Ninety-nine years ago today – August 20, 1910 – the worst forest fire in modern times reached a climax in northern Idaho, western Montana and eastern Washington. By the time the great fire of 1910 had burned itself out, three million acres of timberland had given way to the relentless force of wildfire and 125 people had died.
Tim Egan’s new book – The Big Burn – Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America – won’t be out until October, but a read of the advanced copy has me convinced the Spokane native and long-time New York Times writer has another major winner on his hands. Egan’s book is gripping history intercut with fascinating narratives about characters like President Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot (the first chief of the Forest Service) Senators Weldon B. Heyburn of Idaho and William A. Clark of Montana, and Ed Pulaski, an Idaho forest ranger who is the hero of the fire story.
Egan makes a convincing case that the great fire saved both Roosevelt’s dream of the still new U.S. Forest Service (Heyburn was a sworn enemy of the federal agency) and gave the Forest Service a mission – controlling fire – that remains controversial to this day.
Egan’s last book – The Worst Hard Time – a story of the dust bowl, was a best seller and won the National Book Award for history. The new book is every bit as good.
Egan also writes a weekly column – Outposts – for the New York Times on-line and frequently pinch hits on the Times Op-Ed pages.
Tim Egan will headline the Idaho Humanities Council’s Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities in Couer d’Alene on October 8th and you can be sure he will make a great talk.
Here is a brief except from the Prologue of The Big Burn:
“By 10 P.M., the streets of Wallace, Idaho – where President Roosevelt had walked seven years earlier – were overwhelmed by flames, and the forests he had set aside for future generations was in ruins. Hundreds of firefighters were lost, and thought to be dead.”
Near midnight on August 20, 1910, a telegraph operator in Wallace sent this message:
“Every hill around town is a mass of flames and the whole place looks like a death trap. No connections can be had with outside towns. Men, women and children are hysterical in streets and leave by every possible conveyance and route.”
The Big Burn is a great story told by a terrific writer. Look for it in book stores in mid- October.