The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Well I’m certainly going to be nice to Forest Rangers after reading this.

Quick synopsis: The story of the “Big Burn,” the largest forest fire in American history and Teddy Roosevelt’s efforts to create and protect national forests.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The Camp Fire of 2018 which was (understandably) a huge news story burned 153,000 acres. The Big Burn burned 3,000,000 acres.

Oh, and Teddy Roosevelt loved to strip down and wrestle with his guests.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: This book basically breaks down into three major narrative threads and they are all interesting.

Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot are the main drivers of the conservation movement with a few peripheral weirdos. Some may call them naturalists and loners, but if we are being honest, they seemed like weirdos living in the woods by themselves. No judgment, but I just can’t imagine liking camping that much. Anyway, this book is the first one where I really saw the machinations of Roosevelt in his drive for conservation. I had never even heard of Pinchot before this.

Another thread is the founding of the forest service and the literal and figurative attacks they survived. Rangers would literally be threatened and killed by frontier folks while legislators tried to kill them in Congress. They may have never survived (figuratively) without…

…the Big Burn! In another one of life’s hideous ironies, the Big Burn probably saved the Forest Service from dying in the cradle. The brave rangers who held their ground and sometimes didn’t survive ignited popular opinion which allowed them to grow and prosper. The Big Burn takes less space in the book than you would think but the other threads are necessary, and the book doesn’t suffer for it.

Verdict: A good book any history nerd will enjoy. The narrative may not move fast enough for a non-history nerd, though.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Daniel Brown, Under a Flaming Sky
  • Stewart O’Nan, The Circus Fire
  • Denise Gess and William Lutz, Firestorm at Peshtigo
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The Big Burn by Timothy Egan
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