The Big Burn, the largest-ever forest fire in America and the tragedy that cemented Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy in the land.

The publisher description ends by telling us this is a cautionary tale but the book itself misses that point almost entirely. Before we settled the North American continent there was an ongoing renewal of the land through fires and floods. The indians were nomadic in part because nature forced them to be. Our unbounded faith in mechanically controlling natural forces led us into the fool’s paradise of believing we could live in forests without fires, along rivers without flooding and along coast lines ignoring storms. If you tallied the losses of this hubris we would probably not have a national debt equal to our national output. It is a good history even if it doesn’t show Pinchot for the fool he was or fully explain his and Teddy’s social darwinianism which is every bit as foolish as medical policy based on its biological assumptions.

The big burn : Teddy Roosevelt and the fire that saved America Timothy Egan United States. National Park Service History Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. x, 324 p., [8] p. of plates : ill., map ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [287]-305) and index.  Clean, tight and strong binding with dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/G  

On the afternoon of August 20, 1910, a battering ram of wind moved through the drought-stricken national forests of Washington, Idaho, 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 an eyeblink. Forest rangers had assembled nearly ten thousand men – college boys, day-workers, immigrants from mining camps – to fight the fires. 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, through the eyes of the people who lived it. Equally dramatic, though, 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 every citizen. The robber barons fought him and the rangers charged with protecting the reserves, but even as TR’s national forests were smoldering they were saved: The heroism shown by those same rangers turned public opinion permanently in favor of the forests, though it changed the mission of the forest service with consequences felt in the fires of today.

THE BIG BURN tells an epic story, paints a moving portrait of the people who lived it, and offers a critical cautionary tale for our time.


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