Will Byrnes'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
Oct 22, 2014

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, american-history, nature, brain-candy
Read in January, 2010

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
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12/19/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-24 of 24) (24 new)

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message 1: by David (new)

David Egan This historical episode is totally unknown to me.Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

Will Byrnes I love this book and wish it had gotten a wider readership. The relevance of both this and Under a Flaming Sky cannot be overstated given the situation in so much of the USA.

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

Comes a time, that a man has so many reviews under his belt, that he has more than one for every national emergency.

Will Byrnes LOL, Steve, literally, and thanks.

message 5: by Jim (new) - added it

Jim Wonderful review and article, Will. Just added the book and look forward to reading it.

Will Byrnes Thanks, Jim. It's a wonderful book. You won't be sorry.

message 7: by Connie (new) - added it

Connie PBS is planning an American Experience episode based on this book. Great review!

Will Byrnes Thanks Connie. There is also PBS special on now about the Roosevelt clan

message 9: by Connie (new) - added it

Connie Will wrote: "Thanks Connie. There is also PBS special on now about the Roosevelt clan"

I meant to watch it tonight. Thanks for reminding me--maybe I can catch it later this week.

message 10: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Yeah, me too

message 11: by Algernon (new)

Algernon there's a mention of a similar devastating fire I think in a book by Norman Maclean Young Men and Fire, also in one of his short stories about the early days of the Forest Service.

message 12: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes I have heard of that one, but I have not read it.

HBalikov It's a great read, and focuses on a 1949 fire. As you know, Montana has its share of yearly fires requiring "smokejumpers." And , Maclean gives a great picture of the courage of these individuals and the risks they face. He also wrote, A River Runs Through It, one of the most perfect American short stories.

Cherie Maclean's book was a very interesting story and if you liked this one, you should read his too. I need to find the time to read this one. Good review.

message 15: by Connie (new) - added it

Connie There's a beautiful song written about the Mann Gulch fire called "Cold Missouri Waters." I've seen Richard Shindell sing it, and it's on the "Cry, Cry, Cry" CD. It always sends chills through me.


I think James Keelaghan wrote the song.

message 16: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Connie wrote: "There's a beautiful song written about the Mann Gulch fire called "Cold Missouri Waters." I've seen Richard Shindell sing it, and it's on the "Cry, Cry, Cry" CD. It always sends chills through me..."

Good stuff

message 17: by Ivonne (new) - added it

Ivonne Rovira I bought this book ages ago. Thanks for the prod to bump it up on the TBR.

message 18: by Jim (new)

Jim Thanks, Will. That Teddy Roosevelt was just one of the best men on the planet!

message 19: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes A remarkable fellow indeed

message 20: by Margitte (new)

Margitte Great review. It is an essential piece of history to be told, for sure.

message 21: by David (new)

David Sarkies Oh for a President like Teddy Roosevelt. We sorely need somebody who can stand up to commercial interested (and win).

message 22: by Lilo (new)

Lilo I bought the book about a year ago but haven't had time yet reading it. Besides, I don't want to read too much horror at a time. I am presently still into man-made horror, that is, non-fiction history.

message 23: by Lela (new)

Lela I'm glad your review appeared again. I didn't see it first time around. Excellent review. It is such a serious subject and a painful one in many ways. I think I'm going to have to add this to my list!

Nirangkush Kallol Parashar Great book yeah,bubby!

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