Last week, as wildfires sparked to the south and east of Humboldt County that would soon come to devastate large parts of the state and capture national attention, organizers around the small Klamath River town of Orleans had just finished their fifth annual training to advance prescribed burning — both the skills and the public acceptance — when they got the chance to show off their work to the highest regional and national policy practitioners on the topic.
The history of prescribed fire, that is burning off hazardous forest and grassland at a safe time and not waiting for a wildfire, is long and not always pretty. Intentional ignition was outlawed by the feds a little more than a century ago — a ban that was especially enforced against Native Americans who, for millennia, had successfully burned around their villages to protect from wildfire and to promote collection of acorns and plants for baskets and other cultural uses.
The results of the suppress-all-fires approach has led to a dangerous build-up of hazardous fuels that, compounded by climate change, has led to catastrophic fires in several California cities in a little over a year — Santa Rosa, Montecito, Redding and now Paradise and Malibu.
For decades, land managers have discussed using intentional prescribed fires but real progress was hamstrung by a lack of funding and also a lack of public acceptance, what practitioners call "social license."
About 10 years ago, tribal groups and nonprofit watershed stewards around Orleans began prescribed burning around homesteads just before the onset of the rainy season. Five years ago, two area nonprofits, the forest service, Cal Fire and the Karuk Tribe allied with the Nature Conservancy to conduct larger-scale burning just as a larger workforce was being trained in the high-stakes tools of the trade.
The Nature Conservancy has conducted nearly 100 of these training exchanges, abbreviated as TREX, around the country over the last decade, treating more than 100,000 acres of land with the help of 2,700 participants.
Jeremy Bailey, fire training coordinator for the conservancy, said the goals have varied for different locales, but in Orleans TREX organizers were training to form what firemen call a “Type 3” team. In the hierarchy of fire teams Types 4 and 5 handle relatively simple events — a single tree burning from lightning or a fire handled in a single day. Types 1 and 2 handle very large fires with increasing complexity. Battling wildfires, these teams can cost $1 million a day and more.
Type 3 teams can simultaneously prep, ignite and mop up for multiple burns. Bailey said it took the mid-Klamath TREX five years of careful work to get to this stage of capacity and burning.
Fire suppression, he said, is expensive and relatively unaccountable in terms of environmental planning. Prescribed burning is not cheap but is much cheaper than suppression of the wildfires it seeks to someday reduce.
Bill Tripp, deputy director of eco-cultural revitalization for the Karuk Tribe, said his tribe and the Mid Klamath Watershed Council received $6.4 million earlier in 2018 from state and federal sources to cover the expansion of the Klamath TREX for the next three years.
If the amount seems large, Tripp said, it's about the same as it costs to battle some wildfires for two days. He said local planners have gotten federal National Environmental Policy Act approval for the repeated burning of 5,500 acres over the next decade and receiving the three-year grant "helps you plan ahead."
Tripp helped develop the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy in 2012 and then served on its science team. He's now a co-chair of the Western Region Strategy Committee, representing tribal interests.
The regional group toured areas last week where TREX had recently treated the landscape with fire near Orleans. Tripp said they "expressed gratitude for the deeper understanding that could only be gained by visiting in person."
Nolan Colegrove, U.S. Forest Service district ranger for Orleans, added that the Cohesive Strategy reps asked specific questions about fire response, fire-adapted communities and resilient landscapes, and were impressed with the TREX program and its steps toward achieving the goals of the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (WKRP).
The 5,500-acre target is the first bite of eventual prescribed-burn treatment across the 1.2-million-acre footprint of the WKRP planning area. Colegrove said officials need to approach scaling up from present efforts strategically by building community buy-in and support.
The first steps include treatments around private properties to make them safer from wildfires, he said, with the next steps scaling up to more of a landscape-level treatment.
Jill Beckman, a GIS specialist with the Karuk Tribe, said, "We are starting discussions on what the next project looks like ... and possibly a programmatic NEPA project that would provide NEPA coverage for prescribed fire activities anywhere within the WKRP area."
She said this could outline a simpler process for completing surveys and the environmental analyses for sensitive areas, including archeological resources and threatened wildlife, within individual units.
Will Harling, director of the Orleans-based Mid Klamath Watershed Council, said, "I get goose bumps when I think about what this program can be, might be, will be. We estimate that within our 1.2 million acres of WKRP landscape, we would need to treat 40,000 to 50,000 acres a year with prescribed fire and roughly a third of that through manual and mechanical treatments to prepare for these burns."
Harling said the burning would be focused around local communities, which would allow crews to let wildfires "restore fire processes" in the back country without threatening homes. Meanwhile, with skills developed through TREX and other such training opportunities, local fuels crews would work year-round brushing and burning, a task that he predicted could add 200 to 400 new local jobs.
TREX statistics are summarized at the end of each day in an Incident Action Plan that lays out the blueprint for the upcoming operational shift on the prescribed burn incident. In standardized firefighting lingo, as established by the national Incident Management System, they are IAPs for short, and TREX leadership labors long into the evening after long hours in the field to fill them with accurate, useful data.
TREX IAPs include fire assignments and radio frequencies for participants to tune into to communicate with one another, a contingency medical plan, a cultural message about fire from Tripp and the phone numbers to reach TREX leaders (for what that's worth in the wild and remote Klamath River canyon, where cell phones rarely work).
The final IAP sums up what the group accomplished over the course of two weeks. These statistics each year are impressive — more than 200 piles of brush and other hazardous fuels burned in preparation for future burning, 200 to 400 acres burned around local homes and towns, more than 60 training assignments that help aspiring firefighters expand their skillsets and certifications.
But maybe the best way to measure the success of TREX is the feedback participants give each year, via the after-action reviews and social media, and perhaps most tellingly, in the growing number of TREX applications and interest organizers receive.
Sonseri Brower, a member of the Susanville Rancheria who participated in the first week of this year's Klamath River TREX as a firefighter trainee, posted a glowing review on Facebook afterward.
"Every firefighter should be required to do this program before they go out on their first incident!!," she wrote in all capitals. "It's run like a small-scale incident so you can dissect it and get a better feel for the different offices and chain of command. On an actual fire incident things happen fast and behind closed doors, it makes you feel like a cog in a wheel. But at TREX everything is explained. ... By putting fire on the ground yourself, you gain hands-on fire behavior experience. There are some experiences in this world that grab hold of your soul and change you as a person, experiences you will treasure forever, Klamath TREX is one of those experiences!"
And in a clear measure of the growing social license granted by mid-Klamath neighbors, TREX organizers said they got no complaints about prescribed burn smoke this year. That's a first.Editor's note: This story was updated from a previous version to correctly identify fire team types. The Journal regrets the error.