The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America
by Timothy Egan
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
336 pages, 2009
Gone to Blazes
Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
Americans, especially those of us living in the West, take our public lands for granted. They’ve always been places to appreciate from afar, or places to escape to and reinvigorate ourselves. But what would’ve happened had those public reserves -- those horizon-gobbling wilderness refuges and national forests -- not been saved for us to appreciate? That was a very real possibility back in the summer of 1910, when the largest and most destructive fire in U.S. history steamrollered through the timbered vastness of northeastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana. The “big burn,” as New York Times reporter Timothy Egan calls it in his new book, consumed 3 million acres (an area slightly smaller than Connecticut) in only two days, and killed more than 80 people. It was an environmental disaster. Yet Egan argues that it was also responsible for saving the U.S. Forest Service and turning the conservation movement into a nationwide cause.
Egan, who is probably most familiar to readers as the author of The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (2006), employs many of the same literary techniques in The Big Burn that he did so effectively in that previous, National Book Award-winning work. He presents the Great Fire of 1910 with a maximum of drama, but also in distinctly human terms, following a small number of characters through the story who are responsible either for keeping the forests sacrosanct and safe, or who, prior to the conflagration, thought strictly of the profits to be made from leveling woodlands and thereby clearing the ground for civilization’s spread.
The subtitle of this book -- Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America -- reveals one of Egan’s highest-profile players. By the summer of 1910, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt had been out of the White House for a year and a half, but remained extremely popular. He’d hand-picked his Republican successor, former Secretary of War William Howard Taft, only to discover that the 335-pound Taft was willing -- nay, anxious -- to undermine many of the programs and policies Roosevelt had entrusted to him. Among those legacies were the national Forest Service and the cause of environmental preservation. “Taft believed the conservation movement had gone too far too fast,” Egan writes, “and that too much land had been put in the public’s hands.” Symbolic of that overreaching, at least in Taft’s mind, was the political influence wielded by Gifford Pinchot, a Yale-educated and Europe-trained forester with whom Roosevelt had created the Forest Service in 1905.
Pinchot, Roosevelt’s foremost rival for the limelight in The Big Burn, hailed from a family enriched by land speculation and the clear-cutting of forests. However, he had turned against that heritage and instead championed the protection of public lands (though not, as John Muir and other preservationists prescribed, by forbidding any and all development). A longtime confidant and athletic sparring partner of Roosevelt, responsible for some of the former president’s most memorable speeches (Egan described him in a National Public Radio interview as “the Rahm Emanuel to Teddy Roosevelt’s Barack Obama”), Pinchot stayed on as head of the Forest Service after his friend departed Washington, D.C., for good-will tours and other adventures abroad. But Taft resented Pinchot, and finally fired him -- a move that only gained Taft a powerful enemy.
If Roosevelt and Pinchot are the champions in Egan’s drama, then the mustache-twirling opposition is surely embodied in U.S. Senator Weldon Heyburn, an Idaho Republican who “stood in the way of nearly all Roosevelt’s progressive initiatives.” An ardent foe of Pinchot, the budding science of forestry, and any roadblocks to Big Industry stripping the land of its natural resources, Heyburn sided with then House Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon (R-Illinois), who famously denounced President Roosevelt’s efforts to preserve wilderness for future generations with the call, “Not one cent for scenery!” Waging a culture war against what they considered to be a make-work program for fuzzy-headed radical-liberal college grads (“Teddy’s boy scouts”), Cannon, Heyburn and their philosophical brethren sought to defund and destroy the Forest Service.
The clash between these two camps came to a head in the summer of 1910, after locomotives and lightning strikes ignited hundreds and thousands of small fires across federal timberlands in the Pacific Northwest. Forest Service rangers -- most of whom had been chosen by Gifford Pinchot himself and were known as “Little G.P.s,” in honor of their dismissed chief -- tried to stop the blazes; but being too few in number and insufficiently equipped, they were soon overwhelmed. On August 20, a particularly violent western wind called a Palouser swept through the region, uniting and stampeding the scattered flame fronts. Released prisoners were brought in to help, and men from towns being evacuated in the holocaust’s path were impressed into the cause -- including some know-it-alls who had previously disdained the need for a Forest Service able to fight fires. Trainloads of women and children (and a few desperate males who insisted on fleeing rather than staying to defend their homes) sped away from the fire zone, hoping not to come to disastrous ends as they chugged over combustible trestles. After delaying as long as possible (there was justification in his nickname, The Great Postponer), President Taft finally authorized the sending of federal troops -- 2,500 of them -- to the front lines of the Big Burn. This commitment included the , a segregated unit that managed to save one town and evacuate another.
Just how destructive was that century-ago firestorm? “The earthquake that knocked down San Francisco in 1906 and led to the city’s immolation by fire came to the mind of one survivor of the Big Burn,” writes Egan. “Elbert Dow had been on the scene of both disasters; the wildfire was worse, he said.”
While the scope of Egan’s book is largely and understandably monumental, it draws literary power from the tales of individual forest rangers and others trapped by the boiling blazes. People such as Ranger Ed Pulaski, who saved 41 men by leading them into an old mining tunnel -- and then holding them there at gunpoint until the fire passed. Or Ione “Pinkie” Adair, a “stubborn and strong-willed” young redhead, who hiked almost 30 miles through the flaring woodlands to safety. Or the team of supply packers who were initially feared lost.
Though it devastated the backwoods and hell-raising western railroad towns through which it hurtled, Egan contends that the Great Fire of 1910 was, paradoxically, a godsend to environmental protection. He notes that the ashes weren’t even cool before Pinchot and Roosevelt went on the attack, using the disaster and newspaper-spread reports of heroic acts by the Little G.P.s as cudgels against their enemies, denouncing Senator Heyburn and likeminded politicians for having left all those brave men to die in a righteous cause. (In truth, the Big Burn was likely too fierce and extensive for even a fully staffed Forest Service to have combated; but that didn’t alter the narrative the agency’s backers promulgated.) By these means, Roosevelt and Pinchot simultaneously demolished any hopes lawmakers -- particularly some from the West -- had of handing the public woodlands back to rapacious loggers, and ensured the Forest Service’s future. Under the pressure, Congress even added millions of acres in the East to the public’s portfolio.
One other consequence of the Big Burn: It helped convince Teddy Roosevelt, in 1912, to toss his hat into the ring again for the Republican presidential nomination, hoping to expel the “feeble” Taft from office. After his successor, instead, won the GOP’s nod for a second term, Roosevelt bolted his old party and launched an independent candidacy, taking with him progressive-minded Republicans who were disgusted with Taft’s embrace of the GOP’s more arch-conservative stalwarts. Roosevelt ultimately came in second place in that year’s general election, beating Taft but losing to Democratic former New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson. Many of Roosevelt’s backers never returned to the Republican fold, and the party became increasingly conservative over the next century -- a trend that has resulted recently in something of a civil war between the GOP’s intolerant religious extremists and its shrinking contingent of moderates.
Seattle resident Egan gave himself a daunting task when he set out to re-create the Great Fire of 1910 and its aftermath in prose. The most naturally thrilling tale can still be strangled by over-attention to detail (always a historian’s worst enemy) and a too-democratic focus on the cast of players involved. Fortunately, the author here didn’t take any of the myriad opportunities he had to fail in this, his sixth non-fiction work. Although the final chapter is a bit too reportorial, not quite matching the pace of what precedes it, Egan demonstrates that he’s mastered the fine art of fetching new color and life even from history that never lacked for vividness. The Big Burn is nothing if not a scorcher. | November 2009
J. Kingston Pierce is the senior editor/crime fiction editor of January Magazine and editor of the Anthony Award-nominated blog, The Rap Sheet. He’s the author of several books, including Eccentric Seattle (WSU Press) and two new pictorial histories: San Francisco: Yesterday & Today and Seattle: Yesterday & Today, both from West Side Publishing.