Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan

Main character: Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and the first forest rangers of the Bitterroot Mountains
Location: Montana and other western states
Time period: 1910
Genre: Nonfiction, History

I am a disaster junkie. I know it's a morbid fascination, but I really like reading about disasters, natural and otherwise. The very best disaster books not only examine the disaster itself and how individuals rose (or not) to the occasion, but put the disaster in context and showed how things were changed as a result.

Teddy Roosevelt was an energetic and forceful president. He was also a progressive Republican whose policies made a lot of enemies--especially the wealthy robber barons of the time. One of his lasting legacies was the conservation movement, which included the foundation of our national parks and the creation of national forests to be preserved for the people and not the logging interests. He also created the U.S. Forest Service to maintain and protect those forests.

Roosevelt's successor, Taft, was, in comparison, slow, sluggish, and slothful. He tried to avoid confrontation at all costs, which allowed those opposed to the forest service to gut the program. Their budget cuts made a forest ranger one of the worst paying jobs possible and stretched staff so thin that one ranger had to cover thousands of acres.

Then came the summer of 1910, a unusually hot and dry summer. Lightning storms ignited dozens of small fires. Then a strong wind, known as a Palouser, rose up, causing the fires to grow and merge into what became known as the Big Burn, the largest forest fire ever known.  At its height, the fire affected three states and the smoke could be seen from Chicago.

Before the Big Burn, the forest service was on the brink of wasting away, struck by political attacks and budget cuts from government officials who did not see it as a necessary service.  After the fire, public sentiment was stirred by the stories of heroic rangers who fought the fire despite terrible losses and that sentiment was enough to save the forest service.  Unfortunately, the experience of the Big Burn also led to the forest service's policy of strict fire suppression which has led to accumulation of fuel over the years and thus bigger and fiercer forest fires in recent years.

The copy I read was an ebook version checked out from my library's OverDrive collection.

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