Out of the ashes

The winter of 1909-10 was unusually dry in the northern Rockies. A brief spring runoff was followed by a hot June and an even hotter July. The normally humid Pacific airflow that brought rain to Idaho and Montana that year produced only brittle dry lightning, some of which touched ground. Train engines from the Union Pacific and Milwaukee Line threw off sparks into forests tinder-dry and ready to burn.

In big, cantankerous mining towns like Wallace, Idaho, and in the small, lecherous, whiskey-ridden camps like Taft, Mont., townfolk grew curious, and then alarmed, as huge gray clouds of smoke obscured their sun.

Timothy Egan — Pulitzer-prize winning author of five books, most recently “The Worst Hard Time,” which won a National Book Award for nonfiction — has written a swift-moving story of America’s worst forest fire, a conflagration that had enormous political and social consequences on the national front.

The Big Burn that Egan writes about reached its apogee on Aug. 20, 1910, when hurricane-force firestorms coalesced, reducing an area the size of Connecticut to blackened ash and killing perhaps 200 people. It is a seminal event in American history, a confluence of aims, desires, ambition and heroism that served to define the Conservation movement in America and set a disastrous course for the Forest Service in its devotion to preventing fire at all costs.

In the first instance, “The Big Burn” tells the story of Teddy Roosevelt, and of Gifford Pinchot, America’s first forest ranger, who jointly pioneered the notion of setting aside large tracts of American soil against the plundering efforts of paper barons, mining monopolists, railroad trusts and cattle interests. It is likewise the story of a very small band of Forest Service managers who risked life and limb to put this policy into practical effect in states still governed like medieval fiefdoms by a coterie of corrupt Western senators who dominated a Congress in which members were “elected” by legislative vote only.

It was Teddy Roosevelt and a small group of progressive Republican politicians who fought the trend to see land, water, forest and mountain as private capitalist reservoirs of profit. And looming over this debate was the massive figurehead of John Muir, patron saint of natural beauty.

Egan writes his story with verve, and it is certainly well-researched. The book is handsomely made and contains a storehouse of vintage photographs. He takes care to individualize the players, drawing portraits of the immigrants who were drawn by the promise of a “dollar a day” to fight the fire, many of whom, confounded by lack of training, improper directions, and an overwhelming task, wound up blackened heaps of charred flesh.

Equally vivid is the picture of mining camp life in the small towns that wound up burning to the ground, towns, save for Wallace, that were little more than tent-camps, temporary structures, bordellos, saloons and card-palaces, crawling with drunks and prostitutes. Like the immigrant firefighters, the drunks and prostitutes died in droves.

Egan’s writing style is cozy and intimate, leading him to sometimes imagine conversations that nobody could have overhead and recorded. This kind of reconstruction allows him to personalize his long-dead cast of characters, but also deadens the historical record by introducing into the journalistic narrative what is plainly invention. There is also precious little real forest science, biology, or botany in the book, and not much about the science of forest fires either. And beyond the fact that forest fires are natural, Egan explains little of the ecological function of fire.

But Egan’s book is a fast-moving entertainment. And even if it has none of the real artistic drama of Norman MacLean’s “Young Men and Fire,” it is nonetheless a useful introduction to forest ecology, conservation politics and Western resource history.

Several things, positive and negative, resulted from the Big Burn. First, the Forest Service survived and prospered, the fire having taken the steam out of the robber-baron mentality. Second, the Forest Service was set then on its disastrous course of fire suppression at all costs, fire suppression against all reason and experience, a course known as the “ten o’clock rule,” dictating that the Forest Service would suppress any known fire by the early morning after its discovery.

And finally, as a quid pro quo, the Forest Service tacitly became a silent partner of the lumber industry, a situation persisting today even in the face of dying white pine and aspen forests, in the face of drought, overpopulation, disease infestation, and the constant incursion of roads.

Isn't it ironic that on Aug. 10, 2005, Mark Rey, chief of the Forest Service, was giving a commemorative speech about the Big Burn? Appointed to office by George W. Bush, Rey was a former lumber industry lobbyist, bitterly opposed to the Endangered Species Act, bitterly opposed to the Wilderness Act, and a proponent of more forest logging roads.

Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose.