• Marc Johnson

The Big Burn


As I noted in this space a while back, Tim Egan’s new book – The Big Burn – is a winner both as western (especially Idaho) history and as a cautionary tale about natural resource policy. Publisher’s Weekly gave the book a starred review and Kirkus said it is a must for any “green bookshelf.”

Egan’s work deserves a wide audience and appears to be getting one based upon accolades so far.

The Seattle Times said: “The Big Burn shows off Egan’s writerly skills and will bring attention to both how the Northwest was won — with big timber at the front — as well as the current debate over fire prevention in the wilderness.”

The Washington Times, a newspaper not likely to embrace much of what Egan writes in his New York Times column, nonetheless loved his book: “Not since David McCullough’s 1968 The Johnstown Flood grabbed readers and hurled them down the narrow Conemaugh Valley to certain doom can I remember a natural-disaster yarn that yanks one by the back of the neck face to face with horror the way Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn brings the great Western fire of 1910 over the mountain to destroy the town of Wallace, Idaho.”

The Oregonian’s review focused on the heroes of Egan’s story: “Timothy Egan loves the story of Ed Pulaski and tells it with relish, gesturing with his arms and lowering his voice to imitate Pulaski. He also loves the story of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the future president and the first chief of the Forest Service, stripping to their underwear and wrestling to seal their friendship in 1899.”

The Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker has a good piece on the book and, like me, loves the story of forester Pulaski who left his family during the worst of the great fire to march back into the woods to help his trapped firefighters.

In a long essay on the first chief of the Forest Service, Pennsylvanian Gifford Pinchot, who plays a center role in The Big Burn, the Philadelphia Inquirer said: “Central to Egan’s story are the nation’s forests themselves. And Pinchot’s efforts to conserve them.”

And, the Christian Science Monitor says: “What makes The Big Burn particularly impressive is Egan’s skill as an equal-opportunity storyteller. By this I mean that he recounts the stories of men and women completely unknown to most of us with the same fervor he uses to report the stories of historic figures.”

For Idaho history buffs, Egan’s book also resurrects one of the state’s true political characters, Senator Weldon Heyburn, who has mostly been forgotten.

The Twin Falls Times-News notes that the mean-spirited Heyburn was a “hard man to like” and that, “In his hometown of Wallace, the U.S. senator from Idaho once stopped a visiting band in mid-performance and ran it out of town because he didn’t like a tune it was playing.”

Heyburn State Park near Plummer, Idaho – the oldest park in the Northwest – is named after the Senator. After you read Tim Egan’s book, you may well conclude that renaming the park to honor Ed Pulaski would make some sense. The Big Burn is as good a piece of northwest political, cultural and public policy history – all in the wrappings of an adventure story – as we’ve seen in a long time.

Go read it.

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©2021 by Marc C Johnson