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

4.03  ·  Rating Details  ·  7,843 Ratings  ·  1,139 Reviews
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 ...more
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published October 19th 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Community Reviews

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Will Byrnes
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 ...more
Jul 27, 2015 Melki rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
"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
Mar 15, 2011 Marc rated it it was amazing
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 t
Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist"
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
Nov 18, 2009 Jonathan rated it really liked it
Recommended to Jonathan by: Teddy Roosevelt's ghost
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 ...more
Clif Hostetler
Sep 25, 2015 Clif Hostetler rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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
Feb 08, 2010 Randy rated it it was amazing
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 reall ...more
Sep 27, 2015 Darwin8u rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2015
“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


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
Jan 11, 2013 Beth rated it really liked it
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 hist
Nov 12, 2009 John rated it really liked it
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
Feb 02, 2010 Patty rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Apr 01, 2010 Mahlon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone with an interest in History, fire prevention, or conservation.
Recommended to Mahlon by: Amazon
Shelves: read-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 friends ...more
Aug 23, 2015 Lauren rated it really liked it
Recommended to Lauren by: Fresh Air interview
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 itself 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 philos ...more
If you are interested in the historical politics surrounding land preservation and the founding of the National Parks system, I imagine this is a great read. It was a different perspective for me, as I'd only heard the Big Burn referenced in the context of what happens when you try and mess with natural systems without understanding them (a mere paragraph in the epilogue mentions this factor). Egan clearly decided he wanted solid heroes and villains, so Teddy Roosevelt can do no wrong, Gifford P ...more
Feb 01, 2010 Adelle rated it really liked it
A beautifully written, engaging book. Before I had read the book, I had never heard of the Fire of 1910, and probably wouldn't have cared even if I had. Timothy Egan put me right there in the Big Lonesome and the Bitterroot Mountains with flames roaring round me on all sides. I cared what happened to the forest. I cared what happned to Ed Pulaski and his crew. Would some of them be alive when all was over?

I liked the rightness of the historical circle. Teddy Roosevelt, having estabished the For
Jan 05, 2016 cameron rated it really liked it
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. T ...more
Nov 07, 2014 Kathryn rated it liked it
Wow, this was a story of the Big Burn fire in 1910 and it happened not far from where I currently live. I knew nothing about it. It's always fascinating to read a book that takes place right around where I live. Having said that, this book is full of the politics of the day, which it should be, but that part dragged for me. And, I just have to say, not too much has changed in how politics runs today. Conservation was a gleam in a few men's eyes and the Forestry Service and national parks were in ...more
Jun 29, 2014 Jim rated it it was amazing
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 t ...more
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 rang ...more
Jan 02, 2010 Judy rated it really liked it
Timothy Eagan (The Worst Hard Time) has a winner here. I circled around this book in my favorite book store for months, then noticed that it ended up on several "Best of 2009" lists, and ended up pouncing on it when I came across it on the new books shelf of my local library. What a fabulous story. Egan seamlessly weaves together two stories. The first is a fascinating account of the August 1910 forest fire that over a two day period tore through the newly created national forests in the Bitterr ...more
Jan 21, 2010 Chris rated it liked it
I've always wanted to visit this part of the country and now I will as a result of this book. The author expertly weaves the stories of Roosevelt and Pinchot into the story of the fire as well as the lives of the rangers and local people. It's filled with eccentric and captivating characters. We meet the Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry who saved a town. The rangers had to resort to paying their fire fighters with their own personal funds due to the parsimony of the government-all because o ...more
Kathleen Gilroy
Jan 12, 2010 Kathleen Gilroy rated it it was amazing
This is a book that really should be read on the porch of our summer cabin in Idaho. (Goodreaders let me know if you plan to be in Idaho this summer.) It is the fascinating tale of the biggest forest fire in the history of the US. The reason it should be read from the porch of the summer cabin -- aside from the fact that it is the world's best place to read -- is that the fire encompassed most of northern Idaho and spread into Western Montana. The story of the fire itself is the centerpiece of t ...more
Sep 11, 2011 Heather rated it it was amazing
Shelves: pageturners
This book was so well written. The part about the beginnings of the forest service were a little bit drier, but necessary to understand the complete devastation of this 36 hour big burn that destroyed 3 million acres of forest. I was pretty amazed with the story of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, two millionaires that were considered by many to be traitors to their class because they campaigned for the rights of the little guy and for preserving public land for future generations instead of ...more
Kasa Cotugno
Sep 28, 2009 Kasa Cotugno rated it really liked it
Shelves: genre-history, arc
It seems hard to believe that this book of such immediacy was written about events that are 100 years old. Timothy Egan brought a contemporary sensibility to the Great Depression in his award winning THE WORST HARD TIME and with this wonderful book, avoids the sophomore curse. He does a carefully researched job of presenting the people involved, and has the good fortune to have in Roosevelt a true American superstar, possibly the first that can be called as such with his canny appreciation of ho ...more
Jan 05, 2010 John rated it it was amazing
Exactly what I was looking for. I was amazed at the background material that reviews the creation of the National Forest system and the Forest Ranger program. I had just finished Ken Burns' "National Parks" program so this fit nicely. But, as soon as Egan began to describe the Palouse winds and the explosion of fire.........I was mesmerized. A great story of forgotten heroes. The writing is excellent and impressive. It helped that I have travelled in this area and was able to picture the terrain ...more
Dec 28, 2010 Michelle rated it really liked it
Egan intersperses the story of Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pichot, and the early conservation movement with an account of the hurricane force wild fire that burned down acres upon acres of woods in northern Idaho, Washington, and Montana that finally solidified public opinion around public lands. The first portion of the book focuses on Roosevelt and his administration's efforts to set aside land as a public trust. Just as in The Worst Hard Time, where Egan really shines, though, is when he tells t ...more
Feb 26, 2010 Kurt rated it really liked it
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 writ
Stephen Meserve
Nov 30, 2015 Stephen Meserve rated it really liked it
This and Egan's dust bowl book are cut from the same cloth. They have the same template---narrative of high politics of policy problem leading into the visceral description of the resulting disaster/crisis at the individual level. I find it a very effective frame, and I particularly like the idea his template implies: most crisis moments, which we often consider as out of nowhere, were in fact directly shaped in an intentional fashion by the policies that led into them. In that way, I think his ...more
Jul 07, 2015 Jean rated it it was amazing
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-gra ...more
Jan 31, 2014 Jan rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
A book about the founding of the conservation movement, and subsequently the Forest Service, by Teddy Roosevelt & Gifford Pinchot. It's also about The Great Fire of 1910, aka The Big Burn, the largest forest fire in recorded U.S. history, which burned across multiple states/territories, destroying three million acres and taking approximately 87 lives.

As a person who grew up long after the idea of conversation had taken root in the country, it was fascinating to read about how hard TR & G
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Billerica Public ...: Big Burn on PBS 1 4 Aug 26, 2014 11:44AM  
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Timothy Egan is a Pulitzer Prize winning author who resides in Seattle, Washington. He currently contributes opinion columns to The New York Times as the paper's Pacific Northwest correspondent.

In addition to his work with The New York Times, he has written six books, including The Good Rain, Breaking Blue, and Lasso the Wind.

Most recently he wrote "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that
More about Timothy Egan...

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“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.” 1 likes
“Though a degree from Yale was not required, Pinchot wanted his foresters to be able to write well, for the numerous reports that their enemies in Congress would be second-guessing.” 1 likes
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