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'The Big Burn' by Timothy Egan

October 25, 2009|Michael Joseph Gross | Gross is the author of "Starstruck: When a Fan Gets Close to Fame."

During 18 years with the New York Times, many as the paper's Pacific Northwest correspondent, Timothy Egan wrote several nonfiction books describing the lives and dreams of Westerners, as shaped by their connection with the land. (He also wrote a novel, "The Winemaker's Daughter," exploring similar themes.)

"The Worst Hard Time," which won the National Book Award in 2006, was Egan's first nonfiction book that did not begin with reporting for the paper. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also his first book written in a voice cut free from a mannered style. Weaving stories of land speculators, politicians and bureaucrats with chronicles of ranch hands, homesteaders and other settlers whose hopes for profit, comfort or a fresh start were dashed by the natural disaster of the Dust Bowl, the structure of "The Worst Hard Time" was as unexpected and intricate as the gnarled sphere of a tumbleweed.

A modest epic of American folk art, the book is animated by diaries, oral histories and vintage news reports describing the endurance of otherwise forgotten people and suggesting wisdom for an age that may face similarly dire environmental prospects. When a man who has every reason to leave a place that's almost suffocated him makes the surprising decision, instead, to stay, Egan observes, "It takes a certain kind of person to make peace with land that has betrayed them, but that is the way with home."

Egan's new book, "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America," about the biggest forest fire in American history, is another wholesale departure from his reporting. It succeeds to the same degree as the last book, in many of the same ways -- but with an important difference. Like "The Worst Hard Time," it's a complex, tragic story of reckoning with nature's imperturbable power, reconstructed at the grass-roots level of social history. But in addition, "The Big Burn" serves a big helping of Great Man history, with some familiar, larger-than-life characters acting out a morality tale that delivers a satisfying kick.

Leading Egan's team of good guys are Theodore Roosevelt and his close advisor and friend, the pioneering forester Gifford Pinchot. Upon Roosevelt's 1901 ascension to the presidency, they worked together to curtail corporate plunder of the country's natural resources. Pinchot, bullheaded and indiscreet, was practically Roosevelt's soul mate and possibly even more eccentric than the president. Pinchot's diaries, found after his death, reveal that during the height of his power, Pinchot was secretly consulting with the ghost of his late fiancee: "He read books to her, ran his ideas and speeches by her, craved her approval, checked opinions and policies with her," Egan writes.

The bad guys are the plunderers: the greedy owners of the timber companies, mines and railroads, and the congressmen who did their bidding. The most venal of them all, with a foot in both camps, was Montana Sen. William A. Clark ("as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag," wrote Mark Twain), a copper mining magnate (and the founder of Las Vegas) who boasted, "I never bought a man who was not for sale."

In 1905, after Roosevelt's landslide election to a full term, he made Pinchot head of the new U.S. Forest Service and eventually placed 180 million acres of the West under protection. Roosevelt saw this as a bulwark against the frontier's capitalistic free-for-all: he wanted people to "understand that it was their right in a democracy to own it -- every citizen holding a stake," Egan writes. Roosevelt also wanted Americans to experience wilderness as an antidote to what his friend John Muir called the "stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury."

Congress did not want to fund these big ideas. What little money the Forest Service got Pinchot won by making an impossible promise: He vowed that his hand-picked forest rangers -- a band of well-educated greenhorns whose devotion to him earned them the nickname "Little G.P.s" -- would put an end to the wildfires that threatened burgeoning commercial interests in the West. Pinchot knew that fire was an essential part of the natural life cycle of the forest, but, Egan notes, he seems to have convinced even himself "that nature could be subdued even as it was preserved, an inherent contradiction."

Pinchot clashed with Roosevelt's successor, William Howard Taft, and got himself fired in early 1910, a rupture that put his and Roosevelt's plans for the forests at risk. That July, locomotives and lightning strikes on drought-stricken land in the western U.S. sparked 3,000 fires that spread until finally, on Aug. 20, they were united by a western wind called a Palouser, functioning as "a battering ram of forced air" that, over the course of a weekend, would ignite 3 million acres, an area larger than Yellowstone National Park.

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