Monday, October 12, 2009


By Timothy Egan

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, 352 pages

Reviewed by James Srodes

Not since David McCullough’s 1968 “The Johnstown Flood” grabbed readers and hurled them down the narrow Conemaugh Valley to certain doom can I remember a natural-disaster yarn that yanks one by the back of the neck face to face with horror the way Timothy Egan’s “The Big Burn” brings the great Western fire of 1910 over the mountain to destroy the town of Wallace, Idaho.

Try Mr. Egan’s prologue:

“Here now came the fire down from the Bitterroot Mountains and showered embers and forest shrapnel onto the town that was supposed to be protected by all those men with faraway accents and empty stomachs. For days, people had watched it from their gabled houses, from front porches and ash-covered streets, and there was some safety in the distance, some fascination even - see there, way up on the ridgeline, just candles flickering in the trees. But now it was on them, an element transformed from Out There to Here, and just as suddenly on their front lawns, in their hair, snuffing out the life of a drunk on a hotel mattress, torching a veranda. The sky had been dark for some time on this Saturday in August of 1910, the town covered in a warm fog so opaque that the lights were turned on at three o’clock in the afternoon. People took stock of what to take, what to leave behind. A woman buried her sewing machine out back in a shallow grave. A pressman dug a hole for his trunk of family possessions, but before he could finish, the fire caught him on the face, the arms, the neck.”

Before it burned itself out, the inferno consumed 3 million acres in just two days, and blazes elsewhere in the panhandle of Idaho, western Montana and eastern Oregon had burned up an area larger than the state of Connecticut. More than 10,000 men had been dispatched to the various conflagrations from as far away as California and Arizona, but most were too late to do more than rescue the handful of fledgling U.S. Forest Service rangers who had never had a chance to snuff out the early fires before they became an incinerating tsunami that evaporated everything in its path.

Mr. Egan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (one of his five previous books, “The Worst Hard Times,” won a National Book Award) is at the top of his game with this tale. It is both the story of the worst fire ever to sweep modern America at that time and a deft political tale of how we got the public land policy and conservation movement we have today - and how vulnerable that policy is to the pressures of human greed.

Overwhelming greed for land and the rush to exploit the raw resources on that land were the earliest driving motives of America’s Founding Fathers from the time the first settler put the first foot on the New World’s fecund and seemingly inexhaustible soil. Had they lived long enough, the heroes of the War for Independence, almost to a man - George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and others - would have ended their days in new, more fertile ventures in the Ohio Valley or far Kentucky.

In the meantime, the soil along the Atlantic Seaboard was stripped of its nutrients by cash crops, and vast forests were leveled for timber but also simply cleared for farmland. By the mid-19th century, the demand for railroad ties (which rotted in a few years) had denuded forests from the Adirondacks to the Alleghenies.

With recognition that America’s land resources were in fact finite, Abraham Lincoln in 1864 yielded to lobbying by Frederick Law Olmstead and other landscape designers and deeded a tiny part of Yosemite Valley to the state of California. Grover Cleveland, in 1897, was able to designate large tracts of reserve land in the northern Rockies, but there was no real effort to manage or preserve the land, let alone protect it from the mining and timber barons who craved it all for their fiefdoms.

An extremely odd partnership, formed in a bizarre fashion, was what it took to bring together the two men who would take on the challenge of saving America’s natural inheritance for future generations. Gifford Pinchot was a tall, gangly, dreamy scion of a wealthy Pennsylvania family who had become a devotee of naturalist John Muir and a convert to the environmental cause - especially the preservation of Western lands from ravishment. Theodore Roosevelt, at the time of their meeting, was New York’s governor but also, from his youth spent out West, an equal in his enthusiasm for the region and its woodlands.

At their first meeting at the governor’s mansion in Albany, the bumptious Roosevelt challenged Pinchot to, in succession, a wrestling match and then a boxing tryout. Roosevelt won the first, Gifford the second, and the friendship and political alliance was born. Pinchot would go on to head the U.S. Forest Service as it gained traction against the all-out opposition of the metal and lumber trusts.

But, as Mr. Egan so dramatically shows, it took the raging forest fire of that summer of 1910 to shock an entire nation into awareness that something had to be done before irreplaceable resources were lost forever. It’s an important cautionary tale for these days that also reads like a classic adventure story.

James Srodes is a Washington author.

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