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Old-timers in the West still talk about the Big Burn of 1910, a ravenous firestorm that transformed 3.2 million acres of public and private forests in Idaho and Montana into a scorched earth moonscape in around two days. Picture an area about the size of Connecticut and you have a pretty good idea of the devastation.
Timothy Egan's "The Big Burn" practically reeks of smoke and ash as he vividly reconstructs the terror of a runaway inferno set against the roots of today's continuing battle between greed and conservation over the vast natural resources (greatly diminished and threatened today) of our national forests. A corps of young, idealistic forest rangers, at first dismissed as dreamers, proved their mettle to the locals in 1910 but often at a cost of their very lives. Hundreds of firefighters perished in the path of the wind-driven flames.
Egan, author of the National Book Award-winning "The Worst Hard Time" and a columnist for the New York Times, pits the environmental idealism of Teddy Roosevelt and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, against rapacious robber barons like the U.S. senator from Montana, William Clark, "a position he had initially purchased with bundles of crisp $100 bills."
On the side of preservation were Roosevelt and Pinchot, two rich men from the East who often wrestled and boxed with each other while making plans for staving off the equally ambitious development plans of what John Muir called the "timber thieves."
As Pinchot wrote upon taking charge of 60 million acres, "We had the power, as we had the duty, to protect the Reserves for the use of the people, and that meant stepping on the toes of the biggest interests in the West. From that time on, it was fight, fight, fight."
But the greatest fight of all was the fire itself, and here Egan's storytelling and research skills excel. Using the Silver Valley mining town of Wallace, Idaho, as his narrative hub, Egan re-creates both the terror and courage of the moment. He describes men huddled together in small creeks as all around them giant old-growth trees exploded and crashed to earth, sending "sparks out in all directions, into the faces and eyes of men kneeling down in the water."
As devastating as the Big Burn was, it did lead to not only a newfound respect for the young corps of forest rangers but also to a weakening of those opposed to managing our nation's public forests.
"The fire, as it turned out," Egan concludes, "had remade the American landscape in a much larger way than Pinchot could ever have imagined."
Stephen J. Lyons' book on Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the Midwest flood of 2008, "The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River," will be published next year by Globe Pequot Press. He lives in Illinois.