Timothy Egan on “The Big Burn”

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan
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

In just two days in August 1910, the largest wildfire in U.S. history devoured 3 million acres in eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana, leveling five towns and numberless trees and leaving at least 85 people dead. Timothy Egan’s new book, The Big Burn, chronicles the doomed effort to fight the fire and the ensuing havoc, but it also tells a broader story, reflected in the book’s subtitle: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America.

Let’s start with the battle that was fought in Washington, D.C. How did Teddy Roosevelt, scion of a wealthy New York family, come to think of vast tracts of land in the West as belonging to the public, in perpetuity?

Today, everybody accepts that we have public lands—an area the size of France nearly, counting national forests, national parks and land held by the Bureau of Land Management—but then it was really a radical, revolutionary thought. Roosevelt since he was a little kid just loved the outdoors. It was magical for him, it saved him as a human being when he was sick, it brought him back to life after his wife and his mother died on the same day. He had both this spiritual, passionate attachment the outdoors, and he also had an intellectual attachment based on his growing up with these naturalists in New York City.

The story I tell is about two rich guys: Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, who came from one of the wealthiest families in the United States—his grandfather was a logger who clear-cut half of Pennsylvania, and one of my theories is that he became a forester out of guilt. His family founded the Yale School of Forestry. In the conservation movement there were several stands of thought coming together—John Muir, and some naturalists on the East Coast—somewhat incrementally. But Roosevelt realized early on in his presidency that he had the power to do it, to create public lands. By executive order he could do it. So it’s two things: one is, he had the passion all along, and then he realized he could do it by executive order and fight with Congress later.

One of the most vivid characters in the book is Senator William A. Clark of Montana, a copper baron whom you quote as saying, “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.” How representative was he of the forces opposing Roosevelt?

He was such an openly corrupt individual. When he bought his Senate seat he did it with $100 bills stuffed inside envelopes—monogrammed envelopes. He was openly, joyously corrupt. He lived most of his life, including his Senate years, in Manhattan, in a massive Gilded Age tower of limestone and marble. He wanted to be the richest man in America, and he came damned close to it. The biggest thing he wanted to do in the Senate was to stop national forests. He was joined with these Gilded Age forces who thought setting aside public land was antithetical to the American ideal and, more important, antithetical to their interests.

In 1905, Gifford Pinchot—TR’s dear friend, a founder of the conservation movement and the man Roosevelt drafted to lead the fledgling United States Forest Service—vowed to Congress that his agency could control fire in the newly designated national forests. That was a bit of a rash promise, no?

That was really rash. Pinchot knew better, he knew fire was part of the natural cycle. But I think he made a sort of pact with the devil, or with his own hubris. He thought that Congress would lay off a little bit—and they were sniping left and right; they really did not want this forest agency to take root. He thought the way to convince a majority of the people, especially in the West, was to say, “Well, look, you may not believe in what Roosevelt and I are trying to do [in setting aside land for public ownership], but at least we can safeguard your homesteads.” It’s almost Greek in the way this huge fire would come back to haunt this guy.

Timothy Egan
Timothy Egan, author of The Big Burn, is a National Book Award winner. Courtesy of Sophie Egan

The Yale-educated forest rangers that Pinchot hired were, in theory and by federal policy, guardians of the people’s wealth. How did the people out West receive them?

It was an amazing culture clash. That time marked the end of the lawless West, and the time when this public-land legacy would start to take over. You had these Yalies who’d been educated in these high-minded ideals of Pinchot’s, and then they arrive in these little towns that were the most openly lawless places in the country. A reporter from the Chicago Tribune called Taft, Montana, which was inside a national forest, the “most wicked town in America.” It had a higher murder rate than New York City. People look at the Forest Service today and they don’t realize that its early days were pretty raucous. You had to carry a gun.

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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