Timothy Egan on “The Big Burn”

Timothy Egan on “The Big Burn”

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan tells the story of a wildfire that ripped through forests in Washington, Idaho and Montana. (Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

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Once forest fires broke out in July 1910, people suddenly looked to the rangers for help. But why was it so hard for the rangers to hire the help they needed?

Nobody knew anything about fighting fires. That was the first thing. There had never been in United States history an organized effort to fight a wildfire. The second thing was, the pay was okay—25 cents an hour—but you still had a better shot working a mine or trying to grubstake someplace or selling a phony homestead. And the third and most important thing was, they were really afraid of wildfire. It was a primeval thing. Wolves had been removed from the West, grizzly bears had been erased, the Indians were all off on reservations, so the one thing that remained that caused people deep-seated fear was wildfire. Oh, and the fourth thing is: you never really believe something catastrophic can happen to you until it’s in your face.

About the fire: the forest service eventually assembled 10,000 firefighters, yet it seems that they never to have had a chance. What conditions gave this fire its almost biblical scale?

Nobody had seen a fire of this magnitude. Basically, an area the size of Connecticut—3 million acres—burned in 36 hours. Not even a full weekend. It stopped raining in about April that year, which is very rare, so everything was tinder-dry. And then lightning strikes touched off all these little fires. People were complaining about the persistent smoke, but they thought it would go away. And then one night this wind comes out of eastern Washington, and it collides with another weather system and creates these hurricane-force winds, in excess of 80 miles an hour. And the worst thing that can happen to a wildfire is to have a stimulant of that sort. When the fire was at its peak, people said it was faster than a horse or a man could ever run. For pure physical force, we haven’t seen anything like it since.

So how, after all its chastening destruction, did this fire “save America”?

It saved America in this sense: it saved the public-land legacy. Now, people think public lands are national parks, but they’re really a small part of it. The Forest Service is the primary landlord of the American West. We have nearly 200 million acres of national forest land. At the time of this fire, Roosevelt had left office and Congress was ready to kill the Forest Service. So the fire had the ironic effect of saving the Forest Service, therefore saving America’s public-land legacy.

Now, almost a century later, what does that landscape look like? Is there any trace of the fire?

There’s pretty second- and third-growth, though it’s not anything like the big, glorious white pines they had at the time, or these lowland cedars that take 500 years to develop. If you walk around there you can see still standing some of the blackened, scarred hulks from the Big Burn. The one thing that was very emotional for me was to hike up the creek to the cave where one forest ranger named Ed Pulaski saved all these people—now it’s a National Historic Site. One of the things you can do in Wallace, Idaho, is walk the Pulaski Trail.

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