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.