The Big Burn left forests looking like a bad game of pick-up sticks.
[Part of the Great Catch-Up series]
Egan's "The Worst Hard Time" was one of my favorite books I've read over the last few years, and anyone I've recommended it to has been equally impressed. I'm always author loyal, so when I found he'd written a new book, I jumped at it (well, I jumped at it when I heard about it, which was something like ten months after it was published). That's why it's so hard for me to write about this book. Strange as it may sound, I'm not sure if I liked it or not, and I'm equally as unsure about whether I'd recommend it to anyone.
"The Big Burn" is about the birth of the Forest Service and the effect on it of the Big Burn, a massive forest fire that took place in the Northwest in the summer of 1910. I really enjoyed the part about the creation of the Forest Service, mostly because of Egan's detailed biography of Gifford Pinchot, the rich, eccentric city kid, who grew up to become a forester, something which at the time barely had a description to match the title. I'd already encountered Pinchot in J. Anthony Lukas's "Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America," so I knew he was an interesting character (and of course, Teddy Roosevelt never fails to add color to any story).
However, Pinchot disappears for about sixty percent of the book, as the description of the fire itself takes over the story. Oh, sure, there are plenty of memorable characters here, and a great deal of dramatic, descriptive writing. Unfortunately, it was a little too descriptive for me. As someone who is terrified of dying in a fire (well, who isn't? that probably only ranks above disemboweling on most people's lists), the last thing I really need is an extended, graphic description of conditions in an uncontrollable wildfire. The odd thing, though, is that after reading for pages about this roiling, unmerciful inferno, I found out that less than 100 people died. I'm not saying that their deaths weren't tragic, but as I read, I felt like there had to be something closer to a thousand, considering all the drama. Don't take this the wrong way, but proportionally, the game didn't match the worth of the candle, if that makes any sense (there were, however, seemingly countless deaths of poor, bewildered horses who had no idea why their fire fighter riders were forcing them into this cloud of flame and smoke, not to mention all the other animals who must have died--the forest residents, and probably livestock and pets left behind by fleeing people. I know, Egan would probably tell me that I just need to learn to deal with the realities of nature, life, and death, but I would rather look at videos of baby bunnies playing in the grass).
So what should I say? The book is a quick read, with lots of interesting bits of information. It ends on a mixed note, with the Forest Service not really triumphing, as big timber business owners win the political battle from the forest rangers. Forest fire policy is still unclear--let it burn or put it out? I guess that the best I can do is offer you, unknown reader, a solution like the one that has come to be common with forest fires: there is no one answer, each individual one must analyzed and approached differently than the next. You may love this book, and someone else may not. Think about who you are and decide.