Three teens battle the flames of century's biggest wildfire—and of their own passions—during the Big Burn of 1910.
Jarrett is sixteen—old enough to reject the railroad job his father wants him to take, old enough to court Lizbeth Whitcomb, old enough to join the fight against the forest fires that are destroying Idaho and Montana. But the fires are worse than anyone dreamed, and soon the flames have has come between Jarrett and everything he holds dear, between Jarrett and Lizbeth, and thrown him into the company of a young black private named Seth, whose own plans to desert the army have been cut short by the disaster.
A about the biggest wildfire of the century—the big blow-up of 1910—The Big Burn is a portrait of a time, a place, and an event that changed the way we fight wildfires, altered the landscape of Idaho and Montana, and transformed forever the lives of the people at the front lines.
A fair day followed a night brightened by dry lightning streaking to earth. Ranger William Morris set out from Coeur d'Alene Forest headquarters in Wallace, Idaho, to accompany a university professor on an expedition to look at mountain vegetation. They headed south along Placer Creek and then angled off to climb Striped Peak. A stiff wind kept them comfortable as the day heated up.
The Coeur d'Alene National Forest stretched out around them, a million and a half acres of pine and Douglas fir, of tamarack and hemlock and cedar. Needled treetops locked together to line canyon bottoms and cover furrowed slopes in unbroken sheets of green. In the distance, where jagged, bare peaks rose from layered tiers of rough mountains, the green turned to hazy blue.
They were eating lunch atop the sixty-three-hundred-foot summit when Morris noticed smoke in the southwest. He took a compass bearing and went back to his meal. But then a second, quickly ballooning smoke appeared in the southeast and was soon followed by the wispy track of a third fire.
He plotted their locations on his map, and then he and the professor returned to Wallace to report them.
The next time Morris climbed Striped Peak, he would find that all the land's greenness was gone, replaced by a blackened tangle of burned trees. He would write that they reminded him of jackstraws more than anything else.
July 13, Morning
Private Seth Brown, seventeen, of the all-black Twenty-fifth Infantry (except for the white officers) slid the bayonet blade onto his rifle and jammed its keyhole fitting into place. Everyone else in the squad was long done cleaning up from the morning's training and preparing for the afternoon's, but Seth-his fingers fumbling through still unfamiliar tasks-was keeping them all from going to lunch.
"Hey, Junior!" one of the men said. "You break that U.S.A. government property, and you'll be buying it out of your pay."
"Shut up," another said. "You want to slow him down more?"
Seth bent over his last task, which was to fit the required gear onto his belt for the afternoon march. He hurried as best he could, but trying to remember how to attach it all....And his canteen! How could he have forgotten to fill it? Even if he didn't need the water, Sarge would notice the canteen swinging empty and get on him about that.
A hand held out a filled one, and Seth looked up to see the new guy on the squad. Abel, that was his name.
"I got here with an extra," Abel said, shrugging to make light of his help.
"Thanks," Seth told him. "I owe you."
"I'll collect," the other said with a smile.
Seth had seen how fast Abel had got all his own gear squared away, arriving less than an hour earlier and already fitting in. He was the kind of soldier Seth wanted to be, only the harder Seth tried, the more he seemed to mess up. Seth had thought that maybe when his company left its garrison outside of Spokane, he'd get a chance to show how he could at least stick to a hard job longer than anybody, but it hadn't happened. So far, bivouac was proving as much a disaster as anything else in the months Seth had been in the army.
Sometimes he wondered why he'd signed up-even lied about his age so he could-and then he remembered how he'd believed he could do his father proud. Join his father's old outfit and pick up where his father had left off, fighting wars and stopping riots. Those had been his father's favorite stories, told over and over those last days before sickness made his leg gangrene and then killed him.
Anger surged through Seth. It wasn't right for his father not to have told him the whole of it, how the army also meant learning a hundred new jobs and a hundred right ways to do them.
The army had a right and a wrong even for campfires, it seemed. Just that morning Seth had got up before reveille to make one, thinking the other men might welcome a way to ward off the early morning chill. Only, Sarge had yanked him to his feet and loudly demanded to know what Seth thought he was doing. "You want to want to burn this whole place down?"
Like I didn't have sense to handle a simple fire! Seth thought. He smarted all over again, remembering the disgusted voices of his awakened tent mates. "Brown, of course. No one else dumb enough to find trouble even before wake-up."
Now, finally, Seth attached the last item to his belt, tightened the gaiters that wrapped around his trouser legs from foot to knee, and made sure he'd buttoned the four pockets of his uniform jacket. Cut for a man, it was too full for Seth's slender body, but he couldn't do anything about that. He reached for his wide-brimmed felt hat.
"Hey, looks like you got it," the new guy, Abel, said. "Come on. Let's get some chow, and then you can tell me what's what around here."
Copyright © 2002 by Jeanette Ingold
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