The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

Last modified: 
Thursday, February 23, 2012

Major events can change the nation. Think the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But as Timothy Egan shows in The Big Burn, less dramatic incidents can make a huge impact on American history, too.

In The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Timothy Egan describes a devastating 1910 forest fire in the Coeur D’Alene National Forest. Raging across three million acres, the fire encompassed an area the size of Connecticut.

In the early 20th century the United States had vast amounts of wooded land that capitalists wanted to cut down. They saw profit, while others like President Theodore Roosevelt, realized the need for a conservation program. During his tenure, Roosevelt set aside many acres of land as National Forests. He also established the Forest Service under the leadership of Gifford Pinchot, an acolyte of his.

Pinchot embraced the outdoors despite his aristocratic background. He rounded up graduates of the School of Forestry at Yale University and sent them to work out west for the new agency. These early rangers received much ridicule and derision as they attempted to protect the land against corporate interests. Congress also refused to provide the resources necessary for the job. The Forest Service personnel were ill equipped in many ways to protect the expanse for peril, especially fire.

The summer of 1910 saw little precipitation and hot, dry conditions. Many small fires broke out with no one getting the upper hand. Prisoners, immigrants, and other job seekers were pressed into service to do battle against these blazes.

Many fires were a result of lightning storms that brought no rain.

On August 20, 1910, a large windstorm with hurricane-force gusts swept through Washington State, upper Idaho, and Montana, sending fire everywhere. Many people packed trains to race out of harm’s way. Others sought refuge in mine tunnels, creeks, and anywhere the flames might miss.

Firefighters could do nothing against such elements, except for trying to set back fires which even got out of control. After the winds quit, several towns were heavily damaged or destroyed, thousands of trees left stripped of leaves and bark, nearly 100 people dead, and many lives changed forever. Throughout the book, Egan profiles many individuals connected in some way to the fire, from firefighters, to forest rangers, to cooks hired to feed tired crews.    

When the fire ended, Roosevelt and Pinchot continued their campaign message of conservation, claiming that those in power had not provided the resources to prevent such a catastrophe.

Americans saw that National Forests and the Forest Service were essential. The government added more land to the forest program. The forest rangers who worked the fire went back to their jobs even with their severe injuries. The Fire of 1910 woke the United States up to the ferocity of a forest fire, and it helped jumpstart the nascent conservation movement.

Video: Egan discusses the fire.

The Big Burn is a fascinating read. I got so caught up in the burning fire that I sometimes had trouble remembering that I was not trapped in a forest fire! I learned about the early history of the forest service and am thankful for visionaries like Roosevelt who felt that land needed to be set aside in the United States for generations to enjoy. This work sheds light on the early history of the conservation movement and the importance of preserving America’s national treasurers.

About the Author

Judy Klamm

is a reference librarian in Central Reference. She has written book reviews for Library Journal and various Presbyterian publications.

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