The 1910 fire is a part of Idaho’s identity as much as Lewis and Clark, Chief Joseph and the trial of Big Bill Haywood.
The story has been retold many times, but none better than in Tim Egan’s 2009 book, "The Big Burn." Other books, notably Stephen Pyne’s "Year of the Fires," told the remarkable story of August 1910 in North Idaho and Montana and the events that led up to it. But Egan stripped his narrative down to the drama alone, tossing out any context that took away from the story of the people in the middle of the largest fire in American history that burned more than 3 million acres and killed at least 78 firefighters.
What was left is the ultimate tale of man and nature in its awesome power.
I will watch "The American Experience’s" cinematic presentation of Egan’s book for the first time tonight when it airs at 9 p.m. on Idaho Public Television. From the previews, it appears to have all the trappings of the series’ own storytelling prowess.
Egan’s book and the PBS program come as huge fires have become routine across the West. A year when there isn’t a huge fire that burns hundreds of thousands of acres is almost more news than a year when there is.
A big fire year now has many big fires starting in the spring and ending when the snow flies. The 1910 fire stood out alone for ferocity until 1988. Then, huge fires burned through Yellowstone National Park and its ecosystem, signaling the effects of a changing climate from another kind of burning — fossil fuels in an industrialized world.
Since then we have been forced to live with the reality that our ability to control fires is limited, the opposite of the lesson the Forest Service took and sold in the aftermath of 1910. Now we are trying to determine if we can control the effects of climate change our own burning created and our own denial keeps us from addressing head on.
We don’t know how this story will end.