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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

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,0585611,981 (3.95)107

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» See also 107 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 56 (next | show all)
Teddy Roosevelt, national parks, wild fires, this nonfiction book offers a fascinating glimpse into America at the beginning of the 20th century. A huge wild fire in Idaho changed the nation’s view on protecting our country’s beautiful landscapes. Roosevelt and a man named Pinchot were the driving force behind the change. ( )
1 vote bookworm12 | Jan 22, 2019 |
The central section, which details the fire and its aftermath is really, really compelling. The first and third sections, which are essentially about presidential cabinet politics, are less so. And I like presidential history! ( )
  GaylaBassham | May 27, 2018 |
From the disaster response reading program. Disaster narratives are always popular but get to the point where they can be summarized in a few bullet points:

* Setting: National Forests in Idaho and Montana

* Date: Late summer, 1910

* Means: Forest fire.

* Doomed Heroes: Italian immigrants and volunteer firefighters Domenico Bruno and Giacomo Vettone. (Lots of other people died but Domenico and Giacomo get the print).

* Saved Heroes (and Heroine): Forest rangers Ed Pulaski and Joe Halm; homesteader Ione (Pinkie) Adair, and the United States Army 25th Infantry (Colored).

* Backstory Heroes: Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt, the United States Forest Service

* Villains: The Big Corporations (of course); United States Senators William Clark and Weldon Heyburn.

* Backstory: Pinchot and Roosevelt establish the National Forests, against the bitter objections of The Big Corporations and Senators Clark and Heyburn, who think the best thing to do with the forest is cut it down.

* The Grist: After Ominous Forebodings, the Forest catches fire. The Heroes head out to put it out, but are hampered by the lack of funding (engineered by The Villains). The Heroes nevertheless perform heroically, but are in desperate straits. The Doomed die horribly. The Saved come through due to grit, determination, and luck.

* The Aftermath: The Heroes, because of continuing machinations by the Villains, are never adequately compensated for their heroism. The Forests become “multi-use” lands and are logged, grazed and generally Not Left the Way God and Teddy Roosevelt Intended. The Forest Service learns the wrong lesson from the fire and continues to put out forest fires rather than Letting Them Burn.

Well, that’s the story. Not much help in the way of disaster response; the entire population of the United States probably couldn’t have put out that fire no matter how they were deployed. Evacuations were conducted with reasonable efficiency under Forest Service direction; in fact much of the scene was totally chaotic and thing just managed to sort themselves out. The 25th Infantry (Colored) performed well, with many locals commenting on how “white” they were.

Gifford Pinchot comes across as a pretty interesting character; while Roosevelt was governor of New York he invited Pinchot to come to Albany to discuss forestry, wrestle, and box. Roosevelt pinned Pinchot, but Pinchot knocked the future President of the United States unconscious; something that should happen more often. Pinchot also had a long relationship with Laura Houghteling, a beautiful and accomplished socialite; the relationship was only slightly marred by the fact that Miss Houghteling was dead of tuberculosis through most of it. Pinchot had long conversations with her ghost/spirit/whatever, which he committed to his diary – and sometimes to bystanders; Laura gradually faded away, eventually no longer speaking but merely appearing, then finally just a “presence”. At some point she gave permission to Pinchot to marry somebody else, which seems to have been a considerable relief to Pinchot’s family.

I shouldn’t protest too much, I suppose. This is well written and holds interest, I just get a little tired of the same plot over and over again and yearn for some heroic corporate executives and venal government employees to break the monotony. Author Timothy Egan wrote The Worst Hard Time, about the Great Depression; I haven’t read that one but I bet I can predict a lot of it. ( )
1 vote setnahkt | Dec 20, 2017 |
Teddy Roosevelt and the fire that saved America
  jhawn | Jul 31, 2017 |
Torrey House continues to strive for a title like this one. Egan makes the research and story telling look easy. There are plenty of substories with the fire to keep the pages turning but history is woven in with Egan's transparent narrative. I meant to use a few quotes when I wrote the Forest Service recently to remind them what they are doing. In Utah, 97% of the forests are grazed by livestock, and not to their benefit. In his first annual message to congress, we learn, Teddy Roosevelt said, "The forest reserves should be set apart forever for the use and benefit of our people as a whole and not sacrificed to the shortsighted greed of a few." We are still saying such words today. Pinchot, Muir and Roosevelt were all pals at a time Muir was writing words that sound current also. Muir encouraged his readers to get out to escape the "stupefying effects of the vice of over-industrialization and the deadly apathy of luxur," and that "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life."

I realize as I read BIG BURN that as bad as public land management is today, as captured as the agencies are to special interest groups, as corrupt as the politicians are that oversee the public trust, it is nothing like 100 years ago. TR was a force that changed the course of preservation to this day and we continue to owe a debt of gratitude. Glad to have this book on my shelf. ( )
1 vote Mark-Bailey | Jul 1, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 56 (next | show all)
Egan's impressive account makes clear that Pinchot and Roosevelt cared deeply for the land—a concern they shared with the rangers who heroically faced down towering walls of flame.
added by Shortride | editBookforum, Brian Sholis (Dec 1, 2009)
Egan has already proved himself to be a masterly collector of memorable stories.

His new book, “The Big Burn,” continues in the same tradition. It is also a clarion call for the conservation philosophies of John Muir and others as Egan details the saga of “the largest wildfire in American history”...

A masterwork in every sense

» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Egan, Timothyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dean, RobertsonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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If now the dead of this fire should awaken and I should be stopped beside a cross, I would no longer be nervous if asked the first and last question of life. How did it happen?
- Norman MacLean, Young Men and Fire
To Sam Howe Verhovek Friend, editor, writer, and adopted son of the Pacific Northwest, no bow-tied bum-kisser he
First words
Here now came the fire down from the Bitterroot Mountains and showered embers and forest shrapnel onto the town that was supposed to be protected by all those men with far-away accents and empty stomachs.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (4)

Book description
On the afternoon of August 20, 1910, a battering ram of wind moved through the drought-stricken national forests of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, whipping the hundreds of small blazes burning across the forest floor into a roaring inferno. Forest rangers had assembled nearly ten thousand men-college boys, day workers, immigrants from mining camps-to fight the fire. But no living person had seen anything like those flames, and niether the rangers nor anyone else knew how to subdue them. Timothy Egan narrates the struggles of the overmatched rangers against the implacable fire with unstoppable dramatic force. Equally dramatic is the larger story he tells of outsize president Teddy Roosevelt and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot. Pioneering the notion of conservation, Roosevelt and Pinchot did nothing less that creating the notion of conservation, Roosevelt and Pinchot did nothing less than create the idea of public land as our national treasure, owned by and preserved for every citizen." (978-0-547-39460-2)
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0618968415, Hardcover)

Amazon Best of the Month, October 2009: When Theodore Roosevelt vacated the Oval Office, he left a vast legacy of public lands under the stewardship of the newly created Forest Service. Immediately, political enemies of the nascent conservation movement chipped away at the foundations of the untested agency, lobbying for a return of the land to private interests and development. Then, in 1910, several small wildfires in the Pacific Northwest merge into one massive, swift, and unstoppable blaze, and the Forest Service is pressed into a futile effort to douse the flames. Over 100 firefighters died heroically, galvanizing public opinion in favor of the forests--with unexpected ramifications exposed in today's proliferation of destructive fires. Just as he recounted the Dust Bowl experience in The Worst Hard Time (a National Book Award winner),  The Big Burn vividly recreates disaster through the eyes of the men and women who experienced it (though this time without the benefit of first-hand accounts). It's another incredible--and incredibly compelling--feat of historical journalism. --Jon Foro

Amazon Exclusive Essay: "The Ghosts of 1910" by Timothy Egan, Author of The Big Burn

Nearly a hundred years ago, a big piece of Rocky Mountain high country fell to a fire that has never been matched--in size, ferocity, or how it changed the country. I was drawn to this fire in part because of its mythic status among my fellow Westerners. But I was reluctant to try and tell this story because everyone who had lived through it had gone to their grave. With The Worst Hard Time, I could look into the eyes of people who survived the Dust Bowl and hear their stories--firsthand. They were happy to pass them on. I was the baton.

With The Big Burn, the stories would have to come from ghosts. That fire burned 3 million acres and five towns to the ground in the hot sweep of a single weekend. It also killed nearly a hundred people. So, my task was to listen to the dead--those Italian and Irish immigrant firefighters in their letters home, those first forest rangers in memories collected in volumes stashed away in mountain towns, and in the notes and diaries of two great men who founded the Forest Service. One, Teddy Roosevelt, is a voice that lives nearly as loud today as when he bestrode the world stage. The other, Gifford Pinchot, was less known, but his legacy, like that of Roosevelt, is everywhere in the public land that Americans now claim as a birthright. And what’s more, Pinchot himself was married to a ghost for nearly 20 years, one of the more fascinating things I found in the haunt of the Big Burn.

(Photo © Sophie Egan)

Photographs from The Big Burn
(Click to Enlarge)

President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir atop Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park Ranger Ed Pulaski, whose actions saved many lives Ranger Joe Halm after the fire. Like Ranger Pulaski, he helped save many lives Men standing amid downed timber after the Big Burn of 1910 Young Gifford Pinchot, a close friend and personal aide of Roosevelt’s and the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service A ForestService fire patrol in 1914

A Q&A with Timothy Egan

Q: Tell us something about that great fire.

A: Well, it was the largest wildfire in American history, based on size. In less than two days, it torched more than three million acres, burned five towns to the ground, and killed nearly one hundred people.

Q: Wow. How big is three million acres?

A: Imagine if the entire state of Connecticut burned in a weekend--that's what you have here.

Q: And yet in your subtitle you call this the fire that saved America.

A: That's right. This happened in August 1910--next year will be the one hundredth anniversary. It came just after Teddy Roosevelt had left office, and left a legacy of public land nearly the size of France. But after Roosevelt was gone from Washington, in 1909, the Forest Service, the stewards of his legacy, came under attack. Gilded Age money wanted the rangers gone, the land placed in private hands. Enemies in Congress were constantly sniping at the young agency. And people out west were suspicious of the value of “Teddy's green rangers,” as they called them. They thought they were all college boys, softies, city kids.

Q: So how did the fire change that image?

A: It made heroes--almost mythic heroes--of the young men who led platoons of firefighters into a sea of flames. The government had marshaled ten thousand people, an army of young men, immigrants, and volunteers, to fight the fire. It was the first large-scale effort to battle a wildfire in U.S. history. The big-city daily newspapers here and abroad covered it like a war. The firefighters failed, because the Big Burn was so big and moved so quickly. But they succeeded in one respect: it turned the tide of public opinion, and Roosevelt's “Great Crusade” was saved. But at an awful cost. Those men should never have died. The fire was a once-in-a-century force of nature, and nothing could have stopped it.

Q: How so?

A: The fire moved faster than a horse at full gallop. It's been estimated that it consumed enough trees to build a city the size of Chicago. And it burned at nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in spots, incinerating the ground down to bedrock. No army of bedraggled men with shovels and picks could stop that.

Q: After writing a book about the Dust Bowl, what drew you to a fire from 1910?

A: I guess I'm working my way through the elements, going from dust to fire! Narrative history, basically just storytelling, is such a thrill to develop. You relive several lives through this drama. You inhabit their time. Like The Worst Hard Time, this book follows a dual-track story and several real-life people through this event.

Q: How did you hear about the Great Fire?

A: I've heard about the Big Burn since I was a little kid, camping in Montana and Idaho with my family. It had this larger-than-life status. And then, as a New York Times reporter covering the West and many wildfires, I found that this fire was a sacred text.

Q: What surprised you about the story?

A: I think it was Voltaire who said history never repeats itself, but man always does. As with the story I tried to tell in The Worst Hard Time, here you have a classic tale of human beings against nature. Hubris plays a huge role. In the end, nature wins, of course. Nature always bats last, as they said after the Bay Area earthquake that disrupted the World Series.

Q: What else came as a surprise?

A: I was hugely impressed with Roosevelt and his chief forester, a very strange and original American now nearly lost to our history named 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.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: I mean it in a 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. 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.

Q: What was that all about?

A: He was a quirky guy, very smart but also very spiritual.

Q: And Teddy Roosevelt, did he live up to the image carved on Mount Rushmore?

A: More so. He was such a...multitasker! A presidential polymorph! He wrote something like fifteen books before the age of forty. He climbed the Matterhorn after doctors told him he was doomed to a sickly, indoors life. And he took on the entrenched, powerful moguls and politicians of the Gilded Age.

Q: So the story you tell is really two stories, as you mentioned earlier: the founding of American conservation and how this fire saved it?

A: Precisely. I'm always interested in the collision between man and nature. But again, what struck me as unusual in this case was how the collision preserved something bigger, more lasting--the idea of conservation itself.

Q: So the fire was a good thing?

A: I don't think the families who lost their loved ones would say that. I try to focus on five or so people who faced this beast on the ground. You know, history is not always about Great Men. It's also about people in the margins, who rarely get recognition, who make it turn. And in this case, you had some Italian and Irish immigrants, a tough female homesteader, some African-American soldiers, some brave and young forest rangers--all of whom were heroes, as important to how this fire changed history as were Roosevelt and Pinchot.

Q: Aside from the conservation legacy, why is a fire from a hundred years ago important today?

A: We're entering an age of catastrophic wildfires, so the experts say. Big parts of the West will burn over the next decade. In those forests you have all this fuel built up: dead and dying trees. The land wants to burn, perhaps needs to burn. A big part of the reason why goes back to the Big Burn. I don't want to give away a story twist, but you’ll see late in the book that another lesson--perhaps tragic, certainly misguided--was taken away from the Big Burn. It's with us in a very big way.

Q: How, specifically?

A: We're seeing bigger, hotter, longer, earlier wildfires around the country today, and much of them can be traced to the wrong lessons of the Big Burn. Firefighting now accounts for nearly half of the Forest Service budget. This was not what Roosevelt had in mind.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:27 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Narrates the struggles of the overmatched rangers against the implacable fire of August, 1910, and Teddy Roosevelt's pioneering conservation efforts that helped turn public opinion permanently in favor of the forests, though it changed the mission of the forest service with consequences felt in the fires of today.… (more)

» see all 3 descriptions

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