heidi's Reviews > The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan
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's review
Sep 17, 2012

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bookshelves: ebook, reviewed
Read from September 17 to 26, 2012

When a president and a forester love each other very much, they create a national forest system unlike anything in the world...

This is actually two stories, so if you are here for the part where the world catches fire, and all the politics are tedious to you, skip ahead. If you find them interesting, as I did, you can use the Forest Service to track TR from his days as a governor, to his time in the Dakotas, and his deep understanding that he only had this small window in history to save America's beauty from the robber barons of his time. He and Pinchot and Muir were like the three musketeers of conservation, and the backroom politicking and back-and-forthing is pretty awesomely described. Taft does not show up well, if one is a Taft apologist. Is anyone a Taft apologist? Poor soul.

I picked it up because I grew up literally in eyesight of Gifford Pinchot Forest. It's the glue that stuck together between the national parks, the place you went camping when you actually wanted a campfire. But I didn't really know where the name came from. As it happens, it came from one of Teddy Roosevelt's best buddies, who was the first formally-trained forester in the country, and became the first Forest Ranger. He and T.R. spent a ton of time together, camping, politicking, and remaking the face of the American West.

In the fire sections of the book, we have another name that rings in my ears -- Ed Pulaski. The Pulaski, as I know it, is a, no THE backwoods firefighting tool. It is an ungainly amalgam of a hoe and a hatchet, and with those two tools, you can change a lot about a fire's course. What I didn't know was the story of Wallace, Idaho, or the man who invented the Pulaski. It is a heartbreaking story, one of those in which the hero dies in near-poverty and obscurity and is only celebrated afterwards.

The fire descriptions themselves are more lyrical than meticulous, as you can imagine from the sparse population and scope. We're not talking about 40 or 100 square miles, but hundreds. No one could know what the exact progression was, although it feels like the author has done a pretty thorough job piecing together what happened.

Lyrical: The skin of that land is lovely, stroked by easy breezes and nourished by soft rains in the spring. But the Palouse is one of those curious places in the West where a weather system can form benign and transform into something ferocious long after it has left the cradle of its creation. On one side is a desert, a high plateau that gets less rain than Phoenix in some years. On the other side are the well-watered forests of Idaho and Montana, with cooler air and steady moisture. When caught between the two extremes, the air over the Palouse can be volatile, or violent. So it was on the Saturday afternoon of August 20, when atmospheric conditions gave birth to a Palouser that lifted the red dirt of the hills and slammed into the forests— not as a gust or an episodic blow, but as a battering ram of forced air.

Meticulous: More than once, the slow-moving locomotive put on its brakes as it climbed the Bitterroots, and Koch and his men jumped out to remove flaming branches or downed trees from the road that took them upward. He worried, as did everyone, about the deep ravines they had to cross on wood trestles that had been treated with oil as a preservative. They wouldn't know whether one of these bridges was afire or had been weakened or fractured until they were actually upon it. Nor did Koch know the fate of the towns ahead: that Taft had fallen, that the woods outside Saltese had caught fire, followed by Haugan, or that a fourth village, DeBorgia, was next.

I have 34 highlights in this book, far above my average. I suspect part of that is because I tend to highlight things I didn't already know. Like the use of Buffalo soldiers for fire fighting, or that there had been a test of a bicycle corps riding two wheelers from Fort Missoula to St. Louis (can you imagine?!). Did you know that J.P. Morgan fervently hoped that Roosevelt would get eaten by a lion while he was in Africa? That the phrase "a square deal" was part of a thank you for a gift black miners in Butte bestowed on him? I really appreciated how much history I didn't know and got through this book.

If you are looking for exclusively fire reconstruction, this is not it. If you are looking for a book where one event is researched back and forward in time to say things about the time it happened in, then this is aces.

Note: This book is 24% bibliography. I am suitably impressed. Well-played, research nerd author. Well-played.

Read if: You would like to read more about the formation of the notion of wilderness conservation, the Forest Service, and the relationship between men sharing a big dream.

Skip if: You want a sympathetic view of President Taft. You are looking for a step-by-step account of historical fire suppression methods. Your heart will be broken forever by the government's shoddy treatment of heroes.

Also read:The Battle over Hetch Hetchy: America's Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism. (which I haven't personally read, but covers some things that went into the same environment as the Big Burn)

Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 (P.S.)

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