The Big Burn

By: Timothy Egan


This book exploits a piece of history that will intrigue anyone who enjoys the outdoors.  Timothy Egan does a wonderful job telling the story of the establishment of the United States Forest Service, carrying it through this event, The Big Burn, including the inevitable aftermath.

In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Gifford Pinchot to the new position of Chief of the United States Forest Service.  With too many acres for the men of the Forest Service to oversee, they were easily eluded by the big players in the timber industry.  Not long after President Taft took office, Pinchot was fired in early 1910.

The Big Burn, centered around the town of Avery, Idaho, began on August 20, 1910.  At that time, the thinly employed Forest Service was being severely overrun by the timber industry and was on the brink of complete annihilation.  After multiple fires combined into one enormous blaze, three million acres of forest was decimated in 36 hours.  Anyone that could fight fires was requested, and those eager to make a good wage showed up to assist in the firefighting efforts.  A total of ten thousand people were estimated to have been recruited to the hills of Idaho and Western Colorado during The Big Burn.  Many were left injured, and 87 people died.

One notable storyline from this epic tale is that of Ed Polaski.  He was in charge of a huge team of firefighters that became fatigued and finally got caught by the fire.  Polaski was able to save a portion of his crew by using his knowledge of the area.  He protected his men by fitting them into an old mine near Wallace, Idaho.

Another remarkable story is that of the Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment.  This all-black regiment showed the country their heroism by saving hundreds of people.  Most of the lives saved were those of the women and children of the firefighters who were gone from their family homes while diligently fighting the fire in the first 36 hours it was burning.

After the devastation of The Big Burn, it was obvious that the United States Forest Service needed to remain in place.  It serves as a major necessity for the management and protection of our national land, in order to keep our forests pristine for generations to come.

PBS did a special on this event and can be seen using this link:

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Book Review Submitted by: Rudy Giecek

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