The Big Burn

Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America

By Timothy Egan

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

324 pp. $27

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Reviewed by Rick Bass


It's hard to write about fire, which is such a dynamic, swirling, chaotic force. It's hard also to write about politics - the sumo-wrestler shoving of wills that takes decades to decide, with the accumulation of small events, speeches, bills, and battles accruing to gradually tip a nation one way or the other.

In The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, Timothy Egan addresses, with great ambition, both challenges - the one force explosive, mercurial, and ultimately uncontrollable, and the other glacial, subtle, but in time no less powerful.

The task of the storyteller is to find a pace and rhythm that can address the two processes and show how they come together, and long before book's end, Egan does.

It's silly of me to begin a review of a book I admire and enjoyed so much with a criticism, and all the more so a niggling one, but here goes. I want to get a burr out of the way so I can rave about the rest.

From my perspective, a reader should consider avoiding the 13-page prologue, in which the Great Fire of 1910 is described, in real time, coming unattached to anything as it does, existing as if in a sort of Big Bang ether. I think I understand the structural decision to do so - to get some gripping action in early, to engage the reader with action - but I would have preferred a more subtle buildup to the problem, a narrative style that would have more closely followed the nature of the accumulation of fuels in the forests themselves, as well as the slow pressuring-up of unsustainable differences, fascinating differences, within Teddy Roosevelt's Republican Party.

One faction of Republicans wanted, with a commitment that was nothing less than spiritual, to conserve the West's natural resources, and stick up for "the little man," while the other faction wanted to liquidate the West and serve large corporations.

Chapter One, "A Peculiar Intimacy," is for me the story's real beginning: the relationship between Roosevelt and his acolyte, the enigmatic Gifford Pinchot. Standing shoulder to shoulder, the two of them defeated, for a while, the archconservatives within their party, including the phlegmatic William Taft, at 360 pounds a caricature of the insatiability of American appetites - and Roosevelt and Pinchot had a huge hand in shaping the American brand of democracy that continues even today. (Aware even then of the value of fresh air and water, what today we refer to as "ecosystem services," Roosevelt said in an address at Stanford: "There is nothing more practical in the end than the preservation of beauty.")

The Big Burn of 1910, a fire of geological intensity, burning three million acres, with ash reaching Chicago, occurred just after Roosevelt and Pinchot had set aside millions of acres to be dedicated as national forests, owned in common by the public - "the little man."

The heart of the story is the fire itself, destructive and purging yet regenerative, and is told wonderfully. In a fashion reminiscent of today's natural-resource battles, Republicans at the time blamed Roosevelt and Pinchot and the newly created Forest Service for the fire of 1910, claiming that if industry had been allowed to log all of the hundreds of millions of acres of national forests, there would have been nothing left to burn, so that there would have been no fire.

Roosevelt and Pinchot argued that more land should have been conserved, not less, and after the valor of the firefighters who had defended the forests with their lives - an army of 10,000, many of whom were immigrants, and many of whose wages Pinchot, a son of wealth and privilege, was paying with his own money - the public sided with Roosevelt.

It's a remarkable story, filled with fantastic characters, cowardice, and heroism. My favorite is Pinkie Adair, a bright redheaded outdoorswoman who ran in hobnailed boots through nearly 30 miles of raging forest fire to catch the train in Wallace, Idaho, just as it was fleeing the burning-down town, and climbed up onto the caboose because there was no more room in any of the boxcars.

The heroism of rangers such as Ed Pulaski is also chronicled. The disparity between his heroism - sending his wife and children off in one direction, then taking his crew of firefighters into the firestorm and, once they were quickly overcome by the fire, saving those same troops by forcing them into a mine shaft he knew about - and the cowardice of others is profound.

Pulaski lost his eyesight and was burned terribly. The superheated air, with winds sometimes nearing 2,000 degrees, burned tender lungs and eyes and melted carcasses of man and beast alike into molten bone piles. Those who survived did so usually by finding tunnels, crawling into old damp mines where some suffocated as the fire sucked away the air, while others, like Pulaski and his men, survived, though in altered fashion.

After the fire, the synthesis is as fine a piece of American history as I've read since Richard Manning's Rewilding the West. Criticism by the timber industry after the Big Burn galvanized Roosevelt, who would go on to help oust Taft. Ten days after the fire, writes Egan, Roosevelt "launched into a declaration of 'new nationalism' - a creed that stressed people power over corporations, and conservation over hands-off capitalism."

Roosevelt called for passage of child labor laws, protection for American workers with physical disabilities, prosecution of the trusts, regulation of banks, insurance companies, and railroads. To thunderous applause he concluded that there was no issue "which compares in importance with the central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.

"Conservation," he roared, barely able to make himself heard over the applause, "is a great moral issue!"

Egan chronicles also the government's indifference and unwillingness to shoulder the firefighters' health care after their service and injuries received from the big burn, reporting in such detail that a contemporary reader would like to be indignant, save for the shame of familiarity in these same issues today.

Egan quotes Voltaire, who said that history never repeats itself but human beings do. With a drastically changed ecology - warmer, drier, and in many places heavier-stocked forests in the West, and with insects no longer always checked by the natural governance of harsh killing winters in which the forests evolved - larger and more uncontrollable fires are certain to recur.

Ten thousand firefighters couldn't stop the 1910 Burn, and 100,000 likely couldn't stop another one. Fire is a meteorological phenomenon, as impossible to keep from a landscape as rain or snow or wind. It destroys and it nurtures. It shapes policy and governments.

History will follow it, and will grow up, again and again, out of its ashes, every time.

Rick Bass is the author of a memoir, "Why I Came West," which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award, and, most recently, "The Wild Marsh: Four Seasons at Home in Montana."