Book Twentysix: The Big Burn

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, Timothy Egan

A year or two ago I tried to read Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time (for book club #1) and just couldn't bear it. I made it just under a hundred pages in and had to throw in the towel. I can't really remember why I disliked it so much, but I knew it had to do with the writing. So I was worried when this one was picked as an upcoming book club selection (for book club #2). But I was pleasantly surprised! It was not a slog at all, the writing was terrific and I feel like I actually learned something. A triple threat!

It tells the story (of which I was not previously aware) of a massive forest fire that swept through Idaha, Montana, and some of Oregon and Washington in 1910 that wiped out huge amounts of forests and killed a bunch of people. But what makes the story riveting is that the fire came in the wake of Teddy Roosevelt's presidency where he set aside all of these giant forest reserves and essentially created our modern day national parks system. Who would have thunk that this was a hugely controversial move and that many a douchey conservative congressman despised TR for this? Not little ol' naive me!

Anyhow, this book gives you lots of compelling stories, from the gory details of the fire told by the survivors and park rangers who were on the frontlines fighting the flames and trying to save their towns, to the backstory of Roosevelt's friendship and political alliance with Gifford Pinchot, who was at the first chief of the US Forest Service, to the inner workings of the political machine and big business that were up in arms over TR's conservation efforts, to the tragic flailings of Taft who succeeded Roosevelt and whose negligence helped make the Big Burn so very massive.

Highly recommended, six thumbs up.


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