Brendan's Reviews > The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan
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Jul 27, 12

bookshelves: 2012, history-journalism, non-fiction, science, audio
Read from July 13 to 26, 2012

Egan's new exhaustive history tells two stories. It opens and closes with an enormous forest fire that swept big portions of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, using the tale of that fire as a framing device through which to discuss the fight over the creation of the national forests, the national forest service, and eventually the national parks. It's a great book. A few thoughts:

- Egan definitely frames the tale as good (conservationists) versus evil (timber interests). The oligarchs who the West as a big smorgasbord at which the wealthy could gorge themselves were aided by a very corrupt congress who saw little value in saving the forests or maintaining them for future generations.
- The book gives thorough biographies of two key men in the conservation movement: Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, both rugged outdoorsmen who liked a good tussle (physical or mental). Pinchot was the founder and head of the forest service, Roosevelt's right hand man who found himself betrayed by the wishy-washy Taft after Roosevelt left office.
- The forest service did yeoman's work while being starved by a contrary congress. Then, when a fire threatened all that land, they were expected to handle the fires with the most meager resources. Egan doesn't make the connection, but I can't help thinking about the current situation of the EPA, under-funded and expected to do more than is humanly possible. Hell, public education in many places faces the same problem.
- The tales of the fire itself are pretty dramatic as well. Egan follows several threads: a homesteading woman who hopped the last train out of a burning town and walked back to her Ohio home two weeks later, some rangers who led brave piece-work amateurs into the fight against the fire, and many people who lost their lives for having made the wrong of two equally awful choices.
- Many men were dubbed heroes during and after the fight, most notably rangers Pulaksi and Halm, both of whom fought the fire at great personal risk. Also notable were a group of U.S. Soldiers sent to help fight the fire, these soldiers, an all-black battalion, performed heroically, and were recognized for having done so afterward. (Though, given the awful racism endemic in the day, their courage was usually lauded with backhanded compliments like "white men at heart.")

Like his previous book, The Worst Hard Time, Egan's The Big Burn is a solid, well-told history. It's a fascinating read that will give you new insight into TR and the era. It would be interesting to pair this book with Unfamiliar Fishes, which focuses on the Rooseveltian warmongering and desire for an empire. Whereas Egan focuses on Roosevelt's progressive philosophies, Vowell reminds us of his belligerent side.
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