Era of Megafires

Era of Megafires

Last night I had the opportunity to attend the Colville showing of “Era of Megafires” at the Colville High School.  Considering that it was scheduled at the same time as the final 2016 presidential debate, attendance was good.  The presentation was a combination of the work of Dr. Paul Hessburg from the Northwest Research Station in Wenatchee, WA and the production genius of North40 Productions, also based in Wenatchee.  It was 90 minutes of lecture and description by Dr. Hessburg with HD video and animation to back up his years of research.

He’s found that people created a 50-year departure of natural occurring fire in the fire-prone forests of the west.  This was in response to the 1910 fire that claimed over 3 million acres and multiple lives while destroying entire communities.  It took until the early 50’s to really get fire under control, primarily by the US Forest Service.  This “control” came at a cost and now we’re paying for it.  Although we’re paying over $2 billion in fire suppression, the cost is excess of $50 billion.

Dr. Hessburg says the problem is getting worse.  Instead of having hot, dry conditions leading to a patchwork of fires, we now have so much built up fuel in our forests that entire forests are burning up.  In many cases hundreds of thousands of acres at a time.  Although this paints a pretty dire picture of the future, there are things we can do to help make necessary changes.

Post harvest thinning with logs stacked in the foreground
Post-harvest thinning with logs stacked in the foreground

We can use mechanical thinning in areas that we are permitted to manage.  These areas are often in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) with existing road systems and prior management activities.  There are also many areas of the foothills that also have road systems and past management that can be thinned as well.  These necessary restoration treatments can get the forest back into a condition that can handle fire in a beneficial way, either by natural occurring fire or prescribed burning.

Using collaboration, we can get the necessary support from our local communities and conservation groups to do these treatments.   This was highlighted in the film by Mike Petersen of the Lands Council, a conservation group based in Spokane, talking about the benefits of coming together to talk about our interests in the forests.  Then I was interviewed and also talked about the benefits of the collaboration for forests and the community.   What a concept, the Forest Industry and the Environmental Community coming together to focus on their collective interests.  That’s what’s going on at the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition (NEWFC).  Getting together every month to make sure the projects on the ground are meeting ecological, economic, and social needs.


Under story burn to control fuels and maintain the forest
Understory burn to control fuels and maintain the forest

NEWFC has also been working with local land managers to do more prescribed burning while getting public input at the same time.  When we combine the benefits of restoration treatments with prescribed fire, we get a forest condition much like what has been natural for hundreds of years. On top of that, we can use the by-products of these treatments to supply mills.  The contractors doing the work in the forests, the workforce in the mills and everything before and after benefits.  It’s something that can breathe economic and social life back into these towns all while benefiting the forests.


Dr. Hessburg also shows a slide that demonstrates the difference between smoke from uncontrollable wildfires and prescribed burning.  The difference is amazing.  The image shows one shot of a minor haze while the other shot from the exact same location looks like a thick fog of smoke.  Something known all too well by residents of these rural western communities.  The issue is that prescribed fire has so many restrictions on when and how much can be burned.   Seems kind of crazy doesn’t it?  We can allow massive wildfires to choke out the sun for 3 weeks of our summer, but we can’t burn areas to remove fuels when we can control the flames.

We need to make some changes to allow both more mechanical treatments where it makes sense and allow for much more burning.  The science says it’s what we need to do.  I applaud Dr. Hessburg and the team at North40 Productions for making this happen.

2 thoughts on “Era of Megafires”

  1. Very good information. My only quibble is the 50 year timeframe that fire was effectively excluded. The technological advances of smoke jumpers, airplane retardant drops and helicopters came later but I firmly believe it started in the 1930’s not the ’50’s. I knew a man who worked for the CCC’s in the 1930’s and he described to me the work he and others did at that time. It included prepositioning look-outs all over the forest, many in trees that were topped and had a platform installed for watching for fires. They strung telephone lines through out the forest to facilitate communication. They would dispatch men to fight the fire starts from the lookout that wasn’t closest to the start and they were very effective in suppressing many of those starts that would have created the mosaic across the landscape that changes the behavior and severity of the fires that do get large.

    The other thing that didn’t get mentioned in the video short is the role of Indian burning throughout the country. So we not only put fires out we stopped the prescribed burning that had been done for thousands of years, which helped shape the vegetation across the landscape.

    Thanks for sharing this it is good work!

    1. David, Thanks for your comments. The issue you bring up is covered in the talk. The 50 years is where the most stark data shows the number of acres burned. It was declining in the 30’s as your comments suggest, but the data that Dr. Hessburg shows has a 50 year bottom in a chart that starts about 1950 and goes for almost 50 years before we see a dramatic increase. Paul’s talk also talks about the importance of Indian burning. You need to make a point to go see one of his talks. I am going to work on getting the presentation to the Western Governors. This would help shape the policies that the WGA hopes to influence in DC.

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