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The Big Burn

Updated on May 18, 2020

The Big Burn,” by Timothy Egan is a very descriptive book that chronicles Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot's formation of the United States Forest Service and national parks, and the Great Fire of 1910 that spread through forests in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. The book provides the reader a detailed account from the point of view of people who were opposed and supported the formation of the forest service and national parks. It also shows the perspective of the individuals who struggled to fight the 1910 forest fire. The author's narrative shifts back and forth between different years which describes the relationship Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot had with nature and the events leading up to the great fire of 1910.

Teddy Roosevelt's lifelong love for nature began as a child living in the streets of Manhattan collecting insects and frogs. He was in very poor health as a young child and was told by doctors he might not live a long life unless he stayed committed to a life of living indoors. Going against the medical advice of doctors, Roosevelt came up with the courage to conquer his fears of nature saying, “By acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.”(Egan pg. 22)

When Roosevelt took office following the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, he inherited a lot of the work on conservation his predecessor had left behind. He approached Gifford Pinchot, who served as forester under McKinley, a week before moving into the White House. Roosevelt asked him to not to leave his position and act as a presidential adviser. In return, Roosevelt would grant Pinchot oversight over reserves to help protect the country's natural resources. As Roosevelt's adviser, he was put in charge of writing speeches for Roosevelt and to help him deal with aggressive politicians who were opposed to his ideals.

The most aggressive political opponent of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot was Republican Senator Weldon Heyburn. He had fought against many of the issues that concerned Roosevelt during his presidency, but was most strongly opposed to the idea of national parks. Heyburn and his political allies vowed that they would do everything in their power to kill the formation of national parks. Senator William A. Clark, who was a key ally of Heyburn, used his political power to stop any progress towards conservation, and used his newspapers to voice his opposition to Roosevelt's policies. Clark believed that if there was nobody watching over America's natural resources, this would help him make a profit. He laughed at Roosevelt and Pinchot as they pledged to preserve the beauty of the country for future generations to enjoy. “Those who succeed us, can very well take care of themselves,” said Clark as he mocked the two men's pleas for help. (Egan pg. 49) Everything soon changed following the 1904 presidential election when Teddy Roosevelt was elected to his first full term in office.

Following Roosevelt's successful election, he helped create the United States Forest Service in 1905, appointing Gifford Pinchot as the first Chief of the United States Forest Service. As chief of the US Forest Service, Pinchot had much more power than he had as forester. With the budget approved by Congress, it gave Pinchot the resources he needed to train rangers. Some politicians were upset with the progress of the forest service; threatening to cut funding on the forest service if it didn't prove its worthiness. Pinchot fought back declaring that it was his agency's duty to protect land for the use of the people. He further argued that without the funding, they wouldn't be able to protect nature against its number one enemy “forest fires.”

Pinchot's concern for forest fires began after seeing forest fires wipe out wildlife. He tried reassuring Congress that he could assemble a team of rangers that he would supervise, to teach them how to control fires. The foresters that Pinchot wanted to work for the forest service should be able to write well and to be able to pass tests to show that they were ready for the job. The usefulness of the United States Forest Service was first put to the test during the Great Fire of 1910.

The Great Fire of 1910 began on August 20 and ended on August 21, spreading through Idaho, Washington, and Montana. The fire was the deadliest disaster for firefighters until the September 11 terrorist attacks. In Wallace, Idaho residents were told to only bring the belongings that they could fit on their laps on the train. The Mayor of Wallace ordered every able man to fight the fire, going as far as ordering inmates from the local jail to help. The evacuation of the town was chaotic as people were pushing each other as they tried to board the train. The Army was called in to help with the evacuation. The army unit that worked the hardest consisted of African Americans known as “Buffalo Soldiers.” At the time, the United States Forest Service was only five years old and lacked the budget to help it grow. A year earlier, Roosevelt had left office, urging his successor William H. Taft to continue the conservation effort. Taft did little to help the conservation effort. After the Great Fire of 1910, Taft took the conservation more seriously. Nobody was braver in the efforts to put out the fire than the ranger Ed Pulaski. During the fire, he led his men to safety by taking shelter from the fire in abandoned mine. To help keep his men safe he pointed his gun at anybody who tried to leave the tunnel. The fire destroyed over 3 million acres of land and killed over 100 people.

The disaster brought national attention to the issue of conservation and forest fires. It also showed people the importance of preserving America's natural resources. Without national parks there would not be any places where wildlife can roam around peacefully.

© 2020 Nathan Neel

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