Many years ago I was working for the Forest Service in the upper St. Joe River drainage in Northern Idaho. All around the valley were reminders of the largest forest fire ever to hit the United States. The black skeletons of monster white pines and cedars still stood sentinel 100 feet above thick even-aged stands of green forest. Back then, I was fortunate to read The Big Blowup by a local author, Betty Goodwin Spencer. Ms. Spencer had the opportunity to interview some of the last remaining eyewitnesses to the 1910 fire and capture their stories. That book is unfortunately no longer in print, but can be found used if you are diligent.
A new book by Timothy Egan, The Big Burn gave me the chance to revisit the history of the 1910 fire. If you have been fortunate enough to live around northwest Montana or northern Idaho for any length of time, you know the basic story. August 20, 1910, hurricane-force winds coalescing a thousand small fires into a mammoth firestorm the likes of which no one had ever seen. Three million acres of timber burned in 48 hours. Nearly a hundred dead and millions of dollars of property lost. We know the stories of Ranger Ed Pulaski who lead his crew through the firestorm to safety in the War Eagle mine and kept them there as the inferno burned over them. Young Ranger Joe Halm and his crew taking refuge in a small creek as fire raged about them, all given up for dead for several days. Survivors walking out through a smoking lunar landscape with their shoes and clothes burned off. Wallace, Idaho burned to the ground in hours.
Egan goes well beyond the history of those few days of terror. He delves into the history of the U.S. Forest Service and how it was created against the odds by Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and John Muir. He gives an excellent history of how our National Forests came into being during the heyday of the robber barons of timber and mining using political maneuvers that were untested up to that time. Making extensive use of historical archives, Egan is able to paint a compelling picture of one of the greatest environmental catastrophes ever recorded and how it was later used to bolster the fortunes of the fledgling Forest Service. The 1910 fire was also directly responsible for the zero tolerance approach to fire that has led to so many problems in our forests today.
If you don’t know much about the 1910 fire and would like to learn, or if, like me, you are just a history junkie, The Big Burn is a book that I can recomend without reservation. The prose is highly crafted, the stories are irresistible and the research is impeccable. Pick up a copy today and let me know what you think.