National Book Award–winner Timothy Egan turns his historian's eye to the largest-ever forest fire in America and offers an epic, cautionary tale for our time.
On the afternoon of August 20, 1910, a battering ram of wind moved through the drought-stricken national forests of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, whipping the hundreds of small blazes burning across the forest floor into a roaring inferno that jumped from treetop to ridge as it raged, destroying towns and timber in the blink of an eye. Forest rangers had assembled nearly ten thousand men to fight the fires, but no living person had seen anything like those flames, and neither the rangers nor anyone else knew how to subdue them. Egan recreates the struggles of the overmatched rangers against the implacable fire with unstoppable dramatic force, and the larger story of outsized president Teddy Roosevelt and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, that follows is equally resonant. Pioneering the notion of conservation, Roosevelt and Pinchot did nothing less than create the idea of public land as our national treasure, owned by every citizen. Even as TR's national forests were smoldering they were saved: The heroism shown by his rangers turned public opinion permanently in favor of the forests, though it changed the mission of the forest service in ways we can still witness today.
This e-book includes a sample chapter of SHORT NIGHTS OF THE SHADOW CATCHER.
Egan, National Book Award winner for The Worst Hard Time, spins a tremendous tale of Progressive-era America out of the 1910 blaze that burned across Montana, Idaho and Washington and put the fledgling U.S. Forest Service through a veritable trial by fire. Underfunded, understaffed, unsupported by Congress and President Taft and challenged by the robber barons that Taft's predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, had worked so hard to oppose, the Forest Service was caught unprepared for the immense challenge. Egan shuttles back and forth between the national stage of politics and the conflicting visions of the nation's future, and the personal stories of the men and women who fought and died in the fire: rangers, soldiers, immigrant miners imported from all over the country to help the firefighting effort, prostitutes, railroad engineers and dozens others whose stories are painstakingly recreated from scraps of letters, newspaper articles, firsthand testimony, and Forest Service records. Egan brings a touching humanity to this story of valor and cowardice in the face of a national catastrophe, paying respectful attention to Roosevelt's great dream of conservation and of an America "for the little man."
I just finished this book. I'm a huge Teddy Roosevelt fan and a bit of an outdoors fan too. This book opened up an aspect of Pres. Roosevelt's history and platform that I've never heard of and also tied his influence to the area I was visiting. I was camping in a State Park while reading this book and learning about the conservation movements that saved the national park system. Learning about the Big Burn was a piece of history that I've never been exposed too, but also tied off some loops of history that I had heard of in pieces, but now was able to put into context.
The story is very well told and engaging. It starts off a bit disjointed and took a while to get back to the context and point of reference, but after that initial confusion, it was really engaging and easy to keep reading.
I would encourage any fan of Teddy Roosevelt, the Forestry Dept. or fan of outdoor spaces to read the history that Timothy Egan has put together. Great book!!