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The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America

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On the afternoon of August 20, 1910, a battering ram of wind moved through the drought-stricken national forests of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, whipping the hundreds of small blazes burning across the forest floor into a roaring inferno that jumped from treetop to ridge as it raged, destroying towns and timber in the blink of an eye. Forest rangers had assembled nearly ten thousand men  —  college boys, day workers, immigrants from mining camps  —  to fight the fire. But no living person had seen anything like those flames, and neither the rangers nor anyone else knew how to subdue them.

Egan narrates the struggles of the overmatched rangers against the implacable fire with unstoppable dramatic force. Equally dramatic is the larger story he tells of outsized president Teddy Roosevelt and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot. Pioneering the notion of conservation, Roosevelt and Pinchot did nothing less than create the idea of public land as our national treasure, owned by and preserved for every citizen. The robber barons fought Roosevelt and Pinchot’s rangers, but the Big Burn saved the forests even as it destroyed them: the heroism shown by the rangers turned public opinion permanently in their favor and became the creation myth that drove the Forest Service, with consequences still felt in the way our national lands are protected  —  or not —  today.

349 pages, Kindle Edition

First published October 19, 2009

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About the author

Timothy Egan

23 books968 followers
Timothy Egan is a Pulitzer Prize winning author of nine books, including THE WORST HARD TIME, which won the National Book Award. His latest book, A PILGRIMAGE TO ETERNITY, is a personal story, a journey over an ancient trail, and a history of Christianity. He also writes a biweekly opinion column for The New York Times. HIs book on the photographer Edward Curtis, SHORT NIGHTS OF THE SHADOW CATCHER, won the Carnegie Medal for best nonfiction. His Irish-American book, THE IMMORTAL IRISHMAN, was a New York Times bestseller. A third-generation native of the Pacific Northwest, he lives in Seattle.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,829 reviews
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,690 reviews14k followers
August 16, 2019
We owe such a debt of gratitude to Teddy Roosevelt, Pinchot and john Muir. Without these men there would be no public lands, no National Forest and Parks, big business would have consumed them in mass. My United States history knowledge is sorely lacking, I studied European history in school, so I've lately been trying to fill in the gaps. This was about Teddy's and Pinchots fight with big business and the public to keep these lands safe. I never knew Taft was so disliked by many, I actually knew little about him.

Fire, scary how but before it was devastating. Wild fires fought without proper equipment, proper training for the men, a dangerous learn on the job type of fight. Towns, families, death, separation, fire that did not want to be stopped, gobbling up all in it's path. Some hardy, good characters represented here too, woman who stayed and fed the men. Men who fought till they couldn't go on, trying to save what little they could. The big burn covered 3.2.million acres in Idaho, Washington and Montana, killed 85 and it still the largest fire recorded. Ash reached all the way to Chicago. It decimated the timber industry but changed public perception setting the way forward with conservation that had a lasting effect.

This contains a great deal of history but also reads in parts like a thriller. The narration by Robertson Dean was well done.
Profile Image for Brina.
876 reviews4 followers
August 6, 2019
Earlier this year I had the privilege of reading the work of Timothy Egan for the first time. Writing about a subject I knew nothing about, he made the story come alive. Egan has previously won a National book award for nonfiction for his work, so I knew that I had discovered a special author. With summer past it’s halfway mark, I wanted to read another of Egan’s books and found one that seemed appropriate for the season. This time I did know something about the subject matter, as Theodore Roosevelt is one of my 20th century heroes. I will read anything featuring him, so with a gifted author, and a personal American treasure, I knew that I was in for a special book.

By the time of the gilded age, the American west had officially been “closed”. Homesteaders had settled in cities across the Great Plains, and cities sprung up as far as Phoenix and Seattle. With the transcontinental railroad approaching forty years old, Americans had taken advantage of the manifest destiny prophecy and settled the country from sea to shining sea. Yet, hundreds of thousands of acres of unexplored land remained, virgin forests, pristine lakes, as well as scintillating mountain peaks. Logging companies saw it as their right to saw down trees centuries years old in order to build homes and towns that emerged in outposts as remote as Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and Butte, Montana. Unless a friend of the forest could speak for the trees, American wilderness would fall into the hands of the loggers and robber barons.

Theodore Roosevelt has said that he was as much of a westerner as an easterner. Suffering from asthma as a child, he vowed to remake his body and spent hours in the great outdoors. He felt as much at home in the Badlands of the Dakotas as he did in the upper crust society from which he came. When he became president at age forty two following the assassination of President McKinley, Roosevelt rebranded the Republican Party as progressive, speaking for the middle and working classes. Clearly ahead of his time, Roosevelt tabbed his close friend Gifford Pinchot to become the first Chief Forester of the United States. Trained in France and influenced by conservationist John Muir, Pinchot belong in the outdoors, camping in Yosemite, surveying land along the Pacific coastline, and touring Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Roosevelt lived for these adventures as well, and, despite opposition from robber barons in the senate, managed to create the National Park system during his presidency. The land was for the people to enjoy, not for robber barons to destroy. After Roosevelt anointed William Howard Taft as his successor in 1908, the battle for conservation would come to dominate Taft’s presidency.

President Taft was a jurist and desired to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a post he would later hold. Although Roosevelt’s successor, from the early days of his presidency it was clear that he allied himself with big business. In a controversial move, he fired Pinchot, and the National Parks were doomed to destruction. Pinchot lobbied for the preservation of the land as an outsider and established Forest Rangers within the parks. The necessity of the Rangers and their knowledge of the land would come to a head on August 20, 1910 outside of Wallace, Idaho, a mining outpost where copper and ore miners had stripped and land and felled the trees. In an unusually hot summer with a warm wind stirring in the Pacific Northwest, it was only a matter of time before the forests of Idaho, Montana, and western Washington were set on fire. With Taft vacationing at his summer home, it was up to Pinchot and his rangers to save thousands of innocent lives and prevent total destruction of the forests.

The Big Burn fire of 1910 is still believed to be the largest in American history. The residue was felt as far away as Chicago and brought conservation to the forefront of American consciousness. In describing the fire, Egan’s story reads like a fast paced thriller, as readers get to know the rangers and civilians who saved lives of the citizens of Wallace, Idaho and surrounding areas. One feisty character was Ione “Pinkie” Adair, a sharpshooting woman who later became a school teacher. During the rescue she would cook potatoes for sixty firefighters and then walk thirty miles to safety. Adair would end up as the longest living survivor of the Big Burn Fire. Americans at this point would have little patience with Taft and his big business cronies in Congress and turn to the Progressivism of Roosevelt and Pinchot once again to save the wilderness from destruction. Although Roosevelt would never again hold higher office, his presence was enough to lead future presidents to expand the national park system, preserving land for future generations to enjoy.

While I found some passages in the Big Burn to be redundant, I enjoyed Egan’s account of a devastating fire that swung the American pendulum in favor of progressive thought, which included conservation. Having read about Roosevelt in the past, I knew about the politics of the era, but Egan captivated my attention in this account of a fire that read like a thriller. I grew up to hearing Smokey the Bear proclaiming that “only you can prevent forest fires,” and Smokey’s message inevitably had its roots in the fire of 1910. The national parks are treasures and it is doubtful that one can visit all of them in a lifetime. Egan brought the story of their formation to life in this compelling story, featuring one of the giants of the American presidency.

3.75 stars (downgraded .25 stars for some repetitive passages)
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,285 reviews119k followers
October 23, 2014
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.

UPDATES

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
Profile Image for Jeanette (Ms. Feisty).
2,179 reviews1,879 followers
June 20, 2010
Over the long term, greed was the winner of this battle. Some things never change. We could use another Teddy Roosevelt here in the 21st century. Progressive, outspoken, tenacious, and so gifted with words.

This book is a lot more about politics than it is about The Big Burn. I agree with another reviewer who said the title is misleading, as the book is much more about Gifford Pinchot than Teddy Roosevelt. Also, it is never made clear how the fire "saved America." Still, there's much to learn of history here, especially if you like politics.
A lot of heroes emerged during the fire, saving many lives and suffering permanent debilitation. It's shameful that the government never gave them adequate compensation or recognition, especially in the case of Ed Pulaski.
The book is not very well organized, and Egan somehow managed to stretch a 100-page story out to 280 pages. It's worth reading, but there are things about his writing and set-up that bugged me. I think Norman Maclean writes more memorably about men and fire here: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30...
Profile Image for Melki.
5,589 reviews2,311 followers
July 27, 2015
"There was no damn horse fast enough in the country to keep ahead of that fire."

All the world was on fire - flames overhead, flames to the left, flames to the right, the ground was alive.


One August day in 1910, the largest wildfire in US history swept across Washington, Idaho and Montana. The newly established and woefully underfunded Forestry Service struggled to combat the flames. Firefighters were recruited from nearby mining towns.

They came because it was a job, paying twenty-five cents an hour - though many were paid only with promises. Rangers and immigrant alike, they shared but a single thing; not one of them knew how to engage a wildfire of this magnitude.

Egan's book starts with a slam-bang tale of the fire bearing down on the town of Wallace, Idaho. The story told reads more like a novel than a historical account, with heroes bidding goodbye to loved ones and wealthy men shoving women to the ground in an effort to board one of the few trains out of town. It's a tense few pages, with the fates of all concerned left untold.

Then the pace is slowed for a bit as the major "behind the scenes" characters are introduced, specifically Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. The two shared a friendship and also a vision that the "rights of the public to the national resources outweigh private rights." This opinion was unpopular with the lumber barons and other business owners hoping to profit from the heavily wooded lands. These chapters, while necessary, are about as thrilling as reading about rich men having tea parties, which, in a way, is essentially what the pages entail.

Soon enough, we're back to the fire. In Wallace, chaos reigns as the mayor tries to keep his male citizens around to fight the blaze. But their efforts prove to be futile.

The heat burned against Weigle's and up his nostrils. Flames all around. The back of his hand caught fire for an instant, the skin stinging , as if a dozen hornets had poked him. When his mop of red hair started to burn with a sickly smell, he reached for a handful of gravel from the road and rubbed it on his head. But now the fire was in front of him, big downed timbers engulfed by tongues of flame across the dirt road. He could descend no more. He had no choice but to go back up hill yet again. He remembered a tunnel he had passed, a mining hole. Trudging onward in the black of a burning night, Weigle found the mine about a half mile along the way. If he was to survive he had to crawl inside and wait out the firestorm.

description
43 fire fighters hid in the War Eagle mine shaft

But hiding from the blaze inside tunnels proved to be the wrong answer for some.

The air had been cold but it quickly warmed, and then just as quickly went stale and hot. The outside heat was sucking all the cold air from the tunnel. How long till the oxygen was gone?

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Wallace after the fire

The author provides an excellent account of the fire and its aftermath, and detailed epilogues on all parties involved. This is definitely one of the more thrilling nonfiction books I've read. It should be a welcome tonic for anyone who thinks that reading about history is boring.
Profile Image for Marc.
Author 5 books9 followers
March 16, 2011
Outstanding, highly readable history of the Great Fire of 1910 that burned 3.2 million acres in and around the Bitterroots National Forest in Idaho and Montana. The author moves deftly between (a) the immediacy of the fire and the experiences of people caught up in it, and (b) the powerful business and political interests whose actions both contributed to and were affected by the disaster.

Timothy Egan has done a tremendous amount of research, but what emerges most clearly (and powerfully) are the very personal stories of the people involved. And the experiences, thoughts, and emotions of common people (homesteaders, cooks, forest rangers) are described just as carefully, and in as much affectionate detail, as those of corporate titans, senators, and presidents (Roosevelt and Taft).

In the end this rather compact book serves as a history not just of the biggest U.S. fire of the 20th century, but also of the (fascinating) national politics of the first dozen years of the century, and of the origins of the U.S. Forest Service. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,692 reviews206 followers
June 13, 2021
“At the peak of its power, it found the Coeur d’Alene forest, leading with a punch of wind that knocked down thousands of trees before the flames took out the rest of the woods. By now, the conscripted air was no longer a Palouser but a firestorm of hurricane-force winds, in excess of eighty miles an hour. What had been nearly three thousand small fires throughout a three-state region of the northern Rockies had grown to a single large burn.”

This 1910 fire burned three million acres over in Idaho, Montana, and Washington, destroying seven towns and killing eighty-seven people. It served as the impetus for increased protection of America’s forests. In addition to a detailed account of the disastrous “Big Burn,” this book provides minibiographies of early conservationists, particularly Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, and a history of the US Forest Service. It speaks of the heroism of Ed Pulaski, the Buffalo Soldiers, and others, who fought the fire and saved lives.

It starts with an episode during the fire, then backtracks to provide history and set it into the context of its time. Egan highlights the key players, providing an extensive analysis of the politics involved and the struggles of the early foresters. I appreciated Egan’s inclusion of first-hand accounts and photos that vividly convey the devastation.

I live in an area impacted each year by wildfires, so I am particularly drawn to the topic. This book will appeal to those interested in the history of forestry and conservation. It is a well-written and compelling narrative history.
Profile Image for Jonathan.
130 reviews61 followers
November 19, 2009
First off, let me start by saying that Teddy Roosevelt is the man. Anybody who cares about wilderness conservation or has visited a national park should be thankful that he was our president. Egan's book is not only about the great forest fire of 1910 (the titular big burn), but about Roosevelt's efforts to set aside land for future generations. There is plenty of backstory as Egan explores the kinship between TR and his appointed head of forestry Gifford Pinchot, a kinship which ultimately led to the creation of protected forests and national parks. Egan's description of the unstoppable blaze, and the response of the forestry service as well as ordinary citizens as they made futile attempts to contain the blaze made for a harrowing read. He also puts the fire into proper context, highlighting both the political and industrial climate of the times. The ending seemed a bit hurried in comparison to the in-depth and well paced beginning and middle, but since the book was primarily about the fire and not a history of the forestry service I can be forgiving. This was a great read for American history buffs, as well as anyone interested in the origins of our country's conservation movement.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,649 followers
March 6, 2016
“Better for a man to fail, he said, even "to fail greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
― Timothy Egan, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America

description

A good history of Great Fire of 1910/the Big Burn and the fledgling years of the US Forest Service. Act one covers most of the major players: Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, Senator Heyburn, William Taft, Elers Koch, Bill Weigle,Joe Halm, and Ed Pulaski. Act two covers the fire. Act three, the aftermath. While the secondary title is perhaps a bit hyperbolic (really, the Fire that Saved America?) it certainly cemented the Forest Service and their rangers into the hearts and minds of America.

I remember, one summer when I was nineteen, volunteering in Grand Junction, Colorado to help the Forest Service carve the Kokopelli Trail in the McInnis Canyon National Conservatory near Fruita, Colorado. The tool I used? A Pulanski. Later that year, I was living in Glenwood Springs, Colorado in 1994, the summer the South Canyon Fire raced down Storm King Mountain killing 14 hotshot firefighters from Oregon. I remember friends from HS and college going out and joining Forest Service hotshot fire crews. I remember just a couple years ago, in Idaho, my brother's brother-in-law and father-in-law flying water bombers fighting a fire that was burning part of the Southern Sawtooth National Forest that bordered my father's dry farm near Burley, Idaho. Fires and the Forest Service are in my blood and in my family. This book was a great look at its beginning. It was a good book on conservation and the early Forest Service, just not a great one.
Profile Image for Lauren .
1,680 reviews2,291 followers
December 8, 2016
Compelling story about the "Big Burn" fire in the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains in Western Montana and the Idaho panhandle. The fire itself was the catalyst and early justification - albeit a tragic and land-altering one - for the need for a national Forest Service. The book tells of the early conservationist "triumvirate" of Gifford Pinchot (the first chief of the Forest Service) and his more famous partners, Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir. While Pinchot and Muir differed philosophically later in life, they both understood the importance of setting aside the great forests of the United States FOR the people. Teddy Roosevelt, ever the politician but also one with a true heart for the land, made this a reality in his presidency.

The fire occurred after Roosevelt's presidency in 1910, when the Forest Service was constantly berated and denigrated for the work that they did in the forests, and on the national stage in Congress. Well before conservation thought was part of our national ethos, the wilderness was seen as dark, sinful, and in need of industry and development - it was believed to be God's work (along with manifest destiny) to plow the forests, using all of the timber, building cities and roads, as well as industry for the good of man and progress. Conservationist thought (and preservationist, even more so) flew in the face of this Puritan work ethic. Valuing the untouched land was a foreign concept. However, with the Bitterroot Fire, the Forest Service was able to make a case for governmental regulations, protection, and of course, fire safety. Countless lives were lost and small frontier towns burned to the ground in this fire.

The book spends about 1/3 of its whole on the fire, describing some accounts of survivors. The rest of the book dips into the biographies of Pinchot and Roosevelt - their boxing and wrestling matches in Rock Creek Park in DC! - and their enduring friendship and influence over each other. The final third shows the aftermath of the fire, both in Montana and Idaho, but also in the Capitol, and most importantly in policy and law enacted later.
1,541 reviews82 followers
December 11, 2016
This is a highly readable account of the August 20, 1910 raging forest fire, the largest in U.S. history. Egan gives a detailed account of the efforts of the poorly funded, poorly trained rangers who risked their lives to contain the fire for a country who refused to compensate the families of the dead or pay the medical bills of the horrifically injured. Egan argues that the embattled backers of the nascent Forest Service was able to use this event to gain support and funding for this agency. However, they were unable to protect the forests from the ravages of the timber industry which continued to clear cut public lands for private profit.
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,056 reviews683 followers
September 26, 2015
As indicated by the title, this book is about a wildfire that occurred in 1910 that burned about three million acres in northeast Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana. The book also details some of the political issues focusing on Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot (the first Chief of the United States Forest Service from 1905 until his firing in 1910).

The fire provides the impending drama in the book's narrative because the reader doesn't know until the end of the book which of the characters that were introduced earlier in the book will survive. The book suggests between 100 to 200 died in the fire (Wikipedia shows a lower number). The discussion of Theodore Roosevelt's rise to power and the formation of the National Forests provides the setting and background in which the action occurs.

I found it particularly interesting to note the many similarities with events of today. Of course the one obvious similarity is drought in the western U.S. and the resulting numerous wildfires. There were also economic and political similarities. The disparity of wealth distribution was at an all time high at the turn of the century, and big business interests had many politicians under their influence. Sound familiar?

Prior to the big 1910 fire the U.S. Congress was slowly starving the U.S. Forest Service of funding. Critical politicians accused it of government meddling into the rights of private business to exploit natural resources. The fire resulted in raising public awareness surrounding national nature conservation and highlighting the forest rangers and firefighters as public heroes.

This explains the book's subtitle reference to "... Fire That Saved America." In other words the destruction caused by the fire resulted in steps to save certain portions of the National Forests as untouched wilderness areas. It also resulted in enhanced attention to the prevention of forest fires which over the years has led to unintended consequences.
350 reviews
February 8, 2010
Timothy Egan writes great books (as well as strong columns for the New York Times). He tricks us a bit with the sub-title. Although there is much about Teddy Roosevelt the main character of this tale is really Gifford Pinchot, the nation's first forester and father of the US Forrest Service and the man most responsible for saving what's left of America's forests. Another of the featured characters is Ed Pulaski, an original forest ranger who was so damaged by the The Big Burn that he never really recovered. I spent a summer with the Forest Service on a fire crew wielding a pulaski on a daily basis. It is a great tool for building trail and fire line. It's been years but I can still close my eyes and see the yellow-white heart of a tree root as I sliced it with the axe end of the Pulaski then flipped the tool over to hoe away rotten cedar and red dirt. Pulaski was an embittered victim of the fight between conservationists and timber interests. He never received compensation for his fire storm injuries which left him a shell of his former self. In spite of his injuries he spent time at the forge devising this most useful of tools (the Forest Service now stocks 10,000 Pulaskis) but was never able to patent his invention. Pinchot, drummed out of office by adversaries in the Senate never gave up his fight and he used the Big Burn, which Egan turns into one of the most exciting reads you can imagine, to gain even more land for conservation. Most interesting is the description of the early days of the Forest Service when a handful of acolytes from Yale turn up in the wilds of Idaho and Montana to do battle with railroaders and miners in towns so evil one dare not speak their name. Most no longer exist, burned to a crisp in the Big Burn. What a great book!
Profile Image for John.
724 reviews21 followers
November 12, 2009
Timothy Egan, who brilliantly brought the Dust Bowl era to life in "The Worst Hard Time," serves up more real-life gloom and doom with "The Big Burn."
This is the story of the worst wildfire in American history, the Great Fire of 1910, which burned 3 million acres, destroyed several towns, left 85 dead and many others disabled for life. It's also the story of the U.S. Forest Service, in its infancy and cruelly underfunded in 1910, and the valiant efforts of its rangers to fight the fire. And it's the story of how the fire shaped the Forest Service for decades to come.
All brought together in a compelling 283 pages.
My guess is that the publisher, not the author, chose the subtitle "Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America." Although Roosevelt is a major character in the first part of this book, he's not the central character. That would be Roosevelt's chief forester, Gifford Pinchot. And what a character for a nonfiction writer -- equal parts brilliant visionary; inspirational leader; incorrigible rebel; and odd duck. Another character who plays a greater role than Roosevelt is a ranger named Ed Pulaski, a heroic but tragic figure in the story.
Moreover, the third part of Egan's book makes one doubt that this fire "saved America." Egan suggests, in fact, that it sent the Forest Service down a wrong path that is only recently being corrected -- a path of excessive logging and overzealous fire management.
Great nonfiction writing starts with great reporting, and it's clear that Egan did his homework in preparing this book. He weaves together dozens of stories in a narrative that never grows dull. Even the first part, in which Egan sets the stage by tracing the development of the Forest Service, is spiced with anecdotes that move the story along.
If there's anything more frightening than being overtaken by a wildfire, I don't want to know what it is. This is a frightening book. Egan makes it vividly real.
Profile Image for Jim.
1,090 reviews64 followers
November 2, 2020
This book really engaged my interest. About a horrific forest fire ( the worst in the nation's history), it also fills in the political background to that event ( the Big Burn). As the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot was given the assignment by President "Teddy" Roosevelt to protect the nation's public forests. The main threat was perceived to be the big timber companies, the railroad, and settlers and others and the foresters had a thankless and sometimes dangerous job to do ( and they were grossly underpaid). However, in 1910,a veritable hurricane of fire hit the dried-out forests in Idaho and Montana ( as well as other states) and gave the Forest Service its biggest test of all. At high cost, these dedicated men proved the value of their service to the nation. What makes the story most interesting is that it focuses on the individuals caught up in the "drama."
Profile Image for HBalikov.
1,695 reviews629 followers
October 31, 2013
I didn't know about Theodore Roosevelt's relationship with John Muir. I knew only a little about Gifford Pinchot and his dedication to forestry and the origins of the U.S. Forest Service. However, dry this sounds, this isn't a dry book.

Egan does his best to pack in the action and the conflicts. There are plenty of heroes and villains. There is the whole of the Upper West Wilderness to explore. The Bib Burn was an extraordinary event. It is examined in various contexts. If there is any structural weakness to this book, it is the repetition.

On the positive side, Egan makes the conservation movement understandable and he gives us a political, social, cultural and economic context that shows how little things have changed in the past 100 years.
Profile Image for Nancy.
339 reviews31 followers
August 21, 2019
It seems quite poignant to be reading this book at this juncture in time. While I avoid political comments, I can’t help but feel like America has come full circle, arriving at the same point it was at in Teddy Roosevelt’s day. Nearly a hundred years later we are again arguing about the balance of commercial rights to natural resources versus keeping public lands untouched. This book was a treasure of information, a fascinating read that seems so pertinent in the climate of our impending administration. It will be difficult to refrain from effusive and detailed comments!

John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt were the trio of men who fought at the turn of the century to set aside and develop lands in the public domain, lands that weren’t going to fall victim to the lumber and mining interests. A gift to the generations to come. Gifford Pinchot in his book “The Fight for Conservation” said that to ensure that people in 2010 would have a country of clean water, healthy forests and open land would require battle with certain groups, namely “the alliance between business and politics.” It was, he said, “the snake that we must kill.” And that snake was personified in the wealthy ‘robber barons’ whose money was derived from those natural resources. There was so much game playing behind the scenes. The connections between railroads, lumber and mining were deep. I’m shocked the consolidation of various rail lines wasn’t seen in violation of antitrust laws. I also found it surprising the manipulative buying up of land from people who legally homesteaded in the national forests only to sell back to the very interests the government was trying to keep out.

The Big Burn is about the historic fire of August 1910 that raced through portions of Idaho and Montana - a landmass the size of Connecticut. The destruction and loss of life was swift and far reaching, a tragedy to public domains and a huge economic loss to those industries. This was during the infancy of the forest service. Men who had taken jobs with the new government agency had little respect among locals, whose employment was dependent upon the railroad, mining and lumber interests. Prior to the fire, the forest service was understaffed, employees were not paid in a timely fashion, were dreadfully ill equipped, usually paying for tools, uniforms and horses out of their own pockets. Afterwards the government accepted no responsibility for any perceived failure, did nothing to pay medical expenses for those rangers maimed or injured in the tragedy, nor did they initially pay for burial of the victims.

By this point in time Roosevelt was no longer president, all his conservation efforts embattled by Taft’s weak administration and the waffling of cabinet appointees back in support of big business interests. The 'big burn' was a wake up call that turned around public perceptions and sympathies in support of the burgeoning agency. Opponents still existed but had little backing. Idaho Senator Heyburn had the audacity to suggest that healthy forests be clear cut to avoid such devastation in the future!! The lumber companies were allowed back into public lands but any push for improved fire control was merely for their benefit. Then came the damage wreaked by clear cutting large swaths of land. The question today is still how much human intervention can some of our treasured land withstand? Who gets to regulate what, where and how much? We can’t agree on climate change, fracking… the list goes on. Tourism is also turning into as much a problem as corporations.

Opinions on fire prevention have changed too. Although often harmful and destructive to humans, naturally occurring wildfires play an integral role in nature. They return nutrients to the soil by burning dead or decaying matter. They also act as a disinfectant, removing disease-ridden plants and harmful insects from a forest ecosystem. And by burning through thick canopies and brushy undergrowth, wildfires allow sunlight to reach the forest floor, enabling a new generation of seedlings to grow. Fire may be critical to the health of a forest.

The personal stories Egan included in his narrative were touching and inspiring. The dedication of so many people to conservation efforts should have taught us something. Pinchot believed conservation was a moral issue. It was also fascinating to follow Roosevelt’s push into progressive politics. Several people involved started out Republican and left the party because of a difference in philosophy around environmental issues. Sound familiar?? Within these same people, the progressive politics went hand in hand not just with conservation, but extended into child labor laws, government protection for those with disabilities, prosecution of trusts, regulation of banks, insurance companies and railroads, graduated income tax and inheritance taxes.

In my emails this week was an article from Smithsonian about Obama Designating Two New National Monuments. How timely that our outgoing President is following in Roosevelt’s footsteps and slipping in some designations before he leaves office. Pinchot in his speech writing for Roosevelt had said humans should never take more from the earth than they can put back. His wife said of him, “Conservation to Gifford Pinchot was never a vague fuzzy aspiration, it was concrete, exact, dynamic.”
Profile Image for Becky.
827 reviews157 followers
October 20, 2014
The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America is easily the most misleading title ever. First of all- I feel that less than a quarter of the book was really about the Big Burn, and this section still really didn’t have that much to say about the actual fire. It called the fire a “crown fire” without ever explaining what that meant, and how its more dangerous than other types of fires, it didn’t explain the science behind the fire breaks or what the seriously under-budgeted rangers were trying to accomplish, etc. It told the story of the men in the fire, yes, but it didn’t really tell the story of the fire itself. I would highly recommend Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894, because it will give you an excellent background on the different types of forest fires, the weather they create, how they feed themselves, but also on how people and animals suffer through, during, and after a fire, and how our bodies are uniquely incapable, it seems, of healing burns. Most of the section about the fire dealt with the bureaucratic dismissal of the people that were injured in the line of duty. Men that were disfigured and permanently unemployable not receiving medical attention that they desperately needed because they couldn’t pay for it, because the government refused to act despite the fact that these were their employees, and were following orders. It will ignite your outrage, yes, the loss of life, the loss of property, the loss of such stunning natural beauty, all a terrible loss that was ultimately ignored by a government entirely run by business.

Then there is the sneaky insert of Roosevelt’s name into the subtitle. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an absolutely sucker for subtitles- the longer the better! And I totally love Teddy Roosevelt. I love that he tried to save the soul of his party, that he saved our national forests, that he was a blustering-mustachio’d cowboy of a president. It’s not that Roosevelt wasn’t present in this book, he had a decent role in the beginning, but it was still mostly Gifford Pinchot’s story, but as that’s a relatively unknown name, the publisher went with Teddy. The only real reason that this bothers me is the fact that this book is nearly a biography of Pinchot. Long before and long after the “big burn” we follow Pinchot through his spiritual attachment to his long dead fiancée, his devotion to his mentor, Roosevelt, and his endless fight (which sometimes degenerated to bickering) with other political characters of the time. I would argue that there was far more about Pinchot then the Burn or about Roosevelt.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t interesting. I’m very appreciative of our national parks system and for our forest rangers, and I didn’t know anything about the history of the service. It was very informative, and the Big Burn as a backdrop formed an interesting narrative foil for the sickening relationship between the partyline and Big Business. If you ever think things have changed, just read a history book. Same shit, different day.

I have to admit, though, that this book didn’t pack the same punch for me that The Worst Hard Times did. I didn’t connect with the personas in the book, except for Polaski, because for some reason Pinchot feels a bit irretrievable. I felt the story and connections to the Big Burn could have been tightened, especially earlier on when I was starting to wonder what book I was really reading. I also think spending some more time on the average reaction to the Burn from the public at wide could have strengthened the arguments that Egan was trying to make. We know that the Big Burn served as a catalyst for strengthening the forest service, but he simply doesn’t spend much time on how productively Pinchot or the others used that. Or whether average Joe was writing into the Congressmen, or electing new types of people. Nor does Egan ever touch on modern problems that face the Forest Service, or the massive burns we’ve been seeing lately, he draws no parallels to the fires in the Sierra Nevadas or Yellowstone.

In the end 3.5 stars because a) the title was so misleading, I have to admit I was somewhat let down b) There were multiple areas in the book that could been flushed out to make a more compelling story c) I never really felt that he successfully defended his thesis, or demonstrated it sufficiently.

It’s a good book. Its worth the read but I don’t think I would bump it to the top of any piles.

Profile Image for Jean.
115 reviews9 followers
January 25, 2022
Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot were motivated to protect land under attack by the wholesale rape of the west by timber barons and railroad magnates. In the early 1900's the West was opening up; land seized from Native Americans was given away. Timber barons and railroad magnates grabbed land to consolidate their hold on the untouched American wealth of land, timber and minerals. In response, Roosevelt created National Parks, attempting to protect some of the land from the rapacious land-grab. It is fascinating to learn of the influence of other visionaries of the time such as John Muir.

To bolster support for the newly minted National Parks, Roosevelt promoted the claim that they could prevent disastrous forest fires. The foresters took this charge to heart and worked diligently to achieve this unattainable goal. Here we see the seeds of disasters to come when man tries to deny a force of nature.

In retaliation, Congress underfunded the fledgling Forest Service, hoping that it would be too weak to interfere with timber thieves and bogus homesteads (homesteaders sold them to timber companies for $8,000, 1910 money!). Congress refused to pay for shovels, horses, or food. These insults were nothing compared to how they would treat the victims and survivors of the Big Burn. One hundred years ago, Congress proved it was as short-sighted and mean-spirited as the one we live under today.

In 1910 a 'perfect storm' of dry weather, flammable fuel, electrical storms, and sparks and embers from railroads and human activities, produced America's largest wildfire of 3 million acres. Understaffed, underpaid, and paying for their own tools and supplies, foresters fought the 'Big Burn' of 1910 in the Bitterroot area (Washington/Idaho border). Inhabitants( bankers, saloon owners, etc), lately arrived to profit from land and wages, refused to signup to protect the land they were profiting from. They ignored warnings, then panicked when fire approached. Well-to-do merchants fought women for seats on evacuation trains.

As a reward for dying protecting the people of the Bitterroot, foresters received $500 for ONE memorial, and nothing for the medical bills and disabilities of the heroes of the Big Burn. Forest Service employees invested their health and lives in protecting the forest that Roosevelt had charged them with. They were rewarded with death; quick in the fire or lingering afterward: blind, burned and lungs damaged. Doctors refused to treat them when their personal money ran out. The bureaucrats of Washington, DC, tools of Congress, denied and denied and denied. Sound familiar?

Even the Carnegie Hero Fund refused to recognize the sacrifice of Ed Pulaski, blinded and disabled while saving the lives of 45 men in his crew. He is the inventor of the Pulaski axe that foresters use to this day. Pulaski never earned a dime from this invention.

Such are the wages of working for the Federal Government ruled by the wealthy Congress, who deny payment to employees while taking 'perks' for themselves. Eventually Congress converted the Forest Service into the servant of the timber industry that it is now. Now they 'save' the forest by designing the roads that enable the clear cutting of western forests. Visitors to national forests must beware the timber trucks. Foresters that try to serve the forest are suppressed by managers who serve the party in power.

This is a chapter of American history that needs to be replayed, reevaluated, and learned from. The author tries to rescue this story of mistreatment as ultimately hopeful but it is very hard find the good news in this painful chapter.
Profile Image for Sonny.
415 reviews27 followers
May 29, 2021
“‘The American Colossus was fiercely intent on appropriating and exploiting the riches of the richest of all continents—grasping with both hands, reaping where he had not sown, wasting what he thought would last forever,’ Pinchot wrote. ‘The exploiters were pushing further and further into the wilderness. The man who could get his hands on the biggest slice of natural resources was the best citizen. Wealth and virtue were supposed to trot in double harness.’”
― Timothy Egan, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America

While every year brings the risk of wildfires in many areas of the United States, the 2020 season was record-setting for the state of California and the United States as a whole, with nine million acres burned. In 2011, while driving to a bed and breakfast in Coeur-D’Alene, Idaho before catching an early flight out of Spokane after vacationing in Glacier National Park, my route took me through the town on Wallace, Idaho in the Bitterroot Mountains. Little did I know at the time that a terrible fire had swept over the Northern Rockies of Idaho, Montana, and Washington in August 1910. The Big Burn, as that fire has come to be known, covered nearly 3.2 million acres— the biggest forest fire in American history. At least 85 people were killed, most of them members of ill-trained firefighting crews. Several small towns were completely destroyed, and much of the town of Wallace was destroyed. While fighting forest fires remains difficult in the 21st century despite modern equipment and air tankers, imagine trying to battle a blaze 50 percent larger than Yellowstone National Park with only picks, axes and shovels!

Author Timothy Egan won the National Book Award for The Worst Hard Time, a harrowing account of the Dust Bowl. Like his award-winning book, Egan’s book The Big Burn is a tragic story of the terrible power of nature. But it is also the story of Teddy Roosevelt’s fight to save wild places and the creation of the United States Forest Service. It seems that Roosevelt’s progressive politics went arm in arm with conservation. When Roosevelt ascended to the presidency in 1901, he worked closely with his friend and close advisor, the idealistic, pioneering forester Gifford Pinchot, to curb corporate plunder of the country’s natural resources. Born into a wealthy family, Gifford Pinchot embarked on a career in forestry after graduating from Yale. He soon met the naturalist John Muir, who would become Pinchot's mentor. Roosevelt leaned heavily on Gifford Pinchot to manage and develop the nationally protected forestry lands. After his election to a full term in 1905, Roosevelt made Pinchot head of the new U.S. Forest Service, eventually placing 180 million acres of the West under his protection. As chief of the new Forest Service, Pinchot recruited idealistic young rangers, many of them trained at Yale’s forestry school, to follow Pinchot’s call to the Forest Service.

In the early 1900s, the frontier of America was witnessing a capitalistic free-for-all that saw wealthy logging, railroad and mining ‘robber barons’ engaged in a frantic land and resource grab. Roosevelt wanted the American people to “understand that it was their right in a democracy to own it -- every citizen holding a stake.” He used the presidency as a bully pulpit to pronounce, “I am against the man who skins the land!” Roosevelt believed that Nature existed to benefit mankind. All of these benefits would be lost if the wilderness were destroyed. But the greedy owners of the timber companies, mines and railroads had congressmen who were willing to do their bidding. “Not one cent for scenery!” cried Speaker of the House, Joseph Cannon, one of many legislators opposed to Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation agenda. One of the most unprincipled was Montana Sen. William A. Clark, a copper mining baron.

― “There is not in the world a more ignoble character than the mere money-getting American, insensitive to every duty, regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a fortune," Roosevelt said just before he became president.”
― Timothy Egan, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America

But when Roosevelt left office, his successor, William Howard Taft, had little interest in conservation, and his enemies in Congress (in his own party) starved the Forest Service of resources. When Pinchot clashed with Taft, he was fired in early 1910, endangering Roosevelt’s plans for the nations’ forests.

The big fire, known as “the Big Blowup” to some, came during the infancy of the forest service. The men of the forest service were understaffed, poorly paid, and ill equipped, usually paying for tools, uniforms and horses out of their own pockets. In 1910, the forestry service was still developing its forestry management plan. Many areas had no trained firefighting groups. The summer of 1910 was unusually dry, even by western standards. Rainless electrical storms sparked hundreds of spot fires. These fires spread until finally, on Aug. 20, a strong western wind called a “palouser” functioned as “a battering ram of forced air.” The high winds whipped the small fires into one massive conflagration. The heart of Egan’s book describes the battle to contain the fire and evacuate the towns. Fighting the blaze was a motley crew of forest rangers, the all-black regiment known as the Buffalo Soldiers, hastily hired immigrants, and town drunks. Egan includes many first-hand accounts of these men who fought the fire. Ed Pulaski, one of the more knowledgeable rangers, was working a part of the blaze with a 45-man crew. When the fire overwhelmed them, they were forced to find shelter in a nearby mine, where several of the men died from lack of oxygen.

At least 85 people were killed, most of them members of the ill-trained firefighting crews. Ed Pulaski suffered burns and lost most of his eyesight in the fire. The injured men received no financial compensation from the government; many died poor and embittered. The government even refused to pay Ed Pulaski's medical bills. Yet, the scope of the disaster and the heroism of the firefighters turned public opinion in favor of conservation at a crucial time in the history of the forest service. Pinchot and Roosevelt used the Big Burn to sell the Forest Service and its brave band of firefighters to the American people, arguing that the Forest Service needed to be expanded and equipped to prevent another such catastrophe. It worked! The agency’s budget was increased, and more woodlands were set aside for future generations.

The Big Burn is well-researched, incredibly detailed, easily readable and highly engaging.

It was rather distressing to read this book at this time in our nation’s history. In many ways, it seems that our nation is still fighting many of the same battles that Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot were fighting during the former’s presidency from 1901-1909. Between 2017 and 2021, the Trump administration pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, narrowed the definition of what's considered a federally protected river or wetland, opened Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah for mining and drilling companies, proposed changes to handling the Endangered Species Act, and issued an executive order calling for a 31 percent increase in logging and deforestation on public lands, to name just a few. It’s amazing that 110 years later we’re still arguing about balancing commercial access to natural resources versus preserving public lands for posterity.
Profile Image for Beth.
Author 9 books555 followers
January 11, 2013
This was an all-county-read for my county library. It was the most popular all-county-read by far, and the many discussions and special events arranged around the book were well-attended. This was probably because we live in a forest-fire threatened area, surrounded by pine beetle-killed trees that are highly flammable. It was fascinating to read about this horrific fire in the past and imagine it happening again and how we could or could not prepare for and fight the blaze.

I also found the history of Gifford Pinchot (the first US Chief Forester), President Teddy Roosevelt, and the founding of the US Forest Service enlightening. I had previously read The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey about a later adventurous and life-threatening challenge in Teddy Roosevelt's history, and this book was a great companion to that.
Profile Image for Blaine DeSantis.
881 reviews103 followers
December 7, 2019
For me this book suffers from comparison from two others works by the author that I have read. I loved "The Worst Hard Times" and "Breaking Blue" and so I was hopeful that this would be another 5***** effort from Egan. Not to be! Where the other books had compelling personalities driving the story, this book featured as lead characters Fire and National Forrests. Sure there some interesting parts about Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot who started the whole National Forrest Service, along with their opponents, the best parts of the book were those that dealt with actual Forrest Rangers and town folk. Assistant Ranger, Ed Pulaski, was a fascinating and tragic character whose life and heroic work really was heartbreaking. There were some other stories that also added to the story, but on the whole the book dragged for me when the story shifted from people to just the fire. A good effort that really fills in a lost part of our nations history, but I had hoped for more from Egan.
Profile Image for Kurt.
552 reviews54 followers
February 27, 2010
I first heard about the 1910 event known as "The Big Burn" many years ago while reading about hiking trails in my home state of Idaho. The magnitude of this huge forest fire intrigued me at the time; so, when I saw a book on the bestseller list with the title The Big Burn I immediately took notice.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It has so many qualities that make it my kind of book: Nature, Idaho, History, Conservation, Adventure, Politics, Tragedy, Disaster, and best of all - excellent writing and storytelling.
Profile Image for Elizabeth (Alaska).
1,256 reviews405 followers
September 14, 2021
I have to limit myself when I go to our Friends of the Library book sales or I'd run out of places to put things. The holdings are pot luck, of course, since they are all donated books, but I allowed myself in July to hope for this very book. I plucked it off the shelf and could have gone home in 30 seconds, a happy woman. (Instead I found 2 more and then vamoosed!)

There is a prologue to The Big Burn which gives a glimpse of the fire in 1910. ... at its peak, the storm would consume three imllion acres in barely two days. There follows a few chapters setting us up for the true description of this devastating fire. Teddy Roosevelt met John Muir in a trip out west when his dream of conservation in the west became the reason for his presidency. We are introduced to Gifford Pinchot, the first Supervisor of the new Forest Service. We meet several of the early Forest Rangers and some of those who just come to work in the forests.

And we learn of this very wild west where some of the small towns seem to have no existence apart from saloons and whorehouses. The eastern born and raised forest rangers have never seen such people who inhabit this beautiful place. One telegraph exchange from a ranger to headquarters goes like this.
"Two undesirable prostitues establshed on government land," he wired. "What should I do?"

"Another ranger wired back: "Get two desirable ones."
Most of this introduction is a bit dull, but it was necessary for the next 200 or so pages. Egan describes this in very active terms: "flames lunging", "mountains bellow", "continuous staccato". As this area was dotted with small towns, there were civilians in addition to those associated with the forest service. (Who would support those saloons and whorehouses?) ... the streets were packed with people, some fleeing for the river, intending to wait out the fire in the shallows, others riding horses and carriages straight out of town, unsure of whether they were heading into the fire or not. This long middle of the book was as much a thriller as any you'll read for that purpose. Who would live? Who would escape? Who would be found dead, or who not found at all?

This is creative nonfiction at its finest. But it *is* nonfiction. Egan ends his book telling us that the Forest Service changed its purpose after the fire, and then changed it again. I wasn't as enamored of this last mopping up of his story as I was the first part, but it wasn't enough to make me change my mind about giving it 5-stars.
534 reviews
February 2, 2010
This is the kind of history book I love to read. The author spends the time to get as many actual quotes as possible and then weaves them into the story as narrative rather than as statements. Egan brings alive Teddy Roosevelt, his "forester" Pinchot and the many people in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho/Montana who were there in August of 1910 when the entire forest burned in a couple of days. The ones who survived tell compelling stories of what it was like when the fire came at them pushed by hurricane force winds.

The back story of how the U.S. Forest Service was established and so underfunded that it almost ceased is fascinating although not as compelling as the story of the fire. It is necessary so you understand how something that destroyed so much was responsible for saving an agency and establishing a firm foothold for our National Forest system today.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Mahlon.
314 reviews125 followers
April 2, 2010
Timothy Eagan's The Big Burn tells the story of the Nation's largest wildfire, which burned parts of Idaho, Montana, and Washington. It burned August 20-21 1910, killing 87 (including 78 firefighters) The great fire severely tested the recently founded U.S. Forest Service, leading many to question it's mission, and even it's existence. Eagan uses the fire to discuss the history of the Forest Service, and to highlight it's place in president Theodore Roosevelt's conservation plan, and his friendship with the service's founder Gifford Pinchot.

initially I had issues with Eagan's writing style, he drops you right into the middle of the fire, and then goes back and explains the causes. However, once he gets to the Pinchot-Roosevelt relationship, the book becomes compelling very quickly.

I'd recommend this book to anyone with an interest in History, fire prevention, or conservation.
Profile Image for cameron.
390 reviews96 followers
January 6, 2016
A tremendously interesting read. Not the best stylistically but most of this information was new and fascinating to me. I knew about Teddy Roosevelt's aim to set aside more land for National Parks but what I hadn't understood was the critical battle between the great robber barons and the Park Services Department. Nor did I realize the tremendous efforts of the Service men who battled to enforce preservation long after Roosevelt's leaving office and political efforts to destroy the Department. The railroad and mine owners and lumber mill owners fought tooth and nail to ignore all restraints. This book is really about those involved in this battle and the fire for which it is named is the example used to explain the history and the inevitable heroes who emerged.
Profile Image for Tallie.
14 reviews
August 3, 2022
A great book about the big burn and the origin of the forest service! Really cool to read about the place I live/places I've worked in 1895-1915. The book mainly focused on white men, and I understand that white men founded and were the ones working for the Forest Service in its early days, but it would've been nice to at least read a little about how native tribes were impacted by the big burn, creation of the forests, or have their experiences be acknowledged more. Overall really interesting and a fast read
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