Megafire expert Paul F. Hessburg advocated for more public conversation about the destruction that such conflagrations cause when hosting a multimedia presentation at Whitman College in March. Megafires—wildfires spanning more than 100,000 acres—plague the Pacific Northwest, among other places.
Hessburg, who works with the University of Washington's Forestry Sciences Laboratory and is a research landscape ecologist with the USDA Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station, incorporated video vignettes from wildfire photographer John Marshall into the hour-long traveling show, called "The Wildfire Project."
Whitman's Environmental Studies Program and Department of Sociology sponsored the event along with the U.S. Forest Service, Walla Walla County Emergency Management and Blue Mountain Land Trust.
Megafires are becoming more frequent and more severe. What are three things that Whitman students should consider when thinking about wildfires in the Pacific Northwest?
1) How did we get here? As we currently understand it, increasing wildfire size and severity are driven by two major factors—high connectivity of forest fuels and an increasingly hotter and drier climate. Increased fuel connectivity is a consequence of fire suppression, timber management, and other factors—like livestock grazing and road network development—that favored fire exclusion over large areas. Important factors associated with a warming climate include reduced winter snowpacks, warmer winter and summer temperatures, earlier springs and longer fire seasons, and an increased frequency of hot, dry and windy days.
2) Learning and working to live better with wildfire. It is clear now that a future without wildfires is not an option. However, we can improve the fire and climate resiliency of Inland Northwest forests by doing two things: reducing our personal carbon footprint and working at a sufficiently large scale to get the right kinds of fire back into the system.
3) However, social license is lacking to do the work at sufficiently large scales to have an impact. That is where citizens come in. We can all choose to live better with wildfire by fire-adapting our homes, neighborhoods and communities. It is also important that we change the resilience of forests and rangelands that surround our communities
Whitman College hosts an array of guest speakers and educators. Many also offer on-campus workshops or engage with students in the classroom. We ask them to give us a brief insight into their area of expertise. For more information on upcoming events at Whitman, visit the campus calendar.