On Timothy Egan's "The Big Burn," the Boulder Fires, & the Fires to Come

Living in green & leafy Pennsylvnia part of the year, and (sometimes green) & (always) gorgeous Colorado the other part of the year, I notice how forest fires seem rather abstract for the East, a dreaded reality for the West. Timothy Egan’s nonfiction novel (my usage, I’ll admit) The Big Burn (2009) is a gripping, amazing book about forest fires, American history, the West, and a portent of things to come—as was his National Book Award-winning The Worst Hard Time (2006), about the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. Here’s a quick excerpt:
“It felt as if the town was under artillery fire, the mile-high walls of the Bitterroots shooting flaming branches onto the squat of houses in the narrow valley below. Between flareups and blowups, the hot wind delivered a continuous stream of sparks and detritus. . . . Earlier in the day, ashes had fallen like soft snow through the haze. At the edge of town, where visibility was better, people looked up and saw thunderheads of smoke, flat-bottomed and ragged-topped, reaching far into the sky” (3).
The Big Burn focuses particularly on the catastrophic fires of 1910, centering the story in Wallace, Idaho, a town that was virtually engulfed and destroyed by the flames. It has a great beginning, situating the reader (in medias res, if we want to get Latin about it) at the moment just before Wallace is about to burn to the ground, then backstepping to the history of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the first head/originator of the U.S. Forestry Service, along with other key figures such as John Muir, the robber barons of the West, and even Grover Cleveland, who helped get the Forestry Service off the ground.
The recent fires near Boulder, Colorado, are unfortunately probably a Sign of Things To Come: As temps heat up, drier weather will prevail, and the only thing that keeps Colorado—and other parts of the West—from burning every summer is the summer monsoon rains, but those can fail, as they did most recently in 2002. I was there. It was freaky. Clouds would form and pass over. Hardly any rain fell for months. I think there was a county in Eastern Colorado that recorded less than one inch of rain over a full year. The Iron Mountain Fire, in my home area of Custer County, Colorado, destroyed over 100 structures. I saw people crying in the convenience store, ready to get payback on the yahoos who started the fire by walking away from an outdoor grill (banned at that time), which was then knocked over by gusty winds. Many of these people owned homes but had no insurance. And for all those who do pay for insurance annually, it makes your rates go up if they have to pay out claims (of course insurance companies raise rates for many other reasons as well, such as price gouging/fixing, but that’s another story).
Read The Big Burn. It’s a great book.

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