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

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  13,709 ratings  ·  1,688 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, 324 pages
Published October 1st 2009 by Houghton Mifflin
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Diane S ☔
Aug 16, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: lor-2019, 5000-2019
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 kne ...more
Aug 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
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 Roose ...more
Will Byrnes
Jan 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Jeanette (Ms. Feisty)
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
Jul 09, 2015 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
Feb 11, 2010 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
Nov 18, 2009 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
Sep 26, 2015 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
Dec 11, 2016 rated it liked it
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. H ...more
Oct 29, 2009 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 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 philosophical ...more
Feb 08, 2010 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
Diane S ☔
Aug 16, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 5000-2019
Thoughts soon.
Clif Hostetler
Sep 21, 2015 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
Oct 21, 2009 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
Jul 07, 2015 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
Apr 04, 2012 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
Jun 23, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
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
Oct 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
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 structura
Jan 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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 adminis ...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
Blaine DeSantis
Dec 07, 2019 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Apr 29, 2019 marked it as to-read
Shelves: bio, flora, history, usa, audible
Basically a biography of Gifford Pinchot, the founder of the US Forest Service- Looks interesting!


The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl 3 stars
The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America vy Douglas Brinkley
Jan 25, 2010 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
Jan 19, 2010 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
Oct 31, 2009 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
Jul 27, 2015 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
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
Jan 02, 2010 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
Kathrine Holyoak
My father’s career was with the BLM. He died while on the job fighting a range fire when I was 15. Two years later, my mother remarried a Forest service ranger. Therefore this story of the genesis of western US public lands and the inherent stewardship over them felt personal. Adding Teddy Roosevelt to my hero list, as well as Gifford Pinochet. And Timothy Egan for bringing me their stories. Qualifications for being a hero don’t include perfection, but they do include an honest heart, deep convi ...more
Robin Lee Hatcher
Nov 12, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I loved learning about the beginning of the Forest Service in the US. About Teddy Roosevelt and so many others involved, both for and against, the establishment of national public lands. And since much of this story took place in my state, Idaho, there was a very personal feel to the story as well.

Timothy Egan is a wonderful writer. He knows how to make history as entertaining as a novel. Although his book The Worst Hard Times is my favorite, The Big Burn still earns five stars from me. Definite
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Mountain & Prairi...: May-June Selection: "The Big Burn" by Timothy Egan 2 24 Jul 06, 2018 10:23AM  
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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 ...more

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Here’s some trivia for your next vacation get-together: The concept of the summer “beach read” book goes all the way back to the Victorian...
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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.” 5 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.” 4 likes
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