Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

Now this is a big picture. Don't know how it got that way, but it's fitting for the story being told. In 1910, a fire the size of Connecticut swept through parts of Idaho, Montana, Washington state, and the surrounding area. The newly minted Forest Service had the job of suppressing the fire, since the thoughts of the time were that mankind could control nature to a great degree. The Forest Service did not suppress the fire and yet that failure probably saved the service. The opponents were those U.S. Senators and Congressmen who opposed the service and the concept of national parks to meet the desires of the lumber, mining, and railroad barons of the day.

This is a story similar to Egan's other book about the Dust Bowl. It's as big a topic with the added feature of bigger than life characters like Teddy Roosevelt and the interests who opposed him. The story of the fire itself is gripping and individual accounts very moving. In the end, though, what struck me most was the change in the parks themselves. They are not the pristine wildernesses envisioned by TR and people like John Muir and TR's chief forester, Gifford Pinchot nor are they resources only for the taking of big industry. Lessons learned from the Big Burn (do everything possible to suppress fires) also are no longer the established thinking. All told, the parks today probably are a more balanced approach to both saving and using public lands, but the debate is far from over. This book gives a nice background to the parks founding, their early turbulent years and where they stand today.

The book was a Christmas gift from Amanda and I believe all our readers would enjoy it.


Jackie said...

Sounds interesting...will add it to my "must reads" list.

Debbie said...

I heard of this book then forgot about it. I have seen several areas burned in the "big burn", with my time in Idaho. It is indeed big. The fires create their own weather. Now we are faced with worse insect infestations (i.e. white pine beetles) because of the lack of fire, and the fires are hotter and more destructive since there's so much brush and tinder since fires have been suppressed. I'm just starting a new book but will think of it as a possibility after that.