Close your eyes. Picture your ideal forest. Maybe you’re strolling noiselessly on a soft leaf-littered path in dark peaceful woods scented by plentiful evergreens – trees that stretch as far as the eye can see. Shrubs carpet the floor. Young spindly trees, dwarfed by older evergreens, reach skyward in search of sun rays.
Sound great? Such a scene gives scientist Paul Hessburg the willies.
Clad in black jeans and sporting a drooping, greying mustache, the veteran forest scientist crisscrosses the Northwest to warn his audiences of impending disaster. On this Thursday night he tells about 100 rapt audience members from the population 1,674 town of John Day, Oregon, that they and everyone in the countryside need to start thinking differently about wildfires. Because of climate change.
He comes across as a trusty neighbor from down the street, his even-handed, calm tone belying an urgent message as he flashes charts, photos and video clips onto a conference room screen at the hilltop Grant County Regional Airport. He shows that the supposedly idyllic woods across the Pacific Northwest are capable of unleashing “megafires”: walls of fire that can create their own weather, take some people’s lives and disrupt many others’ as they consume 100,000 acres or more.
As climate change intensifies, these megafires are occurring in the U.S. at far higher rates over the last two decades, Hessburg reports. The catastrophic flames that ripped through Napa and Sonoma valleys of Northern California provide the latest high-profile example: 42 dead. More than 8,900 properties destroyed. Damages pegged at upwards of $8 billion.
This year marked the nation’s costliest wildfire-fighting season — a record $2.4 billion for the U.S. Forest Service to battle flames in an area the size of New Jersey and Delaware combined.
In some ways that’s all a replay for Hessburg. As an area the size of Oregon itself has burned nationally over the last decade, he’s seen the effects up close and personal in his hometown of Wenatchee, Washington.
“I have had friends lose everything,” the scientist told weather.com/InvestigateWest. “I have lived and worked here for 40 years and have fallen in love with this land, and these forests.”
His bottom line: “It doesn’t have to be this way. People have options, and they should know what they are. Furthermore, we live in a democracy where government is participatory. Folks need to roll up their sleeves and work to change the way things are.”
Megafires, in other words, are preventable. He ends his talks with a prescription (we’ll get to it below). Could it work?
Can a scientist make a difference?
Hessburg, 63, spent much of his scientific career writing studies, but decided it wasn’t making enough of a difference. So he is hitting the road to take his work directly to the public, getting outside the insular world of research scientists who often talk mostly with other scientists.
“I am taking the science and the knowhow to the people, where it might do more good than simply staying parked in journals and in discussions among public land managers,” Hessburg told weather.com/InvestigateWest. “They need our support and encouragement.”
He is somewhat old school. In the high-tech Pacific Northwest, he often takes the analog approach with this hobby. He has traveled thousands of miles on highways and two-lane country roads to reach far-flung community halls, museums, auditoriums, granges, churches and other gathering places to make his hour-long Era of Megafires multimedia presentation, so far delivered in at least 77 communities.
“Top notch,” Jeff Blackwood, a retired forest supervisor of Umatilla National Forest, calls Hessburg’s work. Blackwood remains concerned about conditions in the Blue Mountains so he helped arrange for Hessburg to speak the night before in his community of Pendleton, about 2 1/2 hours north of John Day, because “we’re just having larger, more damaging fires than we used to have.”
What propels Hessburg is the race against time to deal with what has been called an epidemic of wildfires. Just as climate change seems to be kicking in strong — Oregon’s average temperature has risen by more than 2 degrees in a century, with more warming of 2.1 degrees to an eye-popping 10.7 degrees expected by the 2080s —trouble brews. Hessburg’s message: A misguided century-long policy of suppressing forest fires has left the woods crowded with overgrowth, making them vulnerable to runaway fires. Even as more people than ever build homes amid the trees. But that is only part of the story.
At a TEDx talk in Bend, Oregon, in May 2017, Hessburg, a 30-year veteran research scientist at the U.S. Forest Service, summed it up this way:
“Our summers are getting hotter and they’re getting drier and they’re getting windier. And the fire season is now 40 to 80 days longer each year. Because of this, climatologists are predicting that the area burned since 2000 will double or triple in the next three decades.
“And we’re building houses in the middle of this. Two recently published studies tell us that more than 60 percent of all new housing starts are being built in this flammable and dangerous mess.”
“If you’re like me, this western landscape is actually why my family and I live here. As a scientist and a father, I’ve become deeply concerned about what we’re leaving behind for our kids and now my five grandkids.”
Increasingly, Oregonians are up close and personal with the problem, if for no other reason than breathing September 2017’s shocking pall of wildfire smoke that covered the state. From space, smoke could be seen shrouding Oregon in “Smoketember.”
Wildfires in the state burned an area the size of Rhode Island – more than 640,000 acres by early September. Ash fell like snowflakes in Ecotopian Portland, an extraordinary event that prompted advice about how to safely clean ash from cars without scratching auto paint (answer: wash, don’t wipe). Wind-driven flames closed beloved hiking trails in this outdoors-crazed region including Multnomah Falls, a sort of secular cathedral that draws 2 million visitors a year (it may reopen in spring 2018).
Firefighters battled all night to save Multnomah Falls Lodge, which the Eugene Springfield Fire battalion chief called “the icon of Oregon. We didn’t want Oregon to lose that. And we weren’t going to let the fire win on this one.”
“Oregon is in crisis,” began the announcement by Cycle Oregon canceling its 400-mile-plus annual “classic” bike trek. Unhealthy smoke levels were to blame there and for cancellation of the annual three-day Sisters Folk Festival in Sisters, Oregon. “We’re heartbroken,” stated its cancellation announcement adding regrets for “economic loss to the community of Sisters that has already endured a harsh winter and a devastating fire season.”
Can Portland expect more smoky summers? Absolutely; it just depends how the winds blow, says Philip Mote, director for the Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University.
His research predicts hotter, drier summers — indeed, by the 2090s, the state basically could be snowless by April Fool’s Day instead of in summer, making for fire-friendlier conditions.
Human-caused climate change is blamed for nearly doubling the forest-fire area in the West in the past three decades, burning an additional area the size of 119 Portlands.
Wildfires are projected to quadruple the median burn area in coming decades in the Pacific Northwest. The length of the region’s fire season has quintupled since the 1970s – from 23 days to 116 days, says Mote’s latest co-written climate assessment report, which flatly states: “Climate change is happening here, now. The climate in our dear state is already changing and will continue to change.”
If current greenhouse-gas emissions trends continue, Portland by 2100 can expect more scorching summers — an extra 34 days above 95 degrees, compared to the preceding 20-year average — according to Climate Central’s interactive tool. Elsewhere, Eugene can expect an extra 39 days; Pendleton, 55; John Day, 56.
It gets worse.
Hessburg notes that megafires have increasingly plagued the arid side of the Cascade Mountains in eastern Oregon, where relatively few people live. But soon, “it’s not going to be an Eastside thing anymore.” 2017’s Eagle Creek fire in the lush and green Columbia River Gorge serves as a disturbing early example — it burned 76 square miles, forcing thousands to evacuate their homes after authorities say the fire was started by a teen dropping a firework into a canyon. Flames threatened the Bull Run watershed, the source of Portland’s drinking water.
Hessburg says he wasn’t surprised. Computer models of all 5,600 or so watersheds in Oregon and Washington show that in extremely dry years the Coast Range and the west coast slopes of the Cascades burns more intensely than eastern Oregon. “It doesn’t happen that often. But when it happens, it’s spectacular.”
As bad as the 2017 fire season was, it could’ve been worse. In what may be a shocker, he says: “This year, you probably had 30 or 40 days when you could’ve had huge wildfires that would’ve been worse than those on the Eastside.”
He wants to get the message out.
Fire is not what it used to be
Back at the Grant County airport, Hessburg takes the floor and begins to lay out how exactly we got into this mess.
Hessburg reveals a series of surprises:
Aerial photos of old western landscapes show “jaw-dropping” changes. Now-versus-then photos comparing about 400 western landscapes from the early 20th century to the late 20th century reveal two key surprises: Forests have spread dramatically. And they’re much denser. Hessburg shows a historical picture of open grassy meadows. “Meadows and sparsely treed woodlands were widespread,” Hessburg says, adding that the plentiful grasses served a purpose — they easily carried fire across the landscape, consuming grasses while leaving big trees like Ponderosa pines standing.
Further back in time, nomadic Native Americans for thousands of years used fire to their advantage by intentionally setting or corralling wildfires, Hessburg says, to create forage areas for the big game they hunted. But key among their 70 or so other reasons is this: They knew summer brought lightning-sparked wildfires, so they intentionally set fires in spring and fall. That avoided a buildup of dry grasses and brush, which in turn helped avoid out-of-control summer blazes. Since early last century, we have done essentially the opposite, putting out virtually every fire we can.
Fire makes the natural West what it was — even native fish are adapted to fire. Did you know wildfire is the most essential process of western forests and rangelands? “Over thousands of years, native plants and animals have adapted to — some even need — fire to survive,” Hessburg tells his audiences. Examples: Ponderosa pines’ thick bark protects them from the heat of frequent fires, and the trees rely on fire to expose mineral soils so their seeds can germinate. Landslides after fires send rocks, trees and soil careening down hills, eventually reaching rivers, which sort those materials to build deep pools and spawning gravels for fish.
European settlers unintentionally upset the established balance with the land. Giant herds of cattle ate the grasses, leaving little fuel for fires to burn out the underbrush that becomes “ladder fuel” when a megafire hits, carrying flames to the treetops. Logging felled huge trees, leaving behind thin trees susceptible to fire, insects and disease. Roads, farms and cities sprouted up — all in lands prone to wildfire. As firefighter-turned-fire historian Steve Pyne views it, Native Americans effectively replaced forested lands with grassland or savannah, and what forest remained was opened up and freed from underbrush. “Conversely, almost wherever the European went, forests followed,” Pyne writes. “The Great American Forest may be more a product of settlement than victim of it.”
Smokey Bear maybe should carry a fire-starting drip torch. A mock-up image of a fire-setting cartoon bear flashes on the screen, eliciting some chuckles from the audience. Smokey Bear has long popularized the Forest Service’s fire-prevention message, which Hessburg perhaps half-jokes could be lengthened to: “Remember, only you can prevent forest fires…but also allow us to make the right kind of fires, so the wildfires are more benign.” The agency’s zeal to put out fires all began with one event — the Great Fire of 1910, which in two days killed 86 people and burned an area the size of Connecticut as it swept through the forests of northern Idaho and western Montana. One of the nation’s largest fires ever, it sucked millions of trees from the ground and turned them into flying blowtorches, by one account. The Forest Service threw itself into a new mission to extinguish all fires.
In the years that followed, firefighters became incredibly successful and today still put out about 98 percent of wildfires. It’s a policy that has failed, however, because it misses the crucial role fire plays in the natural forest — and its misguided effects are being felt increasingly in the face of climate change. Since the mid-1980s fires have become bigger and harder to fight. We’re having more destructive fires even though firefighters are doing everything in their power to put them out. And more people are moving into exurbia and the woods. The cost of fighting a fire can easily cost more than some homes are worth, Hessburg says.
Hessburg laments the current “epidemic of trees.” Spindly young trees crowd together in highly layered forests — the perfect condition for fires to jump from tree to tree and patch to patch. Embers carry on winds and spark fires on distant grasses, shrubs, and worse, rooftops of unsuspecting residents who thought they still had time to evacuate. “The fireball came roaring over the top of us, just out of nowhere,” Scott Marboe, who lost his home in the 2015 Sleepy Hollow fire in Wenatchee, Washington, says in a video that Hessburg plays for the audience. Returning the next morning, “It was just the weirdest, most shocking feeling I think I’ve ever had. Just to look at just the true devastation that fire had done in such a short amount of time. It was horrible. Just horrible.”
The $2 billion-plus annual firefighting tab is just part of the story. True cost of wildfires? More like $50 billion. It’s the societal cost — due to lost business revenue, rebuilding burned structures, rebuilding infrastructure and other factors like lowered property values, as judged by the 2015 fire season. (It’s equal to spending $1 million a day for nearly 137 years.) “You may say you’re not affected by this issue. But as taxpayers,” Hessburg says, “this should concern all of us.” Battling blazes increasingly taxes the already-stretched U.S. Forest Service, taking at least 55 percent of its entire budget this year, up from 16 percent in 1995. To pay to put out fires, forest roads are going unrepaired or have been closed, a Forest Service report says, while “critical maintenance and repairs of dams” have taken a hit due to dramatic slashing of the deferred maintenance budget. At the rate things are going, the situation will get worse — an anticipated 67 percent of the budget will go to fire suppression eight years from now. “The agency is at a tipping point,” says the 2015 report.
Extinguishing the threat
So what’s the solution?
Hessburg’s call to action: We need to shift our attitude — from trying to avoid fire to living with fire. Fire is a reality.
He says the crisis is at its heart a social problem, and we have the tools to solve it.
For starters, people living in and around forests can take steps to keep their homes safe by, for example, clearing out brush and dry grasses near the house and pruning trees up six to 10 feet from the ground. Once you do it, an admiring neighbor copies you and the concept catches on in a now-safer neighborhood. That’s the theory, anyway.
“This was a real eye-opener,” Liz Cahill said upon leaving one of Hessburg’s presentations. When an aerial photo of seemingly endless trees appeared on the screen, she leaned over to Diane Groff, her spouse, and said: “Isn’t that beautiful?” “Too many trees,” Groff replied. “I thought, that can’t be,” Cahill said. The recently retired Pendleton-area couple resolved to better safeguard their property now that the dangers seemed vivid.
“I’m on the bandwagon trying to get the rest of the people in the community to do the same,” a fellow in the John Day audience told Hessburg during the question-and-answer period. But he says he finds it difficult to persuade some neighbors to change their ways, despite fire officials telling him that he’s living proof — his property improvements saved his place from fire.
Hessburg encourages everyone to enter into local conversations about how we can collectively figure out how we want to change each community’s way of living with fire. No magic bullet nor one-size-fits-all answer exists — every community needs to tailor to its needs. “The reason why we are taking time to go to community after community in rooms like this is because we believe that generating local solutions is the only way,” Hessburg says. “We build it from the bottom up at the community level.”
He says he hears of concrete actions taken by some attendees of his talks: They work to help local forests become better prepared. They work with local authorities to better understand and apply codes meant to safeguard lives and property from wildfires. They apply for and obtain cost-share funds to thin out the trees and brush around their homes and in their private patches of forest. “It’s pretty cool stuff,” Hessburg says. “My reaction is, ‘Hey, good for you! Good work.”
“It’s not just on public land managers and firefighters. It’s on us, too. If we do not get involved, we are seeing our future unfold right before our eyes.”
Thinning of forests and prescribed burns are among key tools for forest managers. Both are controversial.
Thinning forests to clear out smaller trees that crowd in among larger ones has drawn the ire of some environmental groups, who see it as a smokescreen to allow logging where it otherwise would not be. But listening quietly in the audience at John Day is Mark Webb of Blue Mountain Forest Partners, a federal forest collaborative that includes representatives from the timber industry, environmentalists, local residents and public agencies, which came up with a novel project.
Thinning small-diameter trees at nearby Malheur National Forest saved the local mill from going out of business before it would otherwise shut down; in turn, the Forest Service uses its proceeds to pay for prescribed burning and other forest restoration.
“I care about this community,” Webb, a former county judge who taught at Eastern Oregon University, said in an interview after Hessburg’s John Day appearance.
With only 7,500 residents in a county that has more cattle than people, he says residents feel like they don’t have much of a voice, even though the national forest wants community input. He finds that collaboration — environmentalists, the timber industry, local residents coming together — is “a pretty powerful way to move forward.”
The public generally considers prescribed burns a smoky nuisance and they are heavily regulated under air-quality rules — even though megafires release far more smoke, the kind that kept even urban areas far from the forests, like Portland, smoky for weeks last summer. At the opposite end, some landowners in the John Day audience bristled at fire prohibitions.
“All of a sudden, you’re saying, burn. Twenty years ago, it was no, no, no,” a guy in the John Day audience complained. “I remember in the ‘50s as a young man I was working for a logger. I was up in the forest like the Indians. As the snow went back, we burned the brush. Guess who showed up? The nice Forest Service person. He says: ‘You can’t do that anymore. You’re destroying the forest.’ Well, I’d like to find that son of a bitch now.”
Hessburg urged him to talk to the local districts and forests to have his comments addressed. “I’m about your age, and I remember us managing the land that way and us going through some changes and us learning we were doing some things wrong through the school of hard knocks. Let’s try to move on. It turns out there’s no percentage in looking back. Let’s learn from what we got wrong and do it right.”
Hessburg wants us all to drop preconceived notions. Start from scratch. Hear out each other’s views. Work together. Come up with a plan and follow it.
The problem is too big. Scientists are racing against time to deal with what has been called an epidemic of wildfire. By one estimate from Gary Ferguson, author of Land On Fire, 500,000 acres in Oregon need prescribed burns — but “we’re managing to do about 5,000 a year so far,” and it’s tough to get on top of it. People don’t like smoke.
One thing is certain. Forest fires will continue to burn here one way or another — whether through intentionally set controlled burns or through unpredictably destructive wildfires.
Hessburg tells his audiences: It’s up to you to decide: How do you like your smoke?