Agent of Change
Jessica Smith Halofsky ’00 distills climate change data into action plans
by Kristin Baird Rattini
When record-setting wildfires ravaged the West this fall, Jessica Smith Halofsky ’00 needed to point no further than the devastating images of ominous orange skies and hillsides ablaze to explain the urgency and focus of her new job. As the director of both the Western Wildland Environmental Threat Assessment Center (WWETAC) and the Northwest Climate Hub, Halofsky advises government agencies and the citizens they serve on how to prepare and adapt for environmental challenges compounded by climate change.

“We think of adaptation not just from an ecological perspective but from a public-safety perspective,” she says. “It’s not just about managing the forests and reducing fuel for fires but educating communities and homeowners on how to prepare for this type of event.”

Jessica Smith Halofsky portrait by Josh Halofsky
Photo: Josh Halofsky
Research ecologist Jessica Smith Halofsky ’00 advises government agencies on the challenges of climate change.
Environmental threats don’t exist in a vacuum. At WWETAC, Halofsky and her team analyze the interplay of not only climate change and fire but drought, insect infestations and invasive species in causing long-lasting declines in the health and function of wildland ecosystems. They’re employing everything from cutting-edge computer models to the historical fire record trapped in tree rings to project where, how and on what scale the next incidents could occur.

Halofsky, who majored in environmental studies, honed this big-climate-picture perspective over 12 years as a research ecologist at the Pacific Wildland Fire Science Lab. In that role, she distilled what could seem like overwhelming amounts of data on climate change into concrete action plans for more than 50 national forests and 30 western national parks, including Yellowstone and Yosemite.

“I see a lot of reasons for hope,” she says. “People are starting to think more about climate change and what they can do about it. It’s heartening to see things happening on the ground after all the work we have done in this area.”