Friday, November 6, 2009

How the Forest Service was saved -- and shaped -- by fire

There was a great interview on NPR's Fresh Air recently, with author and journalist Timothy Egan, on his new book, The Big Burn.

The book examines the largest forest fire in American history: in 1910, some 3 million acres of forest in Idaho and Montana, an area the size of Connecticut, burned in just a few days, killing 70 people.

The fire also saved the fledgling U. S. Forest Service, which was on Congress' chopping block. It also, though, argues Egan, shaped the future of the Forest Service, turning it into what he calls "the Fire Service." Today, half the Forest Service's budget goes toward "the fire industrial complex," he says.

It also, though, he argues, saved the modern conservation movement, and made it possible for the Forest Service to go from the brink of extinction to expansion, including the creation of National Forests in the East.

The story, though, is deeper than that, and is filled with drama and adventure, including tales of how the black Army forces, the Buffalo Soldiers, came in to help save day and were met with racism; of how Forest Service employees went from objects of scorn -- sarcastically called "Teddy's Green Rangers" -- to heroes in the eyes of the country; and how because of a complete ignorance of how to fight forest fires, both those heroic parties really just "became fuel" for the fire.

That 1910 fire still resonates, Egan argues, since today more than 20 million people live within a few miles of a National Forest.

You can read an excerpt from the book and listen to the interview on Fresh Air here.

You can also read an interview with Timothy Egan about The Big Burn in Smithsonian magazine here.
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