11 Oct

The Big Burn

I spent Sat and Sun this weekend at Wordstock, where I heard Timothy Egan, the NYT writer who’s covered the Dust Bowl and recently authored The Big Burn about the famous giant forest fire of 1910 in the Bitteroots* in the early days of the Forest Service and establishment of public lands (with the larger than life Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot). Egan’s book is a great piece of narrative history—instead of reading it, he gave a very dynamic talk and lecture on the topic. I recommend him as a writer and a speaker. The Burn is also a small piece of my family history—my great grandfather worked for a mining company in western Montana and joined the fire fighters near the end. It made impressions on him for life that he used to inform my grandfather’s life (who was born in 1911, the next year), who passed that on to my mother and aunts, and then to his grandkids. In his youth, my grandfather romanticized Teddy Roosevelt, put in time as a firewatcher in Montana and Eastern Oregon (in those old wooden towers),** and then worked for a timber company in Baker County where they were just as concerned with fires as harvesting. This is the first book I’ve found that captures that piece of history (along with the formation of the Forest Service) and the spirit of those stories. It’s pure Americana and great reading. I grabbed a copy, got a signature from Egan, and when I shared that bit of family history, he said he’d been surprised at how many people he’d met on his book tour and in correspondence whose lives had been directly or indirectly touched by that fire.

* Not to be confused but partnered with Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, about Montana’s Mann Gulch Fire of 1949, which is as much moving elegy as historical narrative. Living in cities, we forget or never learn how events like these influenced the current shape of this country.

** We scattered his ashes at the remains of one of those same towers, in Umatilla County on a long western toe of the Wallowas, looking over the valley across to the Blue Mountains. We also lugged in a gas generator and drill and  glued and screwed a plaque with his name into the tower’s old concrete foundation.  Last year (15 years later), the property owners found the plaque (we hadn’t exactly asked permission), ran his name down and contacted my aunt, delighted with their find and promising to leave it exactly as is, as long as we didn’t mind him sharing it with the occasional grazing cattle.