Nearly a hundred years ago, a big piece of Rocky Mountain high country fell to a fire that has never been matched--in size, ferocity, or how it changed the country. I was drawn to this fire in part because of its mythic status among my fellow Westerners. But I was reluctant to try and tell this story because everyone who had lived through it had gone to their grave. With The Worst Hard Time, I could look into the eyes of people who survived the Dust Bowl and hear their stories--firsthand. They were happy to pass them on. I was the baton.
With The Big Burn, the stories would have to come from ghosts. That fire burned 3 million acres and five towns to the ground in the hot sweep of a single weekend. It also killed nearly a hundred people. So, my task was to listen to the dead--those Italian and Irish immigrant firefighters in their letters home, those first forest rangers in memories collected in volumes stashed away in mountain towns, and in the notes and diaries of two great men who founded the Forest Service. One, Teddy Roosevelt, is a voice that lives nearly as loud today as when he bestrode the world stage. The other, Gifford Pinchot, was less known, but his legacy, like that of Roosevelt, is everywhere in the public land that Americans now claim as a birthright. And what’s more, Pinchot himself was married to a ghost for nearly 20 years, one of the more fascinating things I found in the haunt of the Big Burn.
(Photo © Sophie Egan)
Photographs from The Big Burn
(Click to Enlarge)
|President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir atop Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park||Ranger Ed Pulaski, whose actions saved many lives||Ranger Joe Halm after the fire. Like Ranger Pulaski, he helped save many lives|
|Men standing amid downed timber after the Big Burn of 1910||Young Gifford Pinchot, a close friend and personal aide of Roosevelt’s and the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service||A ForestService fire patrol in 1914|
A Q&A with Timothy EganQ: Tell us something about that great fire. A: Well, it was the largest wildfire in American history, based on size. In less than two days, it torched more than three million acres, burned five towns to the ground, and killed nearly one hundred people. Q: Wow. How big is three million acres? A: Imagine if the entire state of Connecticut burned in a weekend--that's what you have here. Q: And yet in your subtitle you call this the fire that saved America. A: That's right. This happened in August 1910--next year will be the one hundredth anniversary. It came just after Teddy Roosevelt had left office, and left a legacy of public land nearly the size of France. But after Roosevelt was gone from Washington, in 1909, the Forest Service, the stewards of his legacy, came under attack. Gilded Age money wanted the rangers gone, the land placed in private hands. Enemies in Congress were constantly sniping at the young agency. And people out west were suspicious of the value of “Teddy's green rangers,” as they called them. They thought they were all college boys, softies, city kids. Q: So how did the fire change that image? A: It made heroes--almost mythic heroes--of the young men who led platoons of firefighters into a sea of flames. The government had marshaled ten thousand people, an army of young men, immigrants, and volunteers, to fight the fire. It was the first large-scale effort to battle a wildfire in U.S. history. The big-city daily newspapers here and abroad covered it like a war. The firefighters failed, because the Big Burn was so big and moved so quickly. But they succeeded in one respect: it turned the tide of public opinion, and Roosevelt's “Great Crusade” was saved. But at an awful cost. Those men should never have died. The fire was a once-in-a-century force of nature, and nothing could have stopped it. Q: How so? A: The fire moved faster than a horse at full gallop. It's been estimated that it consumed enough trees to build a city the size of Chicago. And it burned at nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in spots, incinerating the ground down to bedrock. No army of bedraggled men with shovels and picks could stop that. Q: After writing a book about the Dust Bowl, what drew you to a fire from 1910? A: I guess I'm working my way through the elements, going from dust to fire! Narrative history, basically just storytelling, is such a thrill to develop. You relive several lives through this drama. You inhabit their time. Like The Worst Hard Time, this book follows a dual-track story and several real-life people through this event. Q: How did you hear about the Great Fire? A: I've heard about the Big Burn since I was a little kid, camping in Montana and Idaho with my family. It had this larger-than-life status. And then, as a New York Times reporter covering the West and many wildfires, I found that this fire was a sacred text. Q: What surprised you about the story? A: I think it was Voltaire who said history never repeats itself, but man always does. As with the story I tried to tell in The Worst Hard Time, here you have a classic tale of human beings against nature. Hubris plays a huge role. In the end, nature wins, of course. Nature always bats last, as they said after the Bay Area earthquake that disrupted the World Series. Q: What else came as a surprise? A: I was hugely impressed with Roosevelt and his chief forester, a very strange and original American now nearly lost to our history named Gifford Pinchot. These were two easterners, born into wealth, who crusaded a century ago for the Progressive Era idea that a democracy and public land were inextricably linked. They always talked about land belonging to “the little guy.” It was a radical idea then, at a time when the gulf between the rich and poor was never greater. Roosevelt and Pinchot were both traitors to their class, in that sense. And both were--how to say this--odd people. Q: What do you mean by that? A: I mean it in a positive sense. They went skinny-dipping together in the Potomac, boxed and wrestled, climbed rocks and rode horses through Rock Creek Park, all while at the pinnacle of power, while hatching these conservation ideals. And Pinchot, the founding forester, on top of everything else, was married to a ghost--a dead woman, a true spiritual union--for nearly twenty years. Q: What was that all about? A: He was a quirky guy, very smart but also very spiritual. Q: And Teddy Roosevelt, did he live up to the image carved on Mount Rushmore? A: More so. He was such a...multitasker! A presidential polymorph! He wrote something like fifteen books before the age of forty. He climbed the Matterhorn after doctors told him he was doomed to a sickly, indoors life. And he took on the entrenched, powerful moguls and politicians of the Gilded Age. Q: So the story you tell is really two stories, as you mentioned earlier: the founding of American conservation and how this fire saved it? A: Precisely. I'm always interested in the collision between man and nature. But again, what struck me as unusual in this case was how the collision preserved something bigger, more lasting--the idea of conservation itself. Q: So the fire was a good thing? A: I don't think the families who lost their loved ones would say that. I try to focus on five or so people who faced this beast on the ground. You know, history is not always about Great Men. It's also about people in the margins, who rarely get recognition, who make it turn. And in this case, you had some Italian and Irish immigrants, a tough female homesteader, some African-American soldiers, some brave and young forest rangers--all of whom were heroes, as important to how this fire changed history as were Roosevelt and Pinchot. Q: Aside from the conservation legacy, why is a fire from a hundred years ago important today? A: We're entering an age of catastrophic wildfires, so the experts say. Big parts of the West will burn over the next decade. In those forests you have all this fuel built up: dead and dying trees. The land wants to burn, perhaps needs to burn. A big part of the reason why goes back to the Big Burn. I don't want to give away a story twist, but you’ll see late in the book that another lesson--perhaps tragic, certainly misguided--was taken away from the Big Burn. It's with us in a very big way. Q: How, specifically? A: We're seeing bigger, hotter, longer, earlier wildfires around the country today, and much of them can be traced to the wrong lessons of the Big Burn. Firefighting now accounts for nearly half of the Forest Service budget. This was not what Roosevelt had in mind.
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