Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

Era of Megafires – Join the Conversation


SEELEY LAKE - In Montana, the month of May has been designated as “Wildfire Awareness Month.” Residents of area communities are no strangers to wildfire. To help kick off Wildfire Awareness Month, several local organizations are excited to bring a traveling presentation from the Wildfire Project, titled “The Era of Megafires,” to the Seeley Lake Community Hall Thursday, April 27 at 6 p.m. Residents are invited to join local Fire & EMS organizations for a free barbecue dinner followed by a presentation featuring Dr. Paul Hessburg.

Dr. Hessburg, a research landscape ecologist with the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station and a member of the University of Washington’s Affiliate Faculty, will discuss the current era of large wildfires—megafires as he calls them. His work has been published in leading scientific journals for 30 years. Recently, however, he’s felt a need to take his findings public as large, atypical fires ravaged some of his favorite forests near his home in Central Washington.

One of those fires, The Carlton Complex Fire, became the biggest megafire (one larger than 100,000 acres) in state history, burning 256,000 acres and destroying 322 homes. A year later in 2015, his hometown of Wenatchee lost 30 homes in the Sleepy Hollow Fire.

“It is heart wrenching when you know people who lost their homes in these fires,” Hessburg says. “Especially when you know the loss is avoidable.” This personal connection motivated Hessburg to team up with North 40 Productions, a documentary film production company, and produce a multi-media presentation called “Era of Megafires.” Hessburg has been traveling with the presentation to spread awareness. “The current megafire issue is a social problem with an ecological explanation. To tackle it, people must understand how we got here, what’s at stake, and what each of us can do.”

While the narrative of his presentation draws from Hessburg’s research, “Era of Megafires” also draws from personal stories to create an emotional gravity connecting viewers to the stakes involved. Some of the ideas presented challenge popular beliefs. For example, a common notion holds that healthy forests support a lush carpet of trees, but Dr. Hessburg says about 11 to 12 million acres in Washington and Oregon alone suffer from an epidemic of too many trees.

Several factors have caused this epidemic. First, the century-long policy of fire suppression, coupled with livestock grazing and a handful of other factors, has created forests overloaded with brush and small trees. Next, forests were formerly patchy as many small and medium-sized fires created open, burned spaces that retarded the progress of future fires. Forests are no longer patchy. Finally, logging has removed most of the medium and large-sized, widely-spaced and fire-resistant trees from many forests and replaced these with dense stands of smaller, young, fire-intolerant trees.

Climate change has added immensely to the problem. Hot, dry, and windy summers and a thinner winter snowpack mean that, in the worst years, fire seasons last 4 to 8 weeks longer than just 50 years ago.

This confluence of factors has created forest conditions conducive to large fires and, since 1985, the American West has seen a sharp rise in area burned. Since 2000, megafires have torched most of the 100 million acres of forest and rangeland burned. Hessburg says, “Modeling indicates we can expect a doubling or tripling of annual area burned by mid-century. Many of our magical places are primed and ready to go.”

“We have tools that can reverse the trend,” says Hessburg. When applied in the right places, managed wildfire (“herding” natural wildfire ignitions when weather and fuel conditions allow), prescribed burning (using controlled burns on the shoulders of the fire season), and mechanical thinning (logging small-diameter logs to create needed spacing between larger trees) can all be used in combination to effectively thin the forest and reduce fuels,

Unfortunately social and political pressures curtail how successfully Western communities defuse their wildfire threat. For example, many communities are aggressively developing the wildland-urban interface (WUI), at a time when these lands have never been more dangerous. “Municipalities are in denial that homes and neighborhoods are going to burn, but growth in the WUI that does not adopt the strictest codes will see much more loss and suffering,” Hessburg says.

Smoke, meanwhile, is the major and most misunderstood deterrent impairing the reduction of forest fuels. In many states, air-quality regulations employ a skewed system of smoke accounting. Wildfire smoke gets a pass, but prescribed burning is greatly curtailed because the resulting smoke is regulated as nuisance smoke. Hessburg says the trade-off between wildfire and prescribed fire smoke is enormous but the benefits to human health and to fuel-reduction will be largely untapped until smoke-management and air-quality regulations put wild and prescribed fires on the same balance sheet.

Ultimately Hessburg’s message and the bottom line of “Era of Megafires” is that fire and smoke are inevitable on the Western landscape, so we need better ways to live with fire. “The good news,” says Hessburg, “is that we have tools that give us choices about how we co-exist better with fire and smoke. Do we want fire in frequent, small doses that benefit the forest and reduce risks to communities; or in large, indiscriminate doses?”

This presentation is sponsored by numerous organizations who want to ensure local communities are well-informed on how to minimize wildfire risk, engage in fuel mitigation and participate in community readiness discussions.

“Extreme wildland fires are becoming the new normal in our ecosystems. We hope to start the conversation on local solutions about how we can learn to live with fire on the landscape. Fire is here to stay,” said Cory Calnan, local Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Fire Management Officer.

During the event, participants can browse informational booths on fire suppression, forest health, fuel mitigation opportunities and what to expect from our community emergency services. Local agency and fire officials will be present to answer questions.

For more information on the “Era of Megafires” event, contact Cory at 244-4395 (DNRC) or Jenny at 754-0034 (CRC). Or visit the Megafires website:


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