At least four reviews of Timothy Egan’s book about the Big Blowup fires of 1910, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America appeared today or yesterday on various web sites. It seems like a strange coincidence for a book that came out a couple of weeks ago. Or maybe its because many book reviews appear in the Sunday editions of newspapers.
The International Association of Wildland Fire has scheduled a conference in Spokane, Washington October 25-29, 2010 that will in part commemorate the fires of the Big Blowup of 1910.
The author is going to appear in Seattle on Monday, October 19 at the Elliott Bay Book Company to discuss the book.
The Seattle Times has a review of the book HERE, Oregon Live has one HERE, and The Maui News review is HERE. The excerpt below is from a review by Time-News Magicvalley.com.
On the evening of Saturday, Aug. 20, 1910, the Idaho Panhandle exploded.
A cold wind out of the Palouse ignited a number of small fires burning in Idaho’s bone-dry Coeur d’Alene National Forest. Drawing energy from the flames themselves, the winds picked up speed until they reached 80 mph by the time they hit the town of Wallace.
In two days, 3 million acres of Idaho and Montana burned. That’s an area twice the size of the Great Salt Lake.
Eighty-seven people died, mostly the hard way: Pinned to the ground by fallen trees, they were still conscious while their hair burned and their skin curled up and blackened.
But it was an event that changed the course of American history – and Idaho’s, according to New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, whose book about the Great Fire of 1910, “Big Burn,” was published this month by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($27). [$16.20 at Amazon.com]
Simply put, it saved the Forest Service, which nearly shriveled and died after President Theodore Roosevelt left office in 1909, and institutionalized professional management by government of public lands, Egan argues.
Idaho – 61 percent federally owned – looks as it does today because of the consequences of the Big Blowup.
“When the Rockefellers and the Weyerhaesers had pushed through these woods, it appeared that a new order was at hand,” Egan writes. “But it had not lasted.”
Egan is a 54-year-old Seattle writer who has long covered the West for the Times. He’s best known for his 2005 book about the Dust Bowl, “The Worst Hard Time.”
But the tone of “Big Burn” is different. This is a story of heroes.
Two of them, especially. Gifford Pinchot, the son of a timber baron who devoted his life to saving trees, was a close friend of Roosevelt’s and the first chief of the Forest Service. Mostly through dogged persistence, he willed America into protecting vast tracks of its outback and kept government-managed conservation alive when the odds were against it.
Ed Pulaski was a former miner who hired on with the Forest Service as an assistant ranger in Wallace. During the Big Blowup he saved dozens of lives – at one point by pointing his revolver at panicked firefighters to keep them from running into the flames – while being maimed himself. After the fire, he spent he own meager resources caring for the injured.
Most of the handful of rangers working the Coeur d’Alene and Lolo national forests in 1910 were proteges of Pinchot and graduates of the Yale University School of Forestry, but not Pulaski. He mastered the forest by working in it and learning from it.
When the fire blew up, the Forest Service recruited every able-bodied man it could find, eventually 10,000 of them, even though it didn’t have the money to pay them. They – and the all-black 25th Infantry Regiment – saved lives, homes and, in some cases, entire communities.
UPDATE March 29, 2010:
A map of the 1910 fires can be found HERE.