One year ago I sat beside Tim Egan at a bookseller luncheon. I have been a fan of his from "The Good Rain" and "The Worst Hard Time," but when I asked what he was working on I became very excited---he was spending lots of time in Missoula researching the fire of 1910. During the rest of the lunch, Tim and I told the table about the worst wildfire and the people who fought it.
People were fascinated to hear that 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.
Learning about Ed Pulaski who stood guard at the entrance of an old mine tunnel while the wildfire raged around them, and threatened to shoot anyone who panicked and tried to escape, only increased the interest in the story.
For those of us who live in Northwest Montana, Northern Idaho and Eastern Washington, the story of the fire of 1910 seems to be re-told every August when fires and smoke fill the air. Will there be another blow up?
Egan grew up in Spokane , where his family camped in the Bitterroot Mountains and hiked the Pulaski Trail. Stories of the fire and the people who fought it are legend, and 100 years after the fire, debates still continue about the way to fight forest fires.
Timothy Egan’s new book, "The Big Burn," chronicles the doomed effort to fight the fire and the ensuing havoc, but it also tells an even larger story about President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot creating the national forest service and the concept of conservation.
The story is told in three parts with a prologue. In the Prologue: A Fire at the End of the World, the reader is taken to Wallace, Idaho, where residents are watching the fire surround them. The section ends with this message sent by a Northern Pacific telegraph operator: “Every hill around town is a mass of flames and the whole place looks like a death trap. No connections can be had with outside towns. Men, women and children are hysterical in streets and leave by every possible
conveyance and route.”
To reduce the reader’s anxiety and set the stage, Egan inserts Part One: In on the Creation. Here we meet many individuals including: President Teddy Roosevelt, a very progressive president who was instrumental in the creation of National Parks as well as National Forests; Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the newly formed Forest Service; Idaho Sen. Weldon Heyburn and Montana Sen. William Clark, who represented the mining and timber conglomerates that wanted to control the Western
forests; and the Yale-educated forest rangers, charged with protecting the forests and upholding the laws in a very lawless area of the United States.
“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.”
Part Two: What They Lost describes the 36-hour horror of the fire, made more tragic by the knowledge that regardless of the heroics, nothing prepared the Forest Service Rangers, the U.S. government, or the remote towns for the fast, intense fire sweeping through the states of Idaho, Montana, and Washington.
Pinchot’s rangers fought heroically to contain the blaze, but they were completely overwhelmed by the size and savagery of this “once in a century” fire. Until this time, nobody knew anything about fighting fires. There had never been in United States history an organized effort to fight a wildfire and more importantly people had a deep-seated fear of wildfire.
Taking the lessons of this wildfire, Egan then investigates the aftermath in Part Three:What They Saved. The fire rescued the Forest Service in that Pulaski and others like him were hailed as heroes for saving lives and property. The Forest Service grew in size and stature and the concept of national forests for the good of all became reality.
Egan's subtitle, which claims that the fire "saved America," is accurate in that the establishment of the Forest Service saved America's forests from being completely cut down. But the idea that fire was evil and must be suppressed at all costs -- embraced by Pinchot and his successors -- became Forest Service policy, with unforeseen consequences.
"The wrong lesson was learned," Egan says. "They put out every fire, every day, and so some of the catastrophic fires we have now can be traced directly to the Big Burn. Every forester will tell you that."
Forest fires are a perennial concern, particularly in the American West, as is government stewardship of public lands. This was no less true in 1910, when the Forest Service was young and the worst fire in American history swept through three million acres of western forest-land.
As 2010 approaches we need to be reminded of the lessons of the Big Burn and hope that forgotten lessons are not doomed to be repeated.
Barbara Theroux is the manager of Fact & Fiction, now part of the Bookstore at the University of Montana.