An exhaustive account of the fires of 1910, which destroyed millions of acres in four northwestern states and transformed American conceptions of forest maintenance and fire control.
Pyne (How the Canyon Became Grand, 1998, etc.) reminds us of just how destructive fire was in everyday life 100 years ago. Most building materials were highly inflammable, for example, and forests and prairies were often cleared by means of (intentionally set) fires. Mass transportation (e.g., the railway) was fueled by fire, and even public entertainments and spectacles generally revolved around bonfires, campfires, or some other form of fireworks. Reformers such as Teddy Roosevelt advocated new notions of conservation in combating forest fires, but progress was derailed by bureaucratic scandals and infighting (particularly between the Geological Survey and the newly formed Forest Service). In the style of academic thriller, Pyne narrates a monthly chronology of events that led up to the “Big Blowup” of August 1910—a rapid series of firestorms across mountainous Montana terrain that claimed more than 80 lives and led to the organized enforcement of fire controls. The author makes good use of many eyewitness accounts, and he emphasizes the Forest Service’s strange situation: They essentially invented wilderness firefighting on the fly, using controversial tactics like backfiring (beginning a controlled burn to consume potential fuels). Unfortunately, they were not equal to the magnitude of the catastrophe before them, and they did little that actually succeeded in extinguishing the fires (which burnt themselves out over a course of several weeks).
A dense and often exciting account, written in leisurely and mannered prose.