In an 'Era of Megafires,' One Scientist is Tweaking the Fire Prevention Message

May 3, 2017

Megafires are the kind of wildland fires that grow beyond 100,000 acres. And they are a growing threat across the American West. That’s why one federal scientist in the Northwest is hitting the road with his research.

Hundreds of foresters, loggers and other timber industry players were in Coeur D’Alene for a meeting of the Idaho Forest Group last month. 



That’s where they heard from Paul Hessburg. 



“I’ve been in the woods around where I live and I’m watching the fires chew up an awful lots of forests,” Hessburg said. “And it doesn’t look or work the same as it did 50 years ago.” 

 Hessburg has worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a research ecologist in Central Washington for more than 30 years. 



His research shows decades of fire suppression and misunderstandings about ecological function combined with a lack of land management funding means forests are overgrown and the landscape is ripe for large, hot and fast moving fires. 



When he was a kid, the agency Hessburg works for was relentless with one message: “Remember, only you can prevent forest fires.”



But Hessburg said Smokey Bear’s message “needs in a tune up.”

“And so Smokey can’t say it in one sentence anymore,” Hessburg said. “He’s got a longer message: prevent forest fires, but allow us to make the right kind of fires, so the wildfires are more benign.”

To make his point, he employed the help of documentary filmmaker and Wenatchee native Jeff Ostenson. 



“I grew up here,” Ostenson said. “I remember playing high school football and during a Friday night football game—Friday night lights—looking up on the hillside above town and it’s one fire.”

 Ostenson’s production company, North40 Productions, helped turn Hessburg’s research into a multimedia presentation known as “Era of Megafires.’

If you like the sea, you know probably know about Jacques Cousteau. If skiing is your thing, Warren Miller might be your guy. Do you bird watch? Then you might know about David Allen Sibley.

So, if you know about Paul Hessburg, it’s probably because you have questions and concerns about wildland fire in the American West.

“Oh yeah, I say that all the time,” Ostenson said. “Paul is definitely a fire ecology rock star and he’s on tour.”

There are side-by-side comparisons of past and current photos. And there are also infographics and animations. The team has delivered the presentation in 30 cities in the West. And there are at least as many more on this summer’s calendar. 



“We’re basically going to go out and do little vignettes—we’re going to meet some people, understand their perspective on this and then maybe we meet some scientists on the way and throughout, we have Paul as our guide,” Ostenson said.



According to Hessburg, megafires are completely preventable. That struck a nerve with Ostenson, who watched a wildland fire destroy 29 homes in Wenatchee in 2015. 



“I’ve seen how devastating it can be,” Ostenson said. “I think recently we’ve seen more devastation and I don’t want to see that again—just flat out no, that’s not part of the future that I want to be a part of. So if I can do something to make that happen, then yeah, it’s probably be the most significant thing I’ve done professionally or personally.”



With help from Ostenson’s team, Hessburg will deliver a condensed version of Era of Megafires as a Ted Talk in Bend on May 13.