The Big Burn
Inside the blaze with Whatcom READS
What: Whatcom READS The Big Burn
Where: Throughout Whatcom County
WHEN: Events relating to The Big Burntake place Jan. 26-March 8
Cost: Free; no registration is required
Wednesday, January 23, 2019
By telling the tale of an apocalyptic blaze that burned an area the size of Connecticut over the course of two days, award-winning author and journalist Timothy Egan brought the nation’s biggest-ever wildfire to life—while also managing to merge the importance of the conservation of national lands into the nail-biting narrative.
When The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America was released 10 years ago, it’s probable the Seattle-based writer anticipated his nonfiction book would remain relevant, as climate change and unpredictable weather patterns would continue to keep forest fires in the news. Judging by last summer’s deadly and dangerous wildfire season, he was correct.
Set in 1910, The Big Burn recounts the combustion calamity that ravaged three million acres and killed 87 people (mostly firefighters) on two hot and windy August days and nights in Idaho, Montana, Eastern Washington, and Southeast British Columbia.
The fire’s ferociousness, speed and destructive power was unprecedented, and—as Egan’s creation myth recounts—was directly responsible for President Teddy Roosevelt’s decision to cement and shape the United States Forest Service, which at the time was a newly established department on the verge of being cancelled. As the book explains, Roosevelt and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, did nothing less than create the idea of public land as a national treasure to be owned by and preserved for every citizen.
As the Whatcom READS selection for 2019, events related to a variety of topics found throughout The Big Burn will begin this weekend, continue through February, and culminate with visits by Egan March 7 and 8 in Bellingham and Whatcom County.
If you’re not familiar with the countywide book club, Whatcom READS began in 2009 as an annual literary happening that not only encourages community conversations about literature and the joy of reading, but also gives participants a chance to get more deeply involved in the subject matter at free events taking place at venues throughout the county. Organized by all public and academic libraries in Bellingham and Whatcom County and a community partner, Village Books and Paper Dreams, funding comes from Friends of the Bellingham Public Library and Whatcom County Library Foundation. Support from a plethora of other area businesses and organizations is also necessary to pull off the particulars.
Getting to the last page of The Big Burn is just the beginning of what the book can teach you. For example, the kickoff event happening at 1pm Sat., Jan. 26 at the Blaine Library focuses on a 60-minute multimedia presentation dubbed “The Era of Megafires.” Combining the research of Dr. Paul Hessburg with the visual storytelling of award-winning film company North 40 Productions, it also features the work of renowned photographer John Marshall.
That same day at the Lynden Library, local author and historian Janet Oakley will talk about how the first hiking groups in the area and the Civilian Conservation Corps shaped the future of the Mount Baker Forest Lands at a “From Hiking Club to the CCC” presentation. And at 6:30pm Tues., Jan. 29, a “Wildfire and Resilience” presentation will see Bellingham-based author and poet Leslie Wharton share her harrowing personal tale of wildlife and recovery at the Bellingham Public Library.
The aforementioned events will be repeated at other locales in February, and book club discussions, anthology readings, heated escape room conundrums, a Bellingham Cocktail Week collaboration, art exhibits, smoke jumper and firefighter tales, a forestry and wildlife panel, and other hot topics are on the roster in the weeks before Egan makes the journey from the Emerald City to Whatcom County.
There’s not a prerequisite to finishing The Big Burn before taking part in any Whatcom READS events, but the context will be clearer if you do. Get reading, and join the conversation.
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