Burn Baby Burn

Upon finishing Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn, I promptly went to Borders in Birmingham last Friday night to hear him discuss his most recent book on yet another environmental disaster. Following his 2006 National Book Award winner The Worst Hard Time, Mr. Egan has moved from the Dust Bowl to the horrendous  forest fire of 1910 that pounded through the forests of Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Devastating everything in its wake, this raging behemoth ignited not only the fury of the forest, but also the bigger political machines who vied to control it from their pulpits of hubris far outside the fray.

Having just relished The National Parks series by Ken Burns, I feared a tedious familiarity as I started The Big Burn. Already introduced to Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and John Muir as key players in the National Parks game, I thought this might simply hint as a refresher course. However, what I thought might detract actually enhanced the book as my overall understanding of Egan’s history behind the fire broadened in scope.

Broken into three parts, the first slowly assembles itself through the introduction of personalities, politics, and background information pertinent to the understanding of the  fighting of the fire. Part two picks up as it moves into the eccentric characters residing in the mountains as well as the ranks of the fire-fighters, noting the utterly respectable Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment and the desperate immigrants who lost their lives fighting alongside them. Part three is the collective fury and expansive aftermath of the fire which ultimately devoured the Bitterroot Mountain Range and inhaled some “three million acres in barely two days”.

The Big Burn is full of conflict. Having taken our national parks for granted, I found it quite remarkable to step back and marvel at the incredible foresight shared by Roosevelt, Pinchot and Muir. With near divine innovation, these men constructed the entire concept of Conservation in the face of political resistance and animosity; and all for the greater good of the common man. The range’s rich natural resources made it a hot spot for what Egan calls a “plunderer’s buffet”, yet as the usual Gilded suspects and timber industrialists pushed for full development of this magnificent land, these married minds held firm in their belief that this “geography of hope” was destined to be held pristine for the public.

Mr. Egan has covered many natural disasters and events as a national reporter. His process is to “research and research and try to find the story” by looking for real life characters that he would like to follow. Researching the Big Burn in the national forest archives, Egan shared his awe of the early days of forestry and is drawn to the “clash of human being versus nature”.

When I asked Egan if he had planned the book’s release so close to the National Parks PBS series, he admitted that was definitely not the case. Quickly confessing his initial fear that the series would pull from his book sales, Mr. Egan is now enjoying the happy coincidence that seems to be drawing even more interest in his latest endeavor. Tackling histories of immigration, racism, elitism, and the spark of the progressive agenda, The Big Burn is an informative and compelling read.

-Review by Megan Shaffer

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