) an excellent book for a long car trip because it keeps you engrossed and time flies by. I knew the basic story but this brought the story to life for me. Highly recommend. ( )
  marshapetry | Jan 13, 2014 |
THE BIG BURN satisfies on all counts. It's beautifully written and wonderfully informative, shifting in scope from the forest rangers and firefighters on the ground during the "big burn" of 1910 all the way to the White House. Timothy Egan tackles some big ideas, charting the birth of conservation and of America's national parks, but he never loses sight of his story.

Egan's prose is a pure pleasure to read, as beautiful as it is clear. The whole book is brimming with elegant phrases, like when Egan writes about "stapling railroads along every river" or the "snapping horsetail of blazes". He builds on a solid foundation of research and peppers the book with little anecdotes and curious quotations.

The way the whole green movement has taken off lately, it's fascinating to go back to a time when the idea of conservation was radical. I didn't expect to find much in common between my own views and those of Teddy Roosevelt and his nature apostle, Gifford Pinchot. One hundred years is a long time. To my surprise, I understood them perfectly. There's a lot of inspiration to be found in their love of nature, and even today it would be difficult to match their achievements.

THE BIG BURN is a gorgeous book, and if the subject matter sparks even the tiniest bit of interest, it's absolutely worth your time. ( )
  MlleEhreen | Sep 20, 2013 |
What an intense book! This was a gift from my fiancé, since he knows I am interested in reading about disasters. And the Big Burn of 1910 certainly is one. This book gives you a lot of context, but doesn't give a lot of opinion, which is nice, allowing the reader to create their own thoughts. There are parts of this book you don't want to read while you eat ... people did die in the fire, after all ... ( )
  AmberTheHuman | Aug 30, 2013 |
This book tells the story of the 3 million acre fire in Montana and Idaho in 1910 as well as the creation of the forest service 4 years prior. On the whole the book was interesting but the first half is a bit slow detailing more than you would ever need to know about president Teddy Roosevelt who created the Forest Service and Gifford Pinchot who was the first to run the department. What the firemen who fought this fire faced was horrific and the treatment they received from the U.S. government was almost worse. A sad state of affairs from our government. One thing I found surprising was that with all the wealth both Gifford and Roosevelt had, neither one of them ever compensated the forest service workers for doing the work these two men expected of them, knowing full well the government also did not help them. I found this fact to be equally shameful. ( )
  zmagic69 | Aug 15, 2013 |
What does a fire in the Bitterroots have to do with Teddy Roosevelt and the Forest Service? The Forest Service was started by Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the USFS, in 1905. However, many politicians wanted to sell off the forests to large corporations, and thought conservation was a horrible idea. That might sound familiar, but this was at the beginning of the 20th century. A huge fire in 1910 was the catalyst to prevent this new agency from being blown away. Interesting look at the politics of the time, and an adrenaline-inducing account of the front lines of the fire. This book is a coming-of-age story for the United States Forest Service.
  Yllom | Aug 5, 2013 |
A history of early park rangers, the corrupt oligarchs who opposed them, and the people in the new western towns growing out of logging and mining. Many of the debates are eerily familiar: demands that all resources be opened up to private exploitation; deliberate underfunding and constraining of government; then complaints that government workers aren’t doing a very good job. The fires seem almost incidental. ( )
1 vote rivkat | Jul 26, 2013 |
These are my kind of books.
Who knew . . . .
about these fires in 1910 ? - none have ever been worse!
about the towns lost and the heroes who fought the fires and how they failed or succeeded ?
about Roosevelt's involvement with founding the National Forest Service ?
about Gifford Pinchot and his role in saving forests throughout the country ?
about the Big Lumber barons and their battle to clear cut the country ?
about the politics involved in all the above ?

Well composed to lay out the various facts and interweave them - interesting and educational.
( )
  CasaBooks | Apr 28, 2013 |
Oh, this was a great read. I think I must be turning into my father, because more and more I find myself riveted to books that describe severe weather or other natural disasters. This is a great story (true story) about the serendipitous timing of the the 1910 fire that took out most of Idaho -- coming at a time when Theodore Roosevelt's proposed National Forest system was being undermined by Congress and big business, especially mining and timber.

In essence:

Before the fire:
TR: You know what we need? A system of national forests with forest rangers.
Big Business: OH NO WE DO NOT.
Everyone else: Um, we don't really know what that is.

After the fire:
Everyone: OMG, we need forest rangers!
TR: Uh huh.

Okay, some of that is my fascination with TR. The book is just as much (maybe more) about his appointee as the first director of the forest service, Gifford Pinchot. John Muir makes a cameo.

The chapters about the fire itself and the impact on the small towns in its path, and the individuals charged with fighting it, are edge-of-your-seat amazing. It's a great look at the natural American landscape, as well as the development of Deadwood-esque communities. And a cast of (real life) wacky characters to round everything out. The book closes by talking about how the fire rallied a lot of support for a well-funded forest service with the intention that the rangers would prevent all fires, and then of course it turns out that forests need fires to replenish themselves -- this seemed a bit rushed, or maybe the author felt it was not central to the primary focus of the book, I don't know. Or maybe he felt it was obvious, what else do you say? ( )
  delphica | Apr 26, 2013 |
Egan has written an informative book about the early days of the US Forest Service, the conservation movement and the struggle of progressive politicians against big business, a struggle reminiscent of today's struggle around renewable energy vs. fossil fuels. I most appreciated learning about early rangers like Elers Koch and Ed Pulaski. ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
found it slow in parts, but overall an interesting look at a time period I am not that familiar with; includes some great quotes by Teddy Roosevelt that are as timely today as when he said them ( )
  lindap69 | Apr 5, 2013 |
This is the kind of history book I love to read. The author spends the time to get as many actual quotes as possible and then weaves them into the story as narrative rather than as statements. Egan brings alive Teddy Roosevelt, his "forester" Pinchot and the many people in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho/Montana who were there in August of 1910 when the entire forest burned in a couple of days. The ones who survived tell compelling stories of what it was like when the fire came at them pushed by hurricane force winds.

The back story of how the U.S. Forest Service was established and so underfunded that it almost ceased is fascinating although not as compelling as the story of the fire. It is necessary so you understand how something that destroyed so much was responsible for saving an agency and establishing a firm foothold for our National Forest system today.

Highly recommended. ( )
  bookswoman | Mar 31, 2013 |
Feel like I know a little bit more about America ( )
  Aerinl | Nov 30, 2012 |
Fascinating discussion of Gifford Pinchot and the beginnings of the conservation movement in the US told from the perspective of the event that Pinchot made into the USFS "creation myth," the forest fire of August 1910 that engulfed Washington state, Idaho and Montana. This is a bio of Pinchot, a political history of the TR years and efforts to initiate conservation including the creation of the Forest Service, and an account of the individuals and events surrounding the event referred to by the title. I listened to this book unabridged on CD and the narration added immensely to my enjoyment. ( )
  moekane | Nov 22, 2012 |
In 1910, the Boy Scouts of America was established, Halley’s comet was visible and Mark Twain died. Also, in August of that year, one of the worst wildfires in American history started in the Rocky Mountain high country, bordering Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Devastating three million acres, an area roughly the size of New England, burning five towns to ash and killing a hundred firefighters.
Egan, in his usual intrepid, riveting manner, examines this harrowing moment in our country’s history. He also explores the fledgling forest service, which was under-funded, poorly staffed and under-appreciated and how this fire galvanized their future. Ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, who started the forest service in 1905, casts a large shadow here. Egan also puts a human face on this rag-tag group of firefighters, mostly immigrants and cast-offs, who were given the insurmountable task of battling this raging inferno.
Egan has quickly became one of my favorite non-fiction writers and here he has done it again. Highly recommended. ( )
3 vote msf59 | Oct 14, 2012 |
An excellent telling of the origin of the national forests during the Roosevelt era. Well written and informative. ( )
  addunn3 | Sep 13, 2012 |
awesome book read it in one day...stayed up way to late reading it. ( )
  caleath | Sep 3, 2012 |
Over 3-million acres burned to the ground over a 2-day period in August 1910. It’s mind boggling to think about a fire so hot and intense that an area the size of Connecticut could go up in smoke over a long weekend. A once in a century fire that caught the country by surprise. By late August of 1910, the drought stricken national forests spanning Washington, Idaho, and Montana were a tinderbox ready to burn. With only a hand full of underfunded forest rangers of the newly minted United States Forest Service and guided by a wrongheaded philosophy standing in the way of firestorm of unimaginable scope.

The Big Burn is an account of the formation of the National Forest Service and the experiences of this untested group of men charged with fighting the largest wildfire in American history. At the turn of 20th century, America and American industry were expanding into the west at an unpressecentdated rate. It was also, a time of progressive policies to curb the power of industrial trusts and the promotion of fair and safe labor laws. Two forces in almost constant tension with one another. At the head of this progressive era was the ever-enigmatic Theodore Roosevelt, whose personality and toughness was a force of nature in itself, and seemed unstoppable when it came to pushing his progressive agenda through congress. Early on in his political career Roosevelt a great lover nature befriended a young and equally enthusiastic Yale forester by the name of Gifford Pinchot, along with the influential works of John Muir, they hatched a plan to save as much of the natural west as possible for generations to come. (The birth of the conservation movement is anti-climatic, but its ramifications have helped define America’s legacy in a way that will outlast our contributions to democracy.) Once taking the highest office in the land, Roosevelt and Pinchot wasted no time in using executive power to carve huge tracks of land in the still coming of age west for conservation. Over the next 7.5 years, the president and the country’s first forester were able to set aside an additional 16 million acres to the already large 45 million acre National Forest System and form the United States Forest Service to manage this new experiment. In the process, Roosevelt and Pinchot created lifelong enemies that would do anything and everything in their power to undermine the National Forests. On one hand the preservationist, like John Muir, were disappointed in the new organization whose mission was not to preserve the forest as they are, but to manage the forest in way that allows for reasonable commercial exploitation and saving they’re wild nature as much as possible (the early days of conservation was full of high-minded idealism, short on practicality). At the same time there was industry and its bought members of congress who opposed all forms of conservation.

The first rangers of the forestry service were all graduates of Yale, and were influenced by the good and bad optimistic philosophies of the early 20th century, especially the idea that with enough knowledge humans could control nature. With that came the false notion that a handful of determined men armed with the latest scientific knowledge could go up against any size wildfire and win. Gifford Pinchot became so enamored with this idea that he made absolute fire suppression one of the primary missions of the forestry service. The little GP’s (the rangers nicknamed for their hero worship of the 1st ranger) didn’t question Pinchot mission and set off into some the most hostile terrain of the west, the towns of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, and did their best to manage the vast amount of land that made up the 1st national forests. By 1910, underfunded, hated, and stretched to the breaking point forced the forestry service dealing with serve drought conditions and an outbreak of fire in the Bitterroots into one of the toughest battles in its hundred year history.

What started out as hundreds of small fires started by an electoral storm on August 19, 1910 turned into a massive firestorm when strong winds blew in form the west. Exhausted after months of fire the duty the little GP’s could not contain the smaller fires fast enough before it turned into beast that would consume anything in its path. At this point in the season the rangers were paying for supplies and the wages of volunteer firefighters, mostly immigrants and out of work mine laborers, out of their own meager salaries. Demoralized and running out of cash all they had were empty promises and guts to fight the coming nightmare.

On August 20th, the rangers were clearly losing the fight, desperate for a work force the rangers tried and mostly failed to enlist the townspeople living in the forest to stay and fight for their own homes. Most migrants to the region were only looking to turn a quick buck from the abundant resources and the railroad; they had no intention of saving the very thing they wanted to exploit. So, it was left up to a hand full of rangers, forge in immigrants, broken and used mine/timber labor, and a division of black buffalo soldiers to fight a monster of a fire. They lost. The night of August 10th was a night of shear panic, some heroic moments, but mostly it was a night of destruction.

Once the fire had burned itself out on August 21st, what was left was utter destruction. Eighty-seven people were dead or dying, many missing, hundreds of firefighters disabled from the flames, and whole towns burnt to the ground. Sadly, little to no government support was offered to the now scarred and disabled firefighters. It was left to the rangers to continue paying for the medical bills for themselves and their crews. It would be decades before sacrifices of these crews were formally recognized. Many men and their families were left dissolute and broken.

Death and destruction were not the only lasting effects of the “the Big Burn.” The fire galvanized the public and with the help of some political stumping by Teddy and Pinchot, the national forest system and the United States Forestry Service was not only saved but was expanded into the east, many more millions acres were to be conserved. The enemies of the forestry service were soundly defeated and routed from the public sphere. Thanks to the men that braved the fire of 1910 and some dramatic changes in the timber market we now have a growing national forest system, much of it set aside as nature preserves. The conservation and preservation of nature is now firmly a part of national identity. However, we are still practicing an absolute fire suppression methodology resulting in larger and hotter fires that continue to threaten large population centers. The US Forestry Service still has the uphill battle of striking a balance between conservation and commercial interests that aren’t always in sync with the smart thing to do. ( )
1 vote stretch | Aug 9, 2012 |
An interesting book about the creation of the national parks, Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot's part therein, turn-of-the-century U.S. politics, and the Forestry Department and the hugh fire that occurred in Washington, Idaho, and Montana in August 1910. While I didn't feel like this book was as good as The Worst Hard Time, it was still very good and very informative on a subject I knew nothing about. ( )
  whymaggiemay | Dec 23, 2011 |
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