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Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan chronicles America’s largest forest fire, a massive blaze that torched around 3.2 million acres of western forest. This blaze in 1910 was the perfect combo of a dry summer and the mistaken thought that wildfires could be completely controlled.

Big Burn Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America

The Forest Service, still in its infancy, was largely despised by those living among the also quite new National Forests. This included a lot of absentee landowners as well as vagabonds looking to make a living on cheap land with high prospects. Congress, intoxicated by bribes, wanted to defund the foresters as much as possible. The foresters were so underfunded that the government even refused to pay medical bills of those gravely injured during the blaze.

The Big Burn tells the stories of many brave foresters who sacrificed greatly, some with their lives, to protect several towns threatened by the fire. This includes Ed Pulaski, inventor of the Pulaski axe that is still used today. He saved several men by forcing them at gunpoint to hunker down in an old mining tunnel.

Or how about Pinkie Adair, a homesteader that walked 30 miles to town to escape the fires. After her hike, she boarded an overcrowded train by riding on the roof of the caboose.

And no one should ever forget the bravery and hard work of the 25th Regiment; the Buffalo Soldiers. These black army men assisted countless people while performing admirably, fighting a forest fire with essentially zero training or experience in doing so.

The Big Burn is jam-packed with chilling details of what it was like for these men to battle a blaze that they really had no hope to control. That would be enough for an exhilarating read. But the book also covers the incredible efforts of Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot in creating the National Forests in the first place. The bios are quick and to the point. But, especially in regards to Pinchot, we get a better understanding of the complexity of a man that conservationists still remain uncertain about. And a great many more no nothing about.

The book is paced near perfectly and full of many details about famous and infamous characters. And despite being a tragic tale, some comical moments stood out. I chuckled a bit with the quick dismissal of the three presidents that immediately followed Woodrow Wilson.

“…Warren Harding, a dreadful president who died in office; Calvin Coolidge, a presence so benign that when he passed away Dorothy Parker famously said, ‘How could they tell?’; and Herbert Hoover, who found a place deep in the cellar of failed presidents.”

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America is many stories rolled into one and a must read for anyone that loves public lands. The descriptions of the actual fire are haunting and burned into my memory. And the coverage of Pinchot helps bring him back into the light of pioneering conservationists.