Chance Meeting

It was September 2012, and I awoke to another Saturday of smoke. The valley was flooded with it, eliminating the possibility of outdoor recreation. Instead, I figured I’d get some work done at the office. I make films for a living, and there’s never a shortage of work.

Arriving at my office downtown, I bumped into John Marshall in the hallway. John is a fish biologist and a prolific wildland photographer. He seemed to be doing the same thing I was—avoiding the smoke. We chatted about the unbelievable amount of it coming from the Table Top Mountain Fire Complex near Mission Ridge, and the unprecedented three weeks of inversion that had caused it to settle into our valley like a thick fog.

As it turned out, he was nearly twenty years into a related photo point project. He had taken photos from the exact same spots - more than a hundred throughout the region - every other year since the 1994 Tyee fire near Leavenworth. His fascinating work revealed the amazing ability of our forests to recover from fire; it showed visually that fire, in and of itself, is not evil. Further, forest fires can be seen as a beginning, rather than an end.

He lamented the challenges of sharing the extraordinary information he’d learned about fire ecology, the important role fire plays on the landscape, and the reasons behind the increased frequency of larger, more destructive wildfires - or megafires. With hardly a thought, the words came tumbling out of my mouth: “We should make a documentary film.”

John introduced me to Paul Hessburg, PhD, a fire ecologist for the United States Forest Service. Paul has spent most of his nearly forty-year career studying our western landscapes and how fire behaves on them. After that, Paul and I met frequently, sometimes over a beer, as he patiently shared his vast knowledge on the subject. Documentary filmmaking is not an exact science, and though one might have a message to share, it’s not always straightforward as to how the information should be delivered. For two years, we searched for the best possible way to present the subject of wildfire and forest management, with no success.

 Photo Credit: John Marshall Photography

Photo Credit: John Marshall Photography

Then one day, Charles, a producer at North 40 spoke three simple words: “An Inconvenient Truth.” Finally, we had inspiration for our format. Immediately, we set about creating a live presentation to relay Paul’s knowledge in an easy-to-understand, engaging way.

Just as we began to develop the script and create media to help tell the story, tragedy hit our town of Wenatchee. On Sunday, June 28, 2015, we watched as over thirty homes and structures were incinerated by a wildfire fueled by triple-digit temperatures and forty-mile-per-hour winds.

With renewed urgency, the North 40 team assembled the presentation. With Paul as our host, we gathered and crafted short lectures, animated “explainers,” video vignettes conveying personal stories of loss and action, and John Marshall’s photography. These came together to tell the story of the historical forest and the important role wildfire played in shaping it, as well as how fire exclusion, suppression, and selective harvest over the last century has led our western forests to become an overgrown epidemic of trees—too many for the landscape to support. These factors, combined with a warming climate, have increased frequency of large, highly destructive fires. The presentation then describes the pathway to addressing the megafire issue: how we can reduce the risk of these high-severity fires and better live with wildfire. Once the presentation was nearly complete, we conducted focus group tests. We polished it, polished it again, and then it was time to launch.

In September 2016, Paul stepped out on the stage of the Snowy Owl Theater in Leavenworth, and debuted “The Era of Megafires,” our live, multimedia learning experience. With our first presentation in the bag, our project coordinator Sara contacted several land managing agencies in the Northwest to let them know what we had. We were off to the races.

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Now, two years later, The Era of Megafires has been presented more than 100 times to over 25,000 people in eight states and Canada, with new engagements being scheduled all the time. We’ve presented to lawmakers in Olympia and Washington, DC. We presented a TEDX version in Bend, which was so well received that it’s now available on TED.com, and has over 1 million views. In 2017, we created an all-digital version that is now distributed nationally through Tugg.com. And in February 2018, Paul received the U.S. Forest Service’s Distinguished Scientist Award for “his groundbreaking contributions to the science of landscape ecology, and for his exceptional leadership in providing scientific support to the field of natural resource management in the United States, with global applications.”

Looking back to that smoky Saturday, I don’t think we understood what we were doing, where we were going, or what the project could become. We just felt strongly enough to put our heads down and tell the story of wildfire, forest ecology, and how to fix the current problem. We were undaunted by the challenges the project presented, and we all continue to believe in the power of passionate people to create meaningful change.

Megafires are a problem we can fix. As it turns out, it’s not even that complicated. It takes a critical mass of people who want to see a different outcome, share the responsibility, and get to work.

To learn more about this project, visit: EraofMegafires.com.

-Jeff Ostenson