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The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America - Timothy Egan UPDATED July 5, 2012 - sees link at bottom

In 1910, the US Forestry Service was in its infancy. Teddy Roosevelt had put Gifford Pinchot in charge of the foundling agency. But robber barons and local commercial interests used all their resources to try to smother the infant in its crib, using their control of media to lobby against and lie about the Forest Service, and using their money to corrupt public officials in order to deny the Service the manpower and resources needed to actually protect the growing quantity of land held in public trust. Then, in a drought-parched lands of eastern Washington, western Montana and northern Idaho, the greatest forest fire in US history sparked a major change in public consciousness.

Egan offers historical context for this story, writing about the politics of the day, the forces, personalities and motives involved. As America saw its frontiers vanishing, a president took on the task of preserving some of the nation’s wilderness for future generations. Some things never change. Just as today’s robber barons are willing to despoil the entire planet to bolster next quarter’s bottom line, so the big business interests of 1910 were more than happy to spend the nation’s future to enrich their present.

When a wildfire broke out in the western forests, it was the Forestry Service that was charged with keeping it under control. Pinchot had oversold his vision of the service, believing that forest fires were an aspect of nature that man, and in particular the Service, would be able to control. He was wrong. And short-sighted, penurious Congressional funding for the Service ensured that there would be insufficient resources to manage any but the most modest blazes.

Entire towns were wiped off the map. In some cases this probably represented an improvement. Hundreds of people lost their lives, fighting the fire, fleeing it, or attempting to hide. Egan offers us personal stories of the people involved, the local rangers who tried to organize firefighting squadrons, townspeople who joined the battle, or trampled women and children to save their own lives.

I would have liked for Egan to offer more science in explaining the particularities of this fire. And it might have been informative, if gruesome to go into some of the details of why death by fire is so horrific. Some of that can be found in Daniel James Brown's compelling book, Under a Flaming Sky, about an earlier firestorm in 1894.

There are characters aplenty in The Big Burn, people with whom one can identify, and there are clear lessons to be gleaned that are applicable to contemporary issues. The Big Burn is a fast-paced read that is engaging, informative and thought-provoking.


July 5, 2012 - Egan's column addresses what can only be called The Burning Time as the summer of 2012 puts the lie to deniers of global warming