'Megafires' documentary draws big crowd in Wash.

The presentation suggests that deforestation, city building responsible for growing wildfires


By Dee Riggs
The Wenatchee World

WENATCHEE, Wash. — The program message was alarming: humans have caused forests to become diseased, dense and ripe for high-intensity wildfires.

But moderator Paul Hessburg wanted the audience to remain calm, even optimistic.

“I want you to be powerful; we can change,” he told about 130 people who crowded into the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center Tuesday night. They were there to see the first showing of “Living in the Era of Megafires,” a video presentation by North 40 Productions that was interspersed with talks by Hessburg, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service who has studied historical and modern forests of the inland West.

The increase in number of mega wildfires, defined as those burning 100,000 acres of more, is “jaw-dropping,” Hessburg said. Those fires, along with smaller and medium-sized fires, have grown to the point where “nearly 60 percent of the Forest Service budget will go toward fighting wildfires this year.”

In the presentation, old photographs showed forests that were open and healthy in the 1800s, when Native Americans allowed fire to burn through the forests, and even started fires in the spring and fall to encourage better grazing and crop growth.

By the mid-1800s, however, Europeans had changed the way fire moved by grazing cattle and sheep, harvesting big trees and leaving smaller, thin-barked trees.

Trailer for Living in the Era of Megafires from North 40 Productions.

“As the big trees were cut, the forests grew denser and were replaced with smaller trees,” Hessburg said. “The forests became more susceptible to diseases and insects and they became sicker.”

Total fire suppression also became a policy as people continued to build homes and other structures in areas that had traditionally burned on a regular basis.

“And we continue to build, at an alarming rate,” Hessburg said. “It’s time to decide where to build, what to build with and to create defensive neighborhood planning. Once fires are roaring, it’s already too late.”

Hessburg said climate change is also “having a huge effect” on megafires. He noted that 1.5 million acres of forest burned in Alberta, Canada, in May of this year.

“What we need is a cultural shift from being reactive to being proactive,” he said. He encouraged people to talk to their elected representatives about the need for more prescribed burning.

“Firefighters use those burned areas as containers to steer fires into and they create barriers,” he said.

The public has objected to prescribed burns because they produce smoke and haze but, Hessburg said, smoke from prescribed burns is not nearly as thick as what comes from a wildfire.

Hessburg also said the availability of small mills, which can work with small trees, would help homeowners who want to thin their land.

“Now, it really is up to us, and there is a lot we can do and a lot needs to be done,” he said. “We can apply Firewise concepts, support local prescribed burn efforts and create fire adaptive communities.”

Copyright 2016 The Wenatchee World

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