The recent “Station Fire” in California’s Angeles National Forest, the worst in Los Angeles County history, burned more than 160,000 acres and killed two firefighters. In comparison, the 1910 Northern Rockies forest fire remembered in The Big Burn covered nearly 3.2 million acres in Washington, Idaho and Montana. At least 85 people were killed, most of them members of ill-trained firefighting crews.

That blowout, the biggest wildfire in American history, devastated the economy of a booming timber and mining region. It traumatized the survivors—and as New York Times columnist Timothy Egan shows in The Big Burn, it set the course for U.S. forest conservation for the next hundred years, for good and ill.

The national forests that burned were brand new, the product of President Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation crusade. Spurred on by fellow aristocrat Gifford Pinchot, the founding head of the National Forest Service, Roosevelt had worked at breakneck pace to protect millions of acres from logging, railroad and mine companies. But when Roosevelt left office, the land barons’ allies in his own party starved the Forest Service of resources, and forced out Pinchot.

The scope of the disaster and the heroism of so many forest rangers turned public opinion in favor of conservation at a crucial moment. National forests were subsequently created throughout the country, and the Forest Service became a thriving agency.

For his National Book Award-winning account of the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time, Egan was able to interview survivors. For The Big Burn, he had to comb through Forest Service reports, memoirs and old newspapers. But he’s equally effective here in telling the story through individuals—the homesteaders, the fire crews of immigrants and drifters, the idealistic Ivy League grads who followed Pinchot’s siren call to the Forest Service.

Egan is a gorgeous writer. His chapters on the “blowup,” when thousands fled burning towns and desperate fire crews burrowed in mine shafts or submerged in streams to escape the inferno, should become a classic account of an American Pompeii.

Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.

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