The Big Burn

COME THE SUMMER months there’s an uneasiness in the Rockies these days. In Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, six summers of the past decade we’ve had Big Red Sun Augusts, with campfire-scented air, ash drifting sullenly from monochrome skies, the sun over the valley resembling Mars seen through a high-power telescope. The mountains are on fire again, and the world takes on a sci-fi aspect. What we’re uneasy about is whether the summer will blow up into the kind of giant firestorm local memory still preserves. Or maybe something unprecedented — in our deepest fears, something humanly impossible to stop from burning down half a state.

Global climate change aside, there’s good reason for these fears, as journalist Timothy Egan’s newest book, The Big Burn, explains. With a flair for writing compelling narrative history, Egan here does for Teddy Roosevelt’s and Gifford Pinchot’s conservation program what he did for the Dust Bowl in his book The Worst Hard Time. This is history that is well researched, vividly set into the context of the early twentieth century, and written with such skill in character development and pacing that readers will be lost in a vivid reimagining of those surreal days in 1910 when an ecological event unfolded with the spectacle of a modern summer blockbuster.

By August of 1910 the Northern Rockies saw hundreds of small lightning and human-caused fires burning, fires that a fledgling and often-reviled U.S. Forest Service was struggling to suppress. Then, starting on August 19, for forty-eight hours a howling wind blew up over the Northwest’s Palouse Prairie and wailed into the mountains at speeds up to eighty miles per hour. The effect was like a bellows in a furnace: temperatures reached two thousand degrees, and three million acres exploded. There were five hundred firefighters out trying to quell the small fires when the blowup came, and no one knew their fate; at one point the newspapers presumed all were dead. The fire torched dozens of small towns and burned into Canada. By the time it was over eighty-five people had died, the Forest Service had some of its first mythic figures, and everyone was left to grapple with what it all meant and how to react.

Historical meaning is often the Achilles’ heel of narrative history, but in this book I think Egan delivers. Mostly. With Stephen Pyne’s book on the 1910 fire only a few years old, Egan has solid grounding on the fire’s aftermath. Where he’s much less sure-footed is at the other end of his story, with the evolution of the national forest idea, which may account for the excessive rhetoric of the subtitle and its implied argument. Readers of this book will assume that the national forests existed to protect the mountains from fire; thus, by extension, heroic ranger efforts in 1910 saved conservation. “Wasn’t that the main selling point — at least in the West — for putting so much public land in the forest reserves?” he asks. Well, no, actually. The forest reserves had emerged after a long nineteenth-century debate about mountain forests and watershed protection, critical to civilization in the arid West. Fire had scarcely been in the conversation.

Amidst all the terrific storytelling, this miss does skew the interpretation some. True, while the Forest Service was essentially routed by the fire, it did emerge a model agency in the public eye. But it is excessive to say this fire “saved America,” or conservation, which was bigger than just forest management. Where Egan’s analysis is dead-on, however, is in laying out the political battle over the fire’s meaning. Post-1910, both liberals and conservatives were honing modern ideological arguments on environmental issues; readers will find them ironically familiar.
As for how society reacted, as Egan explains, the “new mission” the Forest Service adopted after the Big Burn may be the scariest part of the story. By 1920 the agency had opted for the obsessive policy of suppressing all fires by ten a.m. the morning after they’d begun. The result has been decades of fuel buildup in the mountains. And among modern residents of the Northern Rockies, fears that some future Big Red Sun August may produce a fire that will make the Big Burn seem ordinary.