It’s no spoiler to give away the ending of “The Big Burn” – the fire dies and the U.S. Forest Service lives.
But that doesn’t mean the PBS documentary based on Tim Egan’s book by the same name doesn’t leave us with an unresolved cliffhanger.
“It’s not surprising the fires of 1910 cast such a huge shadow on the Forest Service and had such an effect going forward,” said film writer and director Stephen Ives. “What should have been the Forest Service’s worst hour turned out to be their creation myth – forest rangers as American heroes. But I think to be fair, something like the Big Burn was so unprecedented, it couldn’t have been imagined. It ultimately revealed the flaws and complicated contradictions at the heart of our forest policy.”
The hourlong "American Experience" program debuts next Tuesday at 7 p.m.
It recounts the founding days of the Forest Service, when it was a collection of Ivy League college grads trying to impose order on 200 million acres of newly created national forests. They’d barely had time to rile the rowdies in logging towns like Taft and Wallace when the worst fire season North America has ever recorded blew up around them.
“When you’re describing a cataclysm of that magnitude, there aren’t that many images that can measure up,” Ives said. “We struggled to try and put you in the atmosphere of the Big Burn – to sense the dense, thick smoke, to hear the sound of that fire.”
The filmmakers scoured old archives of early fires and firefighters, and combined them with black-and-white versions of modern wildfire behavior. They also used animation techniques to make still photos of places like Wallace appear threatened by moving flames and smoke.
Explanations come from Egan, along with Montana writer John Maclean, fire ecologist Steve Pyne and environmental historian Char Miller. Buffalo Soldiers National Museum chief docent Charles Williams adds some fascinating details about the seven companies of black soldiers who played crucial roles in defending the mountain communities.
The story of a fire that burned more than 3 million acres in 36 hours would be compelling in itself.
But Egan’s research revealed how it happened just when the U.S. government was defining its role as a public lands manager. President Theodore Roosevelt and his champion of forest policy, Gifford Pinchot, were reining in the free-for-all logging and mining that threatened to shred the forests of the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains. And a large part of their strategy was the claim that forests could be cultivated and protected like farms.
“It was the idea of conservation and what does it mean to make a decision to put hundreds of millions of acres aside, not as a national park, but as a national forest to be managed?” Ives said. “And it was about the hubris – the dangers of being too confident that nature can be brought under control.”
Pinchot was a political tactician who turned the tragedy of the Big Burn from a national disaster to a national rallying cry for more aggressive land management. Despite being fired by President Howard Taft after Roosevelt left office, Pinchot continued to advocate for a stronger Forest Service and systematic firefighting resources.
But the result of the Smokey Bear campaigns and out-before-10-a.m. fire policies has been profound changes in forest ecosystems – many of which led to new and almost unstoppable wildfire threats.
At the same time “The Big Burn” is reaching the public, Congress is debating new ways to pay for firefighting seasons that can consume more than half the Forest Service’s annual budget.
“As a historical filmmaker, I don’t feel my job is to influence policy,” Ives said. “But I want to provide a context for people who then want to influence policy. I want them to recognize these policies we’re living with today don’t come out of the blue. They are very much a part of a history we have.
“It’s just important to realize what something like the Big Burn did, the mindset it imprinted on generations of Forest Service bureaucrats and folks in the region. It helps to recognize why we’ve clung so tenaciously to a sense of fire suppression for so long. We wanted to tell a great story about a moment that still resonates for more than 100 years.”