Forest Service ecologist proposes ways to help curb rising ‘Era of Megafires’

The Brian Head fire grew more than 10,000 acres overnight as the winds picked up and spread the fire to Mammoth Creek, June 23, 2017 | Photo courtesy of Color Country Fire Interagency, St. George News / Cedar City News

ST. GEORGE – Offering possible solutions instead of assigning blame, Dr. Paul Hessburg, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, has traveled across the West to share the result of 30 years of research into wildfires and what might be done to prevent them.

In this July 2017 file photo, firefighters head to the fire line to fight the Brian Head Fire, Utah, July 4, 2017 | Photo courtesy InciWeb, Cedar City News / St. George News

Hessburg, who lived through wildfires in his home of Wanatchee, Washington, in 2015, stopped at Southern Utah University Oct. 18 during a run through Utah with his “Era of Megafires” presentation.

A megafire is a wildfire that reaches 100,000 acres, Hessburd said, and they have become more common in recent years.

The mixed-media presentation, done in collaboration with North40 Productions, offered animations and videos featuring interviews with experts and others impacted by wildfires. The video segments ran between Hessburg’s speaking to event attendees.

“We’re trying to take all the research we’ve published in journals and written in books and get it to the people in the community so they can understand why we’re having these big fires,” Hessburg said.

Hessburg, who is a part of the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station, said the way the Forest Service has treated fire suppression, among other factors, has unwittingly helped turn western forests into timber boxes.

Another part of the problem is that climate change is creating drier, hotter summers, he said, which has added an extra 40-80 days to the fire season.

Unless changes are made in how national forests are managed and the how the public views certain preventative measures, massive wildfires like the Brian Head Fire and the more recent fires in California will continue to plague the country year after year, Hessburg said.

Read more: Brian Head Fire crests 70,000 acres as crews begin rehabilitation efforts

How it used to be

Up until the early 20th century, western forests used to be patchy. There were clusters of trees separated by open fields of grass and shrubs. The separation, among other factors like typography, helped to keep forest fires much smaller than they are today, Hessburg said.

This June 2017 file photo shows destroyed homes and wreckage left behind from the Brian Head fire near Panguitch Lake, Garfield County, Utah, June 27, 2017 | Photo by Tracie Sullivan, St. George News / Cedar City News

The fires that occurred naturally – and there were many – also helped keep the forest and the supporting ecosystem alive and healthy, he said.

However, as settlers spread westward, practices of grazing would take away the grass lands that helped spread the smaller fires while railroads became unintentional firebreaks.

While stopping the spread of fires would seem like a good idea, it wasn’t in this case, Hessburg said. It allowed potential fire fuels to build up while also disrupting the way fire had worked on the landscape for millennia.

The U.S. Forest Service turned its attention to fire suppression after a massive fire known as the “Big Burn” that torched 3 million acres in 1910.

For several decades after the Big Burn, the Forest Service was very good at putting out fires, but that started to change after 1985, Hessburg said, and it confused the Forest Service.

“What we were seeing is that fire is a pretty important part of the of the landscape and putting it out wasn’t our best idea,” he said.

Today those patchy forests of over a century ago are along gone, replaced with forests that are thick and dense. Hessburg refers to it as an “epidemic of trees.”

“It was that patchiness of grassland and shrubland and woodland that was actually helping the forest be forest,” he said. “And that’s one of the main ingredients we took out of the landscape.”

The patchiness needs to be restored, Hessburg said, but in order for that to happen, elements of forest management practice, timber regulations and public opinion need to changed.

Story continues below video

A summary of Hessburg’s “Era of Megafires” presentation given as a part of a TEDx event in Bend, Oregon, earlier this year.

Proposed solutions

Timber harvesting

Hessburg recommends that a measure of timber harvesting be allowed in areas at risk for future fires, as well as in areas around communities that exist in the middle of the forest.

“Are there ways to profitably harvest the forest to be while also helping the forest? We think so,” Hessburg said.

However, he noted that much of the logging infrastructure the nation once had isn’t as extensive as it used to be and will need to be rebuilt.

A file photo from the Brian Head Fire, Brian Head, Utah, June 17, 2017 | Photo courtesy of Mike Berg, Parowan Police Department, St. George News

There has been legislation introduced in the Senate recently that would allow for timber harvesting.

One bill seeks to ease environmental rules for forest thinning on federal lands while another would authorize funding to help at-risk communities prevent wildfires and create a pilot program to cut down trees in the most fire-prone areas.

Under a streamlined approval process proposed in the latter bill, forest managers would thin pine forests near populated areas and do controlled burns in remote regions. The bill also calls for detailed reviews of any wildfire that burns over 100,000 acres.

Thinning the forest would also help in slowing the spread of pathogens and infestations among trees, like the bark beetles that’s killed trees in the Dixie National Forest, Hessburg said.

Read more: How firefighters make wildfires work in our favor

More prescribed burns

Sometimes call “Rx burns,” prescribed burns help clear the forest floor of potential fire fuels. This can help limit a fire’s path and size. While a valuable practice, it isn’t done near as often as it should, Hessburg said.

The smoke from a prescribed burns is the barrier to this practice being used more. Because of concerns from the public over the smoke that may last a day or two, these burns are regulated.

In this file photo, a prescribed fire burns near Mount Dellenbaugh, an extremely remote mountain located in northwest Arizona on the Arizona Strip, date unspecified | File photo, St. George News

“Wildfire smoke gets a pass. It’s not regulated,” Hessburg said. “And it’s much worse.”

This is an area where the public can turn the practice around and promote more prescribed burning than less, he said, encouraging those attending to contact lawmakers and speak in favor of the practice.

“We need to do it more and garner public support,” Hessburg said.

Read more: Commission puts hold on prescribed burns; US Forest Service cooperates

Fire-adapted communities

Over 50 percent of the Forest Service’s budget goes to fire suppression, and a good chunk of that goes to protecting homes built within what is known as the wildland-urban interfaces. As well, 60 percent of new housing is being built in that interface.

“It’s a homeowner’s responsibility to help firefighters save their homes,” Hessburg said.

An aerial photo taken on June 29, 2012, by Nick Howell illustrating the importance of “defensible space” when living in what is called the Wildland Urban Interface. Howell said vegetation treatments conducted by BLM and Forestry, Fire and State Lands made a big difference in the overall outcome of limiting this fire’s path of travel. Defensible space on private property and vegetation treatments on State and BLM land were a great combination here, June 29, 2012 , location not specified| Photo by Nick Howell, Utah Bureau of Land Management.

This includes creating a “defensible space” around a home – up to 35 feet or more – that is devoid of fire fuels.

Care can also be taken to construct homes and related structures out of fire-resistant materials.

Private property owners can also see to thinning the woods on their property and clearing out debris.

“It’s not just a public lands issue, it’s a private lands issue too,” said Mike Melton, fire management office with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and Public Lands.

For individuals who want to learn more about creating a fire-adapted community, Hessburg recommends they visit

Megafires will continue to sprout up across the West if changes aren’t made to forest management practices and public opinion, Hessburg said, and it’s only going to get worse if as time passes.

Public involvement

“One of the most important things is for citizens to become involved more in public lands management,” Hessburg said. “I think the public has forgotten that the public lands are ‘ours’ as co-owners. We need more public participation in how they area managed.”

Hessburg’s stop in Cedar City was a part of three-stop tour through Utah that included stops in Logan and Park City.

The “Era of Megafires” presentation has taken Hessburg across seven Western states where he has shared the program with nearly 100 communities.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.


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  • DRT October 31, 2017 at 11:28 am

    “One of the most important things is for citizens to become involved more in public lands management,” Hessburg said. “I think the public has forgotten that the public lands are ‘ours’ as co-owners. We need more public participation in how they area managed.”

    Who do you think you are kidding? The feds are doing everything they can, (along with the tree huggers,) to keep the general public off of public lands, let alone having the public involved with land management.

    And I’m sure I’ll be long dead before we ever see the tree hugger controlled government allow logging to begin again.

  • delong October 31, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    DRT wins the most ignorant comment award. Logging in Utah is long gone buddy. If you want to see where and how a logging market can exists, go to Oregon where the real trees are. Also, maybe you should go look at all of the lawsuits currently filed against federal agencies by the “tree huggers” you speak of. You think the agencies love these groups? Ignorant!

    • bikeandfish October 31, 2017 at 10:05 pm

      Yeah, professionals who spend years of their lives designing management plans, which include timber harvest, have no reason to love groups that constantly sue the USFS. Most of the agency employees value healthy forests and know that it takes alot of different tools to do that.

  • bikeandfish October 31, 2017 at 9:34 pm

    Seems like a thoughtful, science-based approach. I know logging continues on the Dixie and the fuels projects worked at creating barriers against spread where they were used. I just hunted through a timber harvest from the mid-2000s and you can see how it helped forest health and therefore acted as a natural firebreak.

    Its a shame the 2.0 framework was abandoned by the current administration as that was a more efficient way to get local input.

    We have long known timber harvest is an effective form of active land management. Sadly extremist on both sides make it hard to negotiate effective plans.

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