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163 of 169 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Like a raging wildfire
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...
Published on August 25, 2009 by CGScammell

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90 of 106 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well written history of an important event
The "big burn" was definitely big. Just as the U.S.--under Teddy Roosevelt--finally got around to protecting millions of acres of western forest, parts of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming--an area about the size of New England--burned to the ground in what is probably the most devastating forest fire in our history. Well deserving the name "bug burn" it was front page news for...
Published on September 12, 2009 by Alan Mills


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163 of 169 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Like a raging wildfire, August 25, 2009
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This review is from: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (Hardcover)
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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.
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53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Big country, big people, big problems: an epic American tale, September 6, 2009
This review is from: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (Hardcover)
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Even though Teddy Roosevelt figures prominently in the title of this book, he has left office by the time of the August 1910 wildfire in the Bitterroot Mountains (along the Idaho-Montana border) at the true center of this story.

Roosevelt has left behind Gifford Pinchot to lead the conservation efforts of the nascent US Forest Service. Pinchot's efforts are underfunded and unpopular with influential senators, congressman and powerful industrial figures who want to leverage western timber and mineral reserves to enhance their personal empires. By the time the fire strikes, William Taft is serving ineffectually as president, essentially leaving Pinchot to do the best he can with what he has.

Timothy Egan lays out the political and historical scene setting in animated detail, providing well documented insights. He adds life and personality to the central players in the coming conflict between powerful people (with vastly differing agendas) and nature (with just one).

He then shifts to the fire itself. In 1910, the towns of the Bitterroots were populated by a diverse group of immigrants with social issues that could have come from today's op-ed pages. Writing about an influx of Italians, Egan says: "The Italian surge, in particular, angered those who felt the country was not recognizable, was overrun by foreigners, had lost its sense of identity. And they hated hearing all these strange languages, spoken in shops, schools and churches."

The events of this book take place at the intersection of many disruptive influences in America; railroads, telephone, freed blacks (the Buffalo Soldiers play a prominent role in the firefighting in this book). As we watch western fires threaten lives and property today, challenging even our advantages of aircraft (the US government owned two airplanes in 1910), communications and road transportation, it's hard to imagine the odds faced by those on the front lines in this book.

The final third of this book is an emotional look at hard men and women making hard choices in the face of fire fueled by dry timber and spread with hurricane-force Palouser wind. Some were deliberately heroic, others purely self-serving, and some simply met their end as they ran out of options while doing their duty. Egan captures the time and place with honesty and respect, and leaves you in awe of their pioneering spirit and the power of nature over humanity. The next time you see video of a woodland firefighter wielding a "Pulaski Axe", you'll appreciate its history...and know something about the man who gave it its name.
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90 of 106 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well written history of an important event, September 12, 2009
By 
Alan Mills (Chicago, Illinois USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (Hardcover)
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The "big burn" was definitely big. Just as the U.S.--under Teddy Roosevelt--finally got around to protecting millions of acres of western forest, parts of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming--an area about the size of New England--burned to the ground in what is probably the most devastating forest fire in our history. Well deserving the name "bug burn" it was front page news for a week, caused dozens (and perhaps as many as 200) deaths, and destruction of vast areas of virgin timber--worth millions of dollars if logged. Yet, the story is now largely forgotten.

Timothy Egan (who last focused his writing talents on the dust bowl) does a good job of bringing this important event back alive. The book is (with a few exceptions discussed below) eminently readable, and he tells a good story--describing both the fire itself, and the political context vividly.

I do believe that the sub-title is a little overblown--the fire did not "save America", but arguably did save the concept of wilderness protection. That story is really the story of "spin"--the conservationists simply did a better job of selling their story. The narrative of heroic rangers battling a monster fire, despite having been under funded by timber barons for years--leading to wholly unnecessary lose of life. The timber companies had just as plausible story line: if the woods are going to be destroyed by fire anyway, doesn't it make sense to harvest the lumber in an economically productive manner? But did a terrible job of selling it.

My reservation is that the book is a little disorganized. The same story is told twice--in almost identical words--in the introduction, and then again in its chronological "place" in the story. Also, the book really doesn't come alive until the fire starts.

All in all, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the development of our system of national parks and forests.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Almost Great Book that Falls Really Short, January 1, 2011
As with his previous works like the, Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan has once again painstakingly combed through historical records to write a riveting non-fictional narrative passages in The Big Burn. Yet, ultimately The Big Burn as a book falls apart at the end, and never ties together any of the loose ends nor prove Egan's thesis on the meaning of the great fire.

Ostensibly, The Big Burn is about the great forest fire of 1910 in the Bitterroot Mountains between the Idaho Montana border. The prologue opens with the frantic evacuation of Wallace, ID right as the largest forest fire in American history consumes the frontier town. From there the story jumps back some 30 years to the first meeting of a young conservationist Gifford Pinchot and the then New York Governor Teddy Roosevelt. In lively prose Egan brings to life Pinchot and Roosevelt's relationship and their common cause to save the American wilderness. Egan pits their side against the Gilded Age Robber Barons of the West. Men bent on exploiting the lands harvest of timber for ruthless profit.

This book is a compelling read for anyone who loves the west, and this unique time in American history. Ironically the actual forest fire in 1910 in the Bitterroots is the weakest part of The Big Burn. The book would have been stronger if the fire was dealt with as a side story to Roosevelt and Pinchot's larger crusade to create the National Forests. Instead Egan ties these two political leaders to the 1910 fire, and then (as is stated in the subtitle) tries to argue that the "fire saved America". But in fact by 1910 both Roosevelt and Pinchot were out of office, and in the aftermath of the fire almost nothing was learned that would change the course of conservation or the forest system in the U.S. Unfortunately by the final chapter the book totally falls apart as Egan awkwardly tries to apply his larger lesson to the fire.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazingly educating and entertaining at the same time, August 29, 2009
By 
Graves (Pennsylvania) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (Hardcover)
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When you think of the extraordinary life and accomplishments of Theodore Roosevelt, all too often the establishment of the National Forest Service is near the bottom of the list but in The Big Burn, Egan brings it to the fore and details its creation and near extermination by both politics and natural disaster.

In the first third of the book Egan details how the service was created by Roosevelt as a part of his fight against the Trusts that were dominating politics and the economy, then how under the weak willed Taft these same Trusts were able to all but gut the system by cutting off funding. It is a picture of the corruption and influence of big business in the early 20th century and the efforts made to try and defeat them and their response.

Having set the scene the rest of the book details how the Rangers of the Forest Service were suddenly confronted with the biggest forest fire in history. This was not just the sort of burn we see today on the evening news. This was a confluence of conditions that would create what a later generation would call `the perfect storm' but not in rain and wind, but in fire, a firestorm whipped by hurricane force winds. Fire that didn't just burn national forests, but railroads, bridges roads and wiped entire towns off the map.

In exploring this oft overlooked element of American History in a fairly small space Egan brilliantly balances rich detail without overloading the reader with needless detail. He has a positive talent for choosing how to give a vivid description of people, their appearance, life and motivations within a few pages. Mostly this is spent on the Rangers who were on the forefront of the fight, against corruption and fire, as well as the politicians who champions and despised them, but also he gives insight into some of the men who took up a shovel for the cause.

Naturally the rangers are the heroes. The professionals who, though underpaid, under trained and virtually unsupplied who all the same did not shirk in their duties to face down a particularly horrible death. The book also details enough people, an Irish cook, Italian miners, a former Texas Ranger spring to mind, that you feel you really know the people who risked and in some cases gave, their lives for the conflict.

Egan's writing style flows effortlessly and you're scarcely aware of the pages turning in your hands. For anyone with an interest in American History, Conservation or just a love of the wilderness this book is an amazing read, being entertaining and educating at once.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Two Stories, Much to Learn, Keeps You Longing for the Next Page!, October 11, 2009
By 
James Gallen (St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (Hardcover)
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In "The Big Burn", author Timothy Egan skillfully weaves the story of a massive August 1910 forest fire in Idaho and Montana into the histories of the U.S. Forest Service and the conservation movement. The book begins with its two leading characters, Theodore Roosevelt and his close friend, forester Gifford Pinchot. The reader who is unfamiliar with either of these two will receive a superficial biography which enables him or her to understand their roles in the forestry and conservation contribution to the Progressive Era. TR was the outdoorsman who strove to preserve natural resources and wilderness areas for future generations. Pinchot was the wealthy heir who invented the forestry profession and made it the cause of his life. It was Pinchot who taught TR how to protect virgin timber from the lumber industry. This book illustrates the forces and personalities which contended over the issues concerning the preservation or utilization of America's timber resources. Among those opposing TR and Pinchot were President William Howard Taft and timber interest defenders, Montana Senator William Clark and Idaho Senator Weldon Heyburn. The conservationists' disputes were not all fought against industrialists. Pinchot, who favored wise use of the forests, would even clash with his mentor, John Muir, who preferred uncompromising preservation.

After laying out the tale of the conservation efforts, Egan switches to stories of the settlers and Forest Rangers who fought against and live through or died in the Big Burn. These are stories of heroism and tragedy, survival and death.

The title says that this is about "Teddy Roosevelt & The Fire That Saved America." As I was reading about the fire, I wondered how he was going to tie this back into the saving of America. Egan brings the preservation of the Forest Service into the story by pointing out that the Big Burn made heroes of the Rangers, thereby increasing public support for funding and defeating the efforts of the industry and its political agents to destroy the Service which stood in the way of unfettered exploitation of the timber lands.

The writing is excellent. This narrative moves seamlessly from one story to another. You will always be longing for the next page.

Whether you are a devotee of the history of the Idaho-Montana region, Theodore Roosevelt, the Conservation Movement or the Progressive Era, this is a valuable addition to your library. Among my interests are Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Era. Although I already knew much about those subjects before I began this book, I learned many new things and deepened my understanding. However familiar you are with these topics, you will learn much from this work.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fine History of a Major Turning Point in the History of Forestry in the U.S., October 11, 2009
By 
Roger D. Launius (Washington, D.C., United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (Hardcover)
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As a child of the sixties I was brought up on the image of Smokey and Bear and the admonition, "Only YOU can prevent forest fires," placing responsibility for preservation of our national forests squarely on every American's shoulders. I learned while a Boy Scout to build fires properly, to control their burning, and to ensure that it was doused before leaving the campsite. I did not learn the history of forest fires in the American West and how they destroyed both property and natural resources. Timothy Egan's "The Big Burn" is a useful addition to that earlier knowledge, telling as it does some of this history in a graceful, conversational manner.

Egan narrates in this book the story of an August 1910 forest fire in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and Montana. He recites how this fire, the largest forest fire in American history and perhaps in the history of the world, devastated 3 million acres of timberland and 13.5 million dollars in property. Fueled by a superdry year and powerful winds, it took out some 8 billion board feet of wood. Before it was over, the fire had killed 78 firefighters and 8 civilians. Some bodies could not be identified because of the intensity of the flames. This one moved faster and caused more damage than virtually another other forest fire. This was in no small part because on August 20, immense winds of hurricane force (more than 75 m.p.h.) fanned the flames.

By August 23, when rains finally came to help bring the fire under control, the extent of its destruction had only begun to be perceived. More than a third of Wallace, Idaho, had been incinerated, but other towns like Grand Forks, DeBorgia, Taft, and Haugen were completely wiped out. Sailors as far away as the Pacific Northwest reported seeing smoke from the fire. Dense smoke from the Idaho fire could also be seen as far southeast as Denver, Colorado.

It is hard to overstate the power of this forest fire. It is also hard to overstate the lessons its destruction seared into the psyches of those who experienced it. Something had to be done to curb this threat, and Egan spends considerable time talking about the response to it. National fire policy turned from then on as the Forest Service began suppressing fires with full-time, trained crews. They also developed a system of fire lookout posts and orchestrated media campaigns to prevent fires. Smokey the Bear was born out of these efforts to ensure that "everyone" worked to prevent forest fires.

"The Big Burn" is a well-written account of a turning point in the history of forestry in the United States. Like so many such turning points, unfortunately, the changes resulted from a deadly and devastating natural disaster.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Two important stories..., September 3, 2009
By 
L. F. Smith (E. Wenatchee, WA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (Hardcover)
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This book weaves two important stories together into a fast-paced, thought-provoking account of one of the most significant natural disasters in American history.

The first story is about the events of August 20, 1910, when a major wind storm blew from southeast Washington state into the national forests of Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Months of drought had left the forests vulnerable, and days of lightning storms had started over a thousand small fires. The hurricane-force winds pushed these fires into a gigantic firestorm, which roared over the mountains and through the valleys. A rag-tag crew of over 10,000 firefighters was helpless to stop the inferno. When it was done, 3 million acres of forest and a dozen small towns were ashes, and about 100 firefighters and forest rangers were dead. Quite literally, no one on earth had seen such a fire before, and no fire since then has been as terrible.

Egan's account of these events is masterful. As was the case in his best-selling "The Worst Hard Time," he combines an analysis of academic research with the personal accounts of those who experienced the event to create a dramatic narrative.

At the same time, he is telling quite another story about the origins of the modern conservation movement and its struggle for survival. Two larger-than-life figures, President Theodore Roosevelt and chief forester Gifford Pinchot, pioneered the idea of conservation, created the policies that implemented it, and then struggled with varying degrees of success to defend it against the robber barons of the Gilded Age. It's hard to imagine now, but at the time, the notion that forests, rivers, and mountains should be set aside for public use was controversial; indeed, it was considered un-American by many political figures and most business people at the time.

During this philosophical, political and economic conflict, the Forest Service was created. It is the struggles of the first forest rangers and their heroism during the fire that connects the two stories to one another. In the end, that heroism created a groundswell of public opinion in favor of conservation, and that, in turn, changed the political climate.

However, it also created the notion that forest fires were an unmitigated evil, one to be stopped by any and all means, and that the primary function of the Forest Service should be to prevent fires. That was to have dramatic consequences, which linger to this day, because it turns out that fire is one of the ways that nature keeps the forests healthy. The simple fact that suppressing all fires in the past has made the fires we experience today much worse than they otherwise would have been.

This is an extremely well-written and important book. I recommend it most highly.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A story of vision and humanity vs greed and immense wealth, February 16, 2011
This review is from: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (Hardcover)
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Perhaps the most profound value in reviewing history is to see that while the background scenery may change, the basic themes and struggles remain the same. Thomas Carlyle wrote in the 1840's that, "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." In his book The Big Burn ..." author Timothy Egan reviews the vision of Teddy Roosevelt, with the aid of Gifford Pinchot in preserving huge areas of American forests, wilderness and stages of profound beauty, for the American people in perpetuity for future generations. As such, though a Republican president, he railed against his own party and the unbridled development of natural resources for the benefit of mainly a few super wealthy captains of industry who controlled fortunes that made Bill Gates' pale by comparison. Before National Parks existed or the government agency that controls them, huge tracts of land were given to commercial concerns like the railroads, as incentives to build the rail system that would develop and unite a growing nation that was largely disconnected. "In an eyeblink, the great bounty had been exhausted; more than a billion acres had been given away to corporations, states or private landowners to do with as they pleased." It was described as a fire sale in Eden. As a result, railroads alone had 9 of the 11 stocks listed on the precursor of the Dow Jones average. Eastern forests had been mowed down indiscriminately so the forests of Idaho and Montana with trees 250 feet tall were coveted by lumbering concerns. In an effort to protect, preserve and regulate the nation's natural resources the battle lines were drawn to build and fund the National Forest Service and set aside huge tracts of public land like the Grand Canyon. In the process we learn about men like William Clark, worth $200 million, who bought his position as Montana's Senator by handing legislators bundles of $100 bills in monogrammed envelopes offering $10,000 per vote. We see Teddy Roosevelt who as a boy "was afraid of horses, wild animals and what lurked behind trees in the dark, but taught himself to pretend that he was brave, and in this way became fearless." He even had a wrestling mat and a boxing ring installed in the White House and would challenge visitors to sparing matches! We learn of Gifford Pinchot whose family became wealthy by clear cutting forests, who became the passionate father of the Park Service. Yet, he claimed to be visited regularly by his dead fiancée whom he remained committed to. Also, John Muir, an influential and perhaps our first naturalist, who "liked to lash himself to a tree to better understand the feeling of wind in a forest." We learn of the black regiment the Buffalo Soldiers and what part they played in this huge fire that is the stage the entire account is built on in the narrative. Rockefeller, worth $200 billion in contemporary dollars at the time. We also see the huge immigration of Italian workers, 2 million in less than a decade and their plight. They had a saying, "I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out 3 things. First the streets weren't paved with gold. Second, they weren't paved at all. And third, I was expected to pave them." I bought this book after reading author Timothy Egan's book, The Worst Hard Time, in which he proves himself to be a wordsmith and to capture another epic time in U.S. history, the great Dust Bowl, the greatest ecological disaster in our history, what led up to it and how it was possible. I recommend that book enthusiastically as well as this well researched and compelling narrative.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Way It Was: The U.S. West 100 Years Ago, December 15, 2010
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For somebody with less than passing familiarity of the United States at the turn of the last century--and with an interest in the origins of the nation's efforts at conserving, preserving, and managing the country's vast western resources--this book will likely sate your initial appetite. You might fit into this category of reader if, perhaps, you've heard of Gifford Pinchot, or John Muir, or even Ed Pulaski. Maybe you have this vague notion that President Teddy Roosevelt was known somewhat as a maverick conservationist, and that the West was opened by railroads built largely by immigrant labor.

While "The Big Burn" may not necessarily answer all your questions about these topics, it certainly provides a decent enough introduction around the context of one of the most pressing issues of the U.S. West circa 1910: how to manage forests (and other resources) that were threatened--like the bison in years prior--with wholesale extraction and consumption without a plan for renewal or informed maintenance. The focal point of that context, as the title indicates, was a devastating wildfire in August 1910 that Mr. Egan aptly describes in both personal and policy terms. For readers hungering for more, Mr. Egan provides plenty of pointers to additional sources, both interwoven in the narrative and via an extensive "Notes on Sources" section in the back of the book.

Note for Kindle users: Text formatting is decent enough. A picture or two in the "middle" seems to be missing a caption. But a more significant shortcoming is that individual entries in the supposedly-linked table of contents does not take you to the beginning of a chapter! The link to the index takes you to the *end* of the index. Worse yet, the index is an unusable image (rather than text), thus defeating the ability to highlight an index entry and use the Kindle's search function to find iterations of the chosen text in the narrative. Perhaps the publisher figured that Kindle users cannot otherwise benefit from an index since the Kindle does not use page numbers. Of course, the publisher *could* make linkable entries from the index, but that might be asking too much of an industry that apparently does not understand readers and reading. Kind of odd, isn't it?
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The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America
The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan (Hardcover - October 19, 2009)
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