Dr. Paul Hessburg, ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, delivers his “Era of Megafires,” presentation in person Wednesday evening in Williams Lake. Monica Lamb-Yorski photo

U.S. ecologist’s megafires message timely for planning Cariboo Chilcotin’s future

Restoring our forests to be fire-resilient is key to moving forward, U.S. ecologist said

Smokey Bear is in need of an upgrade, said Dr. Paul Hessburg as a photograph of the famous fire-prevention icon came up on the screen during his “era of the megafires,” presentation in Williams Lake Wednesday.

He was referring to the fact that in his presentation Smokey was wielding a gas can and assisting with a prescribed burn, which the U.S. Forest Service ecologist said is one of the tools in the tool box that can help create fire-resilient landscapes.

“If we don’t change a handful of our fire management habits we are going to lose many more of these landscapes and some of them are not going to recover in our lifetime, our kids’ lifetime or my grandkids lifetime, ” Hessburg said, noting as a father and a scientist, he’s deeply concerned about what he’s leaving behind.

“It’s time we confront some tough truths about wildfire and learn to understand how we can live with them and change how many of them come before us, our homes and our cities.”

Interior western forests have changed tremendously, Hessburg said as he pointed to an historic and modern photograph depicting the same mountain range.

“Growing up we learned that our forests were the very picture of a healthy landscape, but in fact, many of these forests are a ticking time bomb ready to burn big and hot.”

Forests in the past were “patchy,” and the landscape was an “evolving patchwork” of open and closed canopy forests of all ages and sizes, he said, noting there was always evidence of fire, although they were small by today’s standards.

Here Dr. Hessburg discusses working with the mountain biking community in fire mitigation strategies and why the mountain pine beetle has thrived.

Historically First Nations and Native Americans burned the landscape to grow more food and improve grazing, lighting fires in the spring and fall to prevent larger summer fires, Hessburg said.

“In the 1850s, First Nations were marshalled to reservations and that cultural wisdom was lost.”

Coupled with the arrival of newcomers who grazed cattle and sheep, and the building of railroads and roads, there was an altering of the land that nobody knew would have such an impact.

Then in 1910, there was a huge wildfire in Eastern Washington that spread to Montana. It killed 87 people and from that point wildfires became “enemy number one,” Hessburg said.

In 2014 and 2015, which were record-setting fire years, the U.S. spent $2.1 billion on fire suppression, but said the true economic impact is about $50 billion when you factor in the cost of rebuilding damaged or destroyed structures, restoring vital infrastructure, the resulting loss of business revenue and lowered property values.

“That is on average 24 times the amount spent on fire suppression,” Hessburg said. “The price tag is enormous.”

Hessburg encourages communities to work together.

There needs to be more prescribed burning and thinning of forests, he said.

Property owners need to fireproof their homes and yards and communities need to become fire smart.

“We need to go from being citizens who are reactive to being proactive and understand that fire suppression alone is an incomplete solution.”

When asked by Soda Creek resident Diane Dunaway what kind of resources are available to make changes, Hessburg said the Williams Lake area is fortunate to have mill infrastructure still intact.

“We lost most all of our forestry jobs,” he said.

“We did it because as people we could not agree on a solution and just fought each other and stayed in gridlock.”

The reason he is doing his presentations, he said, is to encourage people to be more clever, and get together and plot a course for the future.

“You have so much work to do, that you are going to need the infrastructure to do it,” he said, noting a sustainable forest has to be less dense in order to maintain the highest level of productive forest capacity.

“Keeping fire out of the woods created this crazy recipe and we have to do something about it pretty quickly.”

In a 10 million-acre landscape, half of it will need to be changed, he said.

“It’s a big deal.”

Anyone intersted in bringing the Era of Megafires presentation to a community, is encouraged to visit www.eraofmegafires.com.

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