Author Timothy Egan Lectures on Importance of Famous Wildfire’s Lasting Communal Effects

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Timothy Egan gave an hour-long lecture adapted from his 2009 book The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America as the culminating event of the 2014 UCSB Reads program last night at Campbell Hall.

During his lecture, Egan described how a massive 1910 forest fire catalyzed the American conservationist movement into reaching a federal policy level, as well as the crucial role played by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in calling national attention to conservation and the idea of fairly protesting and administering public land. Egan has authored seven books and currently contributes to an online opinion column in the New York Times called “The Opinionator” commenting on politics, law and issues facing the American west.

The UCSB Reads program was started in 2007 by former Executive Vice Chancellor Gene Lucas, in conjunction with the university library, to promote reading on campus and give the library, students and faculty an opportunity to interact with the greater Santa Barbara community. The award-winning program highlights books by living authors, brings them to campus to engage with students and features various events and resources to promote the author and their book.

Egan began his talk by illustrating the environmental condition of the American West at the turn of the 20th Century, explaining that wildfires were the last remaining forces of nature humans had yet to eliminate but that Americans were also unprepared to meet.

“It’s a time when cities are burning. Denver burns, Seattle burns, Chicago, San Francisco, Spokane. You can go up and down across the west; these instant cities made of wood have fallen in these great collapses,” Egan said. “We had never tried to fight a wildfire before; we had never had a concerted effort to fight this fire.”

Later in the lecture, Egan transitioned to how a massive wildfire called the “Big Burn” burnt over three million acres throughout northeast Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana in 1910. He read from a chapter of his book describing how the fire had begun on Aug. 20, 1910 as a smattering of small lightning fires in Idaho, initially ignored by the Forest Service in hopes that they would burn out. However, the smaller fires unexpectedly came together — brought together by hurricane winds blowing in the region — and soon after the intensity of the fire grew.

“In pops and cracks and snaps and gulps and gasps and whistles, the fire metastasized — more clamorous with every intake, charging ahead. Any leftover little fire that would have smoldered and smoked in a last gasp was given new life by this wind,” Egan said, reading from the book. “If there was a river in the way, the fire leapt over water … If there was a town in the way, it engulfed it without blinking.”

Egan then described how this fire, which he said engulfed five towns and killed 100 people, transformed “the way we live now.” He discussed the political rise of former President Theodore Roosevelt and his Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot, who both spent a considerable amount of their time and political leverage conserving the lands of the west. According to Egan, upon entering the presidency, Roosevelt created the first National Wildlife Refuge by executive order, protecting Florida’s Pelican Island in 1903 and continuing to expand conservation efforts throughout his presidency. Egan said once news of the fire reached Roosevelt, who had already been out of office for two years, he and Pinchot used it as a rallying cry to push key legislation through Congress protecting forest lands in the east.

“Those people who live in the east owe their national forests to the Big Burn. It never could have happened without this,” Egan said. “So they did save part of America with the ‘Big Burn.’”

Egan closed his talk with a discussion on how Roosevelt’s conservationist legacy has impacted the experience of living on the western half of the United States by giving people quick access to the wilderness.

“We’ve created most of these western cities overnight,” Egan said. “What makes them unique is they are still in the arms of the land; they are still close to nature because they have that public land around them.”

First-year biology major Yuebo Zheng said he attended Egan’s talk to complete an assignment for class, but he said he left with an appreciation for what the respected author had to say about American conservationism.

“A lot of the time, history is just facts — which is really kind of boring,” Zheng said. “But he made it funner and easier to read.”

The Big Burn was selected by a 10-person committee composed of faculty, library staff and students after the library fielded suggestions from the campus community last year. Faculty from the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management originally suggested Egan’s book, in light of their multi-year initiative called the Strategic Environmental Research Initiative on Wildfire Management and Climate Change.

According to Rebecca Metzger, assistant university librarian for outreach and academic collaboration, the book was chosen partly due to its relevance to the Santa Barbara community as the region has experienced large wildfires throughout Santa Barbara County and the surrounding area, in recent years.

“I think one of the reasons we chose this book this year is just how relevant it is to just living in Santa Barbara,” Metzger said. “We sort of had no idea how relevant it would be when we picked the book in the fall, just in terms of the ongoing drought and increased risk of wildfires.”

Metzger also said one of the goals of the UCSB Reads program was to integrate the chosen book into coursework to have students discussing the book as part of their classroom work. U.S. History professor John Majewski said Egan’s book was especially relevant to his undergraduate History 17B course, which in part covers the presidency and conservation efforts of Theodore Roosevelt.

“Egan’s book is a great way for understanding the issues of the Progressive Era, when government power was greatly expanded to include policies such as conservation and the formation of national forests and parks,” Majewski said in an email. “It is really important to understand how these efforts came about and to account for their successes and failures. I hope students come away with a sense of how disasters such as the Big Burn can influence important policy decisions.”


A version of this story appeared on page 1 of Wednesday, March 5, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.