The Big Burn
To those of us who inhabit the western landscape, the Great Burn of 1910 is not history so much as it was the spark for a debate that continues to this day. Timothy Egan, a westerner himself, gets this, and his understanding greatly enlivens his new book, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America. He chronicles one of North America's biggest wildfires ever, an epic burn that in just a couple of days swept through three million acres -- an area larger than some eastern states -- in northern Idaho and northwestern Montana.
The central tension of the book divides East from West. The Harvard-educated Knickerbocker Theodore Roosevelt and his Yalie sidekick, Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, both loved the West and traveled extensively in it. That affection eventually led to their setting aside vast tracts of public lands. And yet they failed to comprehend that the forces that shaped, and still shape, these lands are untamable, unlike in the East. They especially failed to comprehend the restorative role of wildfires, which open new opportunities for plants and animals while limiting the destructiveness of fires to come.
Pinchot himself felt that man at the dawn of the twentieth century was ready to command the evil of fire. He was wrong about both "command" and "evil," but still, an estimated 85 people -- most of them firefighters -- died senselessly in 1910 trying to prove the point. People still die for much the same reason.
The riveting part of this telling is in the detail, which Egan attends to with artful reporterly chops. His command of detail allows the unimaginable sweep of this blaze to slowly sink in, just as we come to appreciate the unimaginable sweep of Roosevelt's ideas and influence on the West.
We also come to understand that the region was not a nice place. We learn, for instance, the ratio of whores to men (1:3) in the tiny town of Taft, Montana; the number of barrels of beer on hand in the Sunset Brewery in Wallace, Idaho; and the particular obstreperousness of two senators from the region, Idaho's Weldon Heyburn and Montana's ultra-corrupt William A. Clark. These characters harass, bait, castigate, sabotage, and, in the end, lean on the long arm of the federal government, much as similar characters do to this day in the welfare West.
More important is Egan's understanding that his story is not over. Fire still forms our landscape and our people. It is the best evidence we have that the landscape of the West resists domestication, despite all efforts.
The vast scope of the 1910 fire shocked the nation, and the Forest Service embarked on a policy of putting out every fire. To a degree the plan worked, only to load our forests with too many trees, which our warming climate will be more than willing to burn. Repeating the horror of 1910 is not only possible but likely, some say inevitable, on those very acres, some of them visible from my office window in Missoula.
Indeed, Egan seems too gentle on Pinchot for his role not only in fire policy but in much of what ails public lands policy today. His most egregious offense was a public, petty, and ego-poisoned campaign against the Department of the Interior during the New Deal. Egan also could have traced a line of thinking he initially follows, but subsequently drops, by describing the evolution of wilderness fire policy, which recognizes the restorative role of fire in western ecosystems and allows that force of nature to fulfill its promise. This is the best example of the Forest Service's getting it right. Stephen Pyne's 2008 book on the same subject, Year of the Fires, more thoroughly follows this lead.
Nonetheless, The Big Burn is a story well told and a case well made. Pinchot and Roosevelt may have loved the West and may have meant well, but they were visitors who did not remain. It has taken more than 100 years of living with this landscape to begin finally to understand what Native Americans and some early European settlers to the West knew instinctively: fire belongs here.