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Like a raging wildfire
on August 25, 2009
This book reads like a growing, raging wildfire: it starts out slow, then builds up to a spellbounding climax and finishes with a lengthy cleanup of loss and grief and the realization that the Forest Service is needed.
Timothy Egan is a gifted writer who knows how to keep readers spellbound. I started reading the book yesterday "just to get a feel for it" and a few hours later couldn't put it down. He does a great job of pulling the reader into this subject, introducing the main characters of TR, Gifford Pinchot (first Chief Forest Servicer who met an early demise when Taft took over) and Bill Greeley (District Ranger), and all the wealthy New Yorkers who resented wild lands being put in reserves for future generations. In the background is John Muir, this country's first passionate nature advocate and preservationist.
TR created the Forest Service in 1905 and Congress passed the first laws for its agency. With the buffalo, grizzly bear and wolf practically killed off from most lands, the last great fear was the wildfire. History has proven that even in the young United States, a ravaging fire could wipe out entire families, entire towns. After a brutally cold and wet winter in early 1910, the weather warmed up, drying the forests of the eventual burn area by April. Over 1000 smaller fires were already burning by late July. By then Roosevelt was out of the White House and a new man, William Taft, his successor.
This book is divided into three parts: 'In on the Creation," which describes the characters who were for and against the creation of the Forest Service and the western lands; the young underpaid progressives who were picked by Pinchot to be the first forest rangers, and all the wealthy senators and businessmen who were opposed to open lands for the public. The first rangers were more than just office administrators (like they are today), but young men who had to endure a two day grueling exam to prove that they could survive in the wilderness, hunt and cook their own food and build thir own cabin. Part II describes in vivid detail the frantic attempt to recruit forest fire fighters among Westerners who were still more interested in logging, mining, hunting and whoring and opposing anyone and anything that would prevent them from doing so. But then those smaller 1000 forest fires bled into one humungous inferno in late August that ravaged so much of eastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana in a matter of two days. The actual fire is described starting in the chapter "Men, Men, Men!" on page 110 out of this 297 page book. Part III winds down with the postfire days and months in "What They Saved" with the realization that the Forest Service is a necessary evil for the landowners and corporations that do business from and in the wilderness. The reader sees how the complete story of all the characters falls into place.
Egan knows how to make popular history interesting without dragging down the story with too many details. Describing the people involved in this story is no easy feat, yet reading "The Big Burn" is excitingly fast, highly entertaining and most interesting. Egan does an extraordinary job describing the constant tug and pulls that were going on during Roosevelt and Taft's administrations between Congress and especially Senator Weldon Heyburn from Idaho, wealthy railroad owners and businessmen on one side, and the growing young progressives pushing for reform across the country on the other. The reader becomes familiar with all the corruption, crimes, lies and stalls that went on for years in the early 20th century between land owners and land conservationists. (Preserving land for public use was unheard of at a time when large corporations were given it free to exploit for its natural resources.) Add in the popular yellow press at the time and all the many social changes going on in the working class, the final product is a well written social history that deserves to be read, enjoyed and passed on. A reader who enjoys history will gain greater insight into all the behind the scenes bickering that went on not just because of the Big Burn, but in society as a whole. Many of those progressive changes are with us today.
This book is Timothy Egan at his best.