The Big Burn by Timothy Egan
As a transplant to Idaho, I try to learn about the history of my new state. With every trip my husband and I make to Boise, we try to find something to visit to broaden our knowledge. So it was about two years ago during a tour of the Idaho State Museum in Boise that we first learned about “The Big Blowup” of 1910 which destroyed three million acres of forest in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Of the nearly ten thousand men who were recruited to fight that inferno, surprisingly, only 85 people died, and the forestry service at that time, despite Teddy Roosevelt’s best efforts, was underfunded, undermanned, and ill prepared to battle something of this magnitude. Odds were not in these firefighters’ favor.
Timothy Egan in The Big Burn, Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America describes this episode in Idaho’s history in great detail, beginning with the extraordinarily dry conditions, the electrical storm, and the Palouser (warm winds from the southwest) which exceeded 74 miles an hour, hissing flames, and which Egan describes as “a peek beyond the gates of Hell.” His descriptions of timber exploding and turning into blowtorches, the destruction of the towns of Taft, Avery, and Wallace among others, as well as the deaths of individuals are bone chilling and gruesome. Those that were evacuated or escaped were the incredibly lucky ones. Eighty-five others, mainly rangers, met a horrendous death by fire, inhalation, or burns they received trying to fight the fire or escape.
President William McKinley appointed Gifford Pinchot as head of of the Division of Forestry in 1898 and Pinchot became the first chief of the US Forest Service in 1905, so the service was only five years old when the fire occurred. Pinchot became good friends with Teddy Roosevelt who shared his view regarding the importance of preserving forest land for future generations and conservation. Other heroes of the time and this event in particular, such as Elers Koch, William Wiegle, and Ed Pulaski receive kudos from Egan for their perseverance and heroic actions.
This is an excellent book detailing the not only the history of the US Forestry Service but the politics of the time and how it helped and thwarted Roosevelt’s efforts of conservation.