PBS ‘American Experience: The Big Burn’

I clearly remember watching the fires light up the evening sky when fires raged in the foothills of Altadena. The flames danced and leaped over miles of rugged terrain, beautiful but deadly. An acquaintance road her horse out. A different fire in San Diego county resulted in my brother staying at my mom’s house and others evacuated to my high school grounds.

In Southern California, we aren’t so far removed from the dangers of fire. A friend once laughed at me when I was alarmed during a walk on the Santa Monica mountains because it was still spring, but the landscape said late July. California is a place meant to have fires and with the recent drought, those fires have come sooner. We think we’ve seen big fires, but we’ve never experienced anything like the 1910 fire that is documented in “The Big Burn,” a fire that consumed three million acres and left 78 firefighters dead. It was the largest fire in American history.

The Big Burn” premieres on “American Experience” on Tuesday, 2 February 215 9 p.m. ET. Check local listings. After the original broadcast, it will be available VoD.

The documentary is based on a book by the same name written by written by Tim Egan and originally published in 2009. Egan sifted through records kept in small towns. The wildfire burned acreage about the size of the state of Connecticut, from the northeast of Washington state, to the northern “panhandle” of Idaho and into western Montana. The fire began with a lightning storm in late July that ignited more than 1,000 fires across 22 national forests in Idaho and Montana.  The Big Burn was the deadliest fire for firefighters until the September 11 terrorist attacks.

In a recent phone interview, director Stephen Ives recalled, “I read Tim Egan’s amazing book and WGBH in Boston knew about it as well. This was one of those fabulous hidden American stories that needed to be told. This has a regional focus but speaks to more important and larger themes.” Using archival photographs, some recreations, and interviews with Egan and historians, Ives weaves a tale about desperation and disaster.

The fires began with a lightening storm on July 26, but by 20 of August 1910, it became known as “The Big Burn” and the disaster is “etched into the landscape” and in the “people who still live in the northern Rockies.” The documentary and book are about conservation for forestry and the progressive vision of what Americans should be and could be. The issues really tie in for us. It was a wonderful, on the ground, thrilling story with echoes and reverberations about the nation” about the legacy of both Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt established the U.S. Forest Service after putting the control of the presidentially designated forest reserves to the Bureau of Forestry at the Department of Agriculture. Pinchot was originally the chief of the Division of Forestry for seven years before becoming the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. He wrote the manual for the Forest Service agents as one of his first tasks, making the agents primary task “to protect the reserves against fire, to assist people in their use and to see that they are properly used.”

Forest rangers would no longer be politically appointed; instead they would be selected through field and civil service exams. The first group were grads of Yale’s Forestry School and they arrived in the frontier towns in 1905. Few of them were prepared for the rough conditions of the still wild West.  The forest rangers brought a federal authority that the locals were not yet accustomed to and the rangers weren’t popular with the settlers nor were they popular with the timber and mining barons who had considerable influence in the region. The Big Burn did, however, establish a need for forest rangers as well as the extent of their service, their need for greater training and federal responsibility.

What most surprised Ives about “The Big Burn” was, “The sheer scale of it. You think of a fire as being a big event–this was a fire that was 3,000 acres, the size of Connecticut was burned in 33 hours. The magnitude of this event was like a hurricane meeting a wildfire.”

Ives continued, “In many ways, it is this complicated paradox. Gifford understood intuitively as a young man that fire was a natural part of the forest. Fires regularly swept through areas, leaving the larger trees intact. This was a critical part in how large trees grew and became dominant. Pinchot made a deal with the devil.  He needed to justify this new service so he uses fire suppression for his new fledgling agency and that’s where the trouble begins. The Big Burn proves to a horrible extent that’s a fiction, that no man can control nature, not at that scale. The irony is that Pinchot is so adept that after the Big Burn, he is weaving stories about foresters giving their lives. Instead of being the death knell of the foresters…it is the creation story of heroic young men saving the national estate and he puts forward the idea of fire suppression at all costs.”

According to Ives, that idea becomes “embedded in the forestry service. It becomes their mantra. They put out every fire that they can possibly put out for the next 100 years. It is only recently that we have begun to re-think that mindset. By putting out all of those fires for 100 years, we were also building up a massive amount of fuel in the forests so when the fires do go off, they go off at a scale and intensity that’s unprecedented.”

Yet, Ives added, “In the old forest, the typical acre would have 40 mature pine trees. The current forest may have 400 far less developed pine trees…it’s an accident waiting to happen.

When asked what he wished he could have included if he had more time, Ives replied, “I might have wanted to do more with the current day wildfire situation and with way in which the forest service gets co-opted later in its history. After 1920s and 1930s, Pinchot’s student,  William Greeley takes over the Forest Service and becomes a pawn in a way to the timber industry. U.S. Forest Service is saving trees so that then huge timber companies can cut them down.” In “The Big Burn” documentary, there’s a nod to this “great irony.”

For Ives, “The Big Burn” is “this cautionary tale about hubris and tempting fate and an arrogant belief that you can control nature juxtaposed with this soaring idealism about conservation and the need for public land and the enlightened management of our shared resources. That’s a complicated and dramatic story. It is very much a window into our own struggles with managing the American West.”

Even 100 years later, Ives related “the scars of the fire are still there, not so much in charred stumps although some of them are still there. If you know how to look,  you can see the ways in which the fire swept through and changed the forest. It still affects the way that the area and regions looks.” Ives has lived through hurricanes, but his life has never been in danger, but he calls it a “sobering and important lesson of exactly how humbling nature can be.” However, according to the Boston-born Harvard-educated Ives, growing up in Boston, the people “share cultural memory of what was the 1938 hurricane. It was an unprecedented event.”

The New England Hurricane of 1938, also called the Great New England Hurricane, the Yankee Slipper, the Great Hurricane of 1938, was the first hurricane to hit New England since 1869. Winds and flooding killed 99 people in Massachusetts.

 “For people who are part of the northern Rockies, who live and love the Rockies up there, it (The Big Burn) has the same effect. It’s a touchstone in a way for their region and their own history.”

The PBS website page devoted to “The Big Burn” allows viewers to post their own memories of surviving great natural disasters.

The Big Burn” premieres on “American Experience” on Tuesday, 2 February 215 9 p.m. ET. Check local listings. After the original broadcast, it will be available VoD.

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