A book review in a sensitive season

Cover of "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt a...

Last night as I finished a book I’d been enjoying I clicked on the radio and the first words I heard were “Arizona Department of Forestry.” My ears perked up because I’d just been reading about the origins of the United States Forest Service.

Of course, as I continued to listen my heart broke at the terrible news that nineteen members of the Arizona Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed when overcome by a windblown wildfire.

As the week moves forward I’m sure we’ll hear more about the individuals and their families and we will weep with those who weep…I think for now the enormity of the loss of life simply needs to settle over all of us.

So why would I now choose to share a book review?

Because The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, by Timothy Egan, is a riveting tale of the creation of the United States Forest Service, then called the National Forest Service, in the early 20th century when the west was still wild and untamed. It’s about the men who, like the Hotshots, were called upon to fight forest fires, but in an age when they were disrespected and underfunded in the hopes by many in Congress that they would “just go away.”

Before yesterday’s tragedy I was thinking “The Big Burn” would make a powerful movie. I was caught up in its epic scope–the limits of human strength against the power of nature, the ideals of Teddy Roosevelt and the first Chief of Forestry, Gifford Pinchot, against the wealthy and powerful men controlling Congress, and the stories of the average citizen fleeing their homes as entire cities burned to the ground.

Somehow reading the newspaper today, however, I wasn’t thinking of the power of a big story. I changed my perspective. It’s a much smaller story really; the story of “every day” people and their lives.

But the book is also the story of Roosevelt’s crusade to save the “wild places” and guarantee that large areas of forested land would belong to the people, not the Robber Barons intent on clear cutting and expanding their personal fortunes.

The drought-dry western forests were combustible in 1910 yet a hand-full of young and in some cases inexperienced foresters were responsible for maintaining trails and beating back small forest fires. There were no experienced work crews to call upon in disaster conditions.

On August 20, 1910 hundreds of small fires combined into two massive infernos. In two days the wildfire burned three million acres in northeast Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana. The firestorm killed 87 people, including 78 firefighters.

Several towns were completely destroyed. I found an excellent website that shows photos of the towns as they were in 1910 and compares them to today. I think you’d find the photos and accompanying story very interesting. To view them click HERE.


I think the best thing I could do to pique your interest in the book is give you a brief synopsis from the author, Timothy Egan.

I’ve also included a link to a very interesting 30-minute documentary on the fires of 1910 HERE.

In light of the devastating loss of the Prescott firefighters, I believe you’d find the book AND documentary a very interesting historical picture of how fires were fought in the early part of the 20th century and how the Fire of 1910 shaped the U.S. Forest Service. It is a backdrop to better understanding the work that is done today.

The loss of life in the fires and stories of heroism that emerged after news of the 1910 devastation reached the east coast and inspired the public to demand Congress adequately support the Forest Service and support Teddy Roosevelt’s dream of preserving land for the people.

The history of the Big Burn is a riveting story, no doubt, but it was a century ago. The young firefighters, members of a “hotshot” crew who lost their lives in Arizona, draw attention to the complexity of firefighting and the dangers men and women like them face every day. Now.

Terribly sobering, isn’t it. I am simply very sad.

46 thoughts on “A book review in a sensitive season

  1. Yes, very sad and very sobering. The story sounds interesting – the history of forest service would probably be interesting in many countries as their roles are so similar. Although we don’t have forest fires on the scale of yours it is also an increasing problem in Germany with extreme periods of dry weather and heatwaves becoming more frequent.

    1. Cathy, I really appreciate your comment. Before the tragic Arizona incident I wondered if I should write a book review. I had enjoyed it so much, and found the historical context of the story so interesting, but thought about my international friends, wondering if it was just too exclusive a subject. I think anyone interested in early 20th century perspectives on “who owns open land” and a history of emerging beliefs about conserving resources would find this a riveting tale. I’m glad you shared about Germany’s concern with fires, too. With climate change affecting all of us, I hope our governmental agencies can work together to share information and create strong networks of support. There is so much at stake, isn’t there!

    1. Thank you so much, Mike. Yes, it was a little eerie to put the book down and immediately hear this news story. I learned so much contextual information from the book that gives me a greater understanding of the mechanics of different governmental agencies working together in these mammoth fires. I was caught up in the enormity of the story, but now it’s just about the tremendous grief in families as well as the firefighting community. I think all of us in the west are looking at this weather and questioning what kind of summer and fall we’re going to have with fires. Hope you have a nice 4th Mike. 🙂

    1. Such a sad time in the lives of so many. Fires are terrifying to me, as I think they should be. I am very respectful and admiring of those who are willing to put themselves in danger to protect others. ox

  2. We’ve been hearing about fire and the tragic loss of life on the News in England. My thoughts are with all affected by the fire in Arizona but especially the families of those young Firefighters.

    1. I’m with you, Martin. Now I think of their families and how they move forward. I am sure they will be folded into a very large embrace by their communities and the very large extended family of firefighters. They were very young, which does add to the weight of the loss somehow.

  3. Thank you for the information, it does serve so well as a tribute to those brave men. I share with you in the sadness, for the loss of the men, and the families and friends left behind.

    1. It is very sad, Colleen, isn’t it? There are so many things that grip our hearts–daily. Fires are such a part of the west and these men and women are incredibly brave, and their families may amaze me even more.

  4. Debra, I feel such sadness for the families of the men who died, and I can’t bear to think about the manner of their dying, but I also feel for the man who survived simply because he was moving the truck. I can’t begin to imagine what he must be going through.
    It’s a terrible, tragic thing that has hapened.

    1. Sadly the lone survivor of the group is in very critical condition himself. He was also badly burned. There is just nothing about this story that doesn’t grip our hearts. Words are so woefully inadequate I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have been the one to post anything directly related, but it was incredibly coincidental that I really did put the book down Sunday night, just before I heard the news release. After absorbing so much background detail to what is involved in fighting a mammoth forest fire I am even more in awe that anyone has the courage to dedicate their lives to this dangerous work. Thank you for adding your voice, Tricia.

  5. An interesting review on a subject I’d never thought about, Debra, throwng the importance of the dangerous work these brave men do into sharp perspective. Bless them and their families at this devastating time.

    1. I think that’s right, Jacqueline. I’ve simply been praying these wives, children, parents and friends can be comfort to one another, and that seeing how the general public is affected will let them know they are not alone in their grief. It’s such a very sad time.

  6. A good example about the importance of timing. For you, the perfect time for a post. For us, the perfect time to learn … in the end, a tribute those who died.

    1. I’m glad the post read as a tribute, Frank. Before I had even finished the book I had thought I’d like to share about it, and then I truly did finish the book on Sunday, and at first thought against it. I couldn’t get the book or the firefighters off my mind all day on Monday, so I simply wanted to share. It’s simply very sad, isn’t it.

  7. That was an absolutely heartbreaking loss. My heart weeps for those families whose brave heroes (and I don’t use that term loosely) put themselves in danger constantly to save others and lost the battle yesterday. Heartbreaking doesn’t even come close to the pain and sorrow I feel for them. There should definitely be a permanent memorial to those brave souls, at the very least.

    I enjoy books like the one you described; it’ll be on my gift list.

    1. It is such an interesting book, and I can’t tell you how much contextual information was completely new to me. I shook my head at the descriptions of some of the Congressional shenanigans–reminded once again, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” I struggled a lot writing the post last night because I found myself overusing the word tragedy. I kept looking for new ways to describe–and I couldn’t. That’s just what it is. And I, too, sort of get weary of the overuse of the word “heroes,” but I think in this case it really does apply. Thank you so much for adding your voice.

  8. I’ve had that book on my radar for sometime. TR is my favorite President, and I thought it would be an interesting take on a slice of his legacy. I agree with you, though. In the wake of this AZ tragedy, it will be a hard book to read any time soon.

    1. I think you’d enjoy the book very much, Andra. John Muir figures heavily into the story, too, as well as a very interesting biographical overview of Gifford Pinchot, another wealthy man who, like TR, had an incredible love for nature and dedicated his life to fighting those who would otherwise have stripped this country clean of anything green! It’s well done, and when you’re ready, do pick up a copy!

  9. It is sobering. I first heard it on the news this morning and I gasped. It’s a lot of people and a horrible way to die. My heart is so sad for their families. While I’m sure I would enjoy this book, I know my dad would love it. I’m saving this for a birthday idea for him. Thanks Debra.

    1. You can tell I’m enthusiastic about the book, Kristy. I think your father would enjoy it very much. And as we hear more and more about modern forestry and firefighting methods it’s very interesting. I found the book a real page-turner once I got into it. Fires are such a part of living in the west that I think we hold a special place in our hearts for those willing to fight them. The stories of these young Arizona men are starting to come out and it’s making the loss of life even more personal. ox

  10. It sounds like a read I think I must have, Debra – it’s so beyond my ken! This was a fabulous post and it’s lovely to have all the links so we can follow your lead. Sometimes in the face of tragedy, we struggle first to understand the physical challenges the men must have faced. It is really unthinkable.

    1. I’m really glad I could share “The Big Burn” with you, Kate. I’m now very interested in the author, Timothy Egan, realizing he’s written several very informative books. The timing of finishing the book was a very odd-feeling coincidence, and having a few dramatic images from the book now in my memory I’ve felt a very heavy heart for the families who’ve lost their young husbands, sons and fathers. Of course we all do, really. I really appreciate your kind comments.

  11. An interesting book, I’m sure, and even more interesting that you had barely closed its cover when this horrendous tragedy occurred in Arizona. Your ability to connect Egan’s book to this tragedy is remarkable. I’m so glad that you did. It does not take away the unbearable pain the loved ones are suffering now, or the deep sadness at the loss of those nineteen men, but, it does draw attention to what has happened in the past and how it connects to “the now”. I will be back to connect to the links, which I thank you in advance for, dear friend.

    1. There are so many historical episodes I’d love to learn more about, Penny, and I’m sure you’re the same way. This particular Egan book caught my attention a few months ago because the big fire was centered in the west, and of course, I’m interested in the problem we have with drought and fires. I learned so much about the conflict Teddy Roosevelt had in Congress with his bold ideas about conservation.

      The events in Arizona are unfathomable to me when I think of the loss of life within family structures and the loved ones these young men leave behind. The lessons learned in the fires of 1910 improved wildfire-fighting techniques. I hope there can be something learned in this current situation. I don’t think everything can be avoided, but I hope maybe something is learned that can be carried forward. Have a wonderful 4th, Penny. I hope you have something planned that is nice for you and Tom. I think we may do very, very little…which is what I need right now. I’ll celebrate in my heart–quietly. LOL!

  12. Nature can be beautiful but also tragic. I was saddened at the news of the 19 super heroes who died in the line of duty. The book sounds like an interesting read, Debra. I now learned a little bit more about Roosevelt interest in nature and his crusade to save the forests.

    1. If you ever have the opportunity to see some of the Ken Burns documentary series on the National Parks you’d get a quick study on how much Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir had to do with guaranteeing the public has these beautiful places and that they can’t be “bought” by others. It’s a wonderful series, and so easy to see in pieces if you can find it in rental. And we are all affected by the news of the loss of life in Arizona, aren’t we. It’s almost hard to comprehend. Thank you for stopping by and commenting, Marie. ox

      1. Last night, we watched a Ken Burns documentary on Lady Liberty. Perfect timing for the 4th of July. Made us feel quite patriotic and fortunate to have been born here.

        1. Nancy, this is perfect. We are planning to have a very quiet 4th. No special plans at all, and I’d already determined we would find some personal ways to be patriotic and celebratory and I think this will be a part of those plans. Between Amazon and Netflix, I’m sure we can see this. 🙂

  13. We are so fortunate that Teddy Roosevelt started setting aside park land for us.

    Forest Fires are necessary to the health of the forest, but battling fires is a scary and unpredictable business. So sad that lives were lost this week. Thanks for this review, Debra. It’s sure to pique the interest of many.

    1. I knew a lot of facts about Teddy Roosevelt, I think, but this book added dimension I really didn’t have before. I think I moved for “respect” to “awe.” And yes, we are incredibly fortunate. I think for much of my life I took the National Parks for granted, as though, of course, they are ours. It’s good to review history once in a while. LOL!

  14. We heard about the loss of those brave firemen on our news. So tragic and just unthinkable. And I heard there was one in their party of 20 who survived because he’d gone back to the truck or something. The grief he would be experiencing for having lost all of his workmates would be overwhelming. Such a tragedy xx

    1. The more we hear about the young men who lost their lives the more we realize, too, what fine young men they were. Many have left children behind, too, which adds to the tragedy. Some stories just cannot be totally absorbed, and what a blessing that we can’t feel the pain like those who have been directly touched. This is one of those stories that leaves us all shaking our heads a bit! I hope you are still on the mend! 🙂

  15. Thank you for raising my interesting for a book I haven’t heard about beforehand. But it sounds like a very interesting one. Teddy Roosevelt must have been ahead of time when he started to conserve natural areas. Images if we could have some politicians being front runners when it come to the big challenge today: The climate crisis.

    1. I learned so much about Teddy Roosevelt in this book, Otto. He was a tremendous leader in conserving the land for the people, and he didn’t back down to the pressure he received from all the wealthy power brokers of that day. As I read the book I also thought about how rare he was in understanding that resources could be depleted. The idea of conservation was very new in the U.S. and he was one who championed it at every opportunity, even attempting to run for the office of President after he’d been out of office for four years. He was so dismayed at how President Taft was ignoring the environmental issues he decided he’d try to run again. By then, there were too many people in power who saw his policies as “anti-progress” and they didn’t want him to stand in their way. I am in agreement with you about needing solid leadership in the climate crisis issue. It’s both deplorable and discouraging!

  16. so sad that those brave young men lost their lives, and so timely of you to bring the book to our attention … the world needs more leaders like Teddy Roosevelt who can stand up to the rapacious demands of the business/developer lobby … all over the world it is the same story, with nature on the back foot, no wonder there are wild fires and tornados … madhu just wrote about the devastation at the foot of the Himalayas … here we saved the north west from a gas pipeline development … one small victory for the land and the indigenous people 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for your very thoughtful response, Christine. I do know that conservation efforts and environmental concerns are continually hanging in the balance as a worldwide concern. You mentioned in one of your posts (or it might have been in a response) that you had experienced some very meaningful moments with indigenous people you met while on your wonderful travel adventure. I know you are very sensitive and respectful of the land and the people, and I really enjoy what I learn from you about your beautiful country. In the end isn’t it really all a string of small victories. ox

      1. what we call wilderness here in the south east is just unmanaged forest, a wildfire hazard … the indigenous people managed the whole landscape for safety and food … forests were all burnt, low slow cool fires in patches, so wildlife could easily move, the space between trees was kept open so people could move easily to hunt … we have lost the plot here now … hope the old wisdom returns 🙂

  17. Debra, this is so apposite and sobering at this time of tragedy. It’s hard to believe that men would oppose the idea of firefighters and a proper Forestry Service in the name of profit and I’m glad that common sense and humanity won through in the end, though sad that it took a firestorm to achieve it. A very fine post.

    1. I learned so much from reading the Big Burn, Perpetua. I knew Teddy Roosevelt was responsible for preserving land for our National Parks, but I really didn’t know how much opposition he faced. I am not sure we’ve seen a lot of common sense leadership directed towards conservation since then. 🙂 Oh my!

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