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Fighting Fire with Fire

A devastating wildfire season highlights the need for prescribed burns

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Eric Darragh and Will Harling raced from Orleans in the small fire engine as soon as the word came early on Sept. 8 of a wildfire that had exploded above Happy Camp and was destroying everything in its down-slope path. They soon met Scot Steinbring, the Orleans-based fire management officer for the Karuk Tribe. It was named the Slater Fire.

It was the time in an ordinary summer when, with fire season winding down, Darragh, Harling and Steinbring would be ramping up planning for the annual prescribed fire training program principally organized by the tribe and the Mid Klamath Watershed Council (MKWC). But true to form, 2020's hasn't been an ordinary summer.

The town of Happy Camp, about a half-hour's drive from the Oregon border, was a comfortable place before the Slater Fire, if not prosperous. For a while it was rich with gold mining, but that is long gone. That was followed by logging and saw milling, but those eras also passed.

The Slater Fire started at around 6 a.m. and Darragh and Harling got there around noon. Darragh is program director for the Fires and Fuels Program at MKWC in Orleans, about an hour's drive down the Klamath River Highway, while Harling is the nonprofit's director. They were immediately struck by the fire's speed.

"We saw fire burning thousands of acres an hour; there was no slowing it down," Darragh said. "It was evident that people weren't going to stop that. You just had to get out of the way. We'd be standing around a house, thinking we'd protected the place, but there were wind-driven showers of burning embers. I started fighting fire in 2007 and, in that short amount of time, I've seen fires grow hotter and more aggressive."

The fire pushed the three from the first cluster of eight houses in Karuk Housing, all eight of which burned, although Steinbring says their efforts may have helped save another 80.

Nearby, fire threatened and then destroyed the home of Dean Davis, a retired Forest Service plant geneticist.

"The morning of Sept. 8, 2020, started out warm and breezy, blowing from the southeast," Davis wrote about his experience for the upcoming MKWC newsletter, according to a draft he shared with the Journal.

He got a call that a tenth-of-an-acre fire had been spotted above the Grey Eagle mine near Slater Butte. He drove to where he could spot it and saw it was already 10 to 15 acres and putting up a large column of smoke. The blaze seemed to be growing in all directions, he wrote, so he raced home to warn his wife Karen, who then joined him loading valuables into their car.

"It was clear that the fire was approaching, as leaves and ash were appearing on the wind," Davis continued. "A Forest Service fire prevention tech showed up, and looked terrified. He told us to evacuate immediately, and that the main road down Indian Creek was impassible and we would have to go up the creek to Cave Junction to escape. I told him I was staying to defend, and he left after just a few minutes. The roar of the fire was deafening, the sky was black with an eerie red glow, so I told Karen to go. She loaded up our two dogs and our cat and was crying as she drove up the driveway, toward the fire front, and I was hoping she was going in time to get out and that I would see her again.

"During this time, large trees began breaking and falling in the hurricane-force wind that had developed. The sound was incredible ... branches and tree limbs were flying everywhere. I returned to our home, and watched as the water pressure suddenly dropped. Within minutes a river of embers flowed across our land, screaming through the woods and initiating fires everywhere. I watched as our generator shed, next to our woodpile, caught fire. Our 3-foot diameter ancient cherry tree split apart in two, and the hollow center caught fire in seconds. Our old cabin, which had become a grain and tool storage shed, was also igniting. I saw the chicken coop, old barn and upper llama barn all catch fire simultaneously. I grabbed a McCloud fire tool, put on a backpack pump and started circling the house to watch for firestarts."

Within a few minutes, "all the fire alarms in the house were going off at once but the howl of the conflagration almost drowned their sound out. I could tell that the fire was intensifying. I knew at that moment that I couldn't save our home. ... I watched as the home we designed and built and raised our three girls in burned to the ground. Tiles shed from the roof like dragon scales, tumbling and crashing to the ground. Flames howled from the windows, and our home's demise was astonishingly fast, flat on the ground in less than an hour."

Davis sheltered for several hours in a car and around 4 p.m. heard a chainsaw in the distance. Two of his daughters had returned to rescue him with their husbands, one a Forest Service law enforcement officer and the other a timber faller. They had cut trees and fallen powerlines to get in.

"It was a miracle I survived," Davis concludes.

Vikki Preston, a member of the Karuk Tribe, pauses to catch her breath after her crew ignited accumulated woody fuels on a slope near Orleans in a controlled burn two years ago. - SUBMITTED
  • Submitted
  • Vikki Preston, a member of the Karuk Tribe, pauses to catch her breath after her crew ignited accumulated woody fuels on a slope near Orleans in a controlled burn two years ago.
Let's pause a moment to exhale and take a short language lesson: As cultural/linguistic background, Julian Lang, the Karuk scholar and story teller who has worked hard to preserve Karuk language, shares with us one phrase about traditional burning: Xunyeepsúruk pamita káan kun'áhishrihanik, pi'êep va'áraaras.

English translation, but with Karuk syntax: "The old-time Indians, Under-the-tan-oak formerly there they-set-fire-to."

The Karuk people long depended on prescribed burning but organizers of the annual TREX training program in Orleans have threaded a needle every year to cautiously balance local public sentiment, a permitting maze and the inherent risk of carefully lighting protective fires near homes up and down the mid-Klamath area to reduce danger when wildfire comes.

This fall the program, called TREX, faced even bigger challenges, including the worst pandemic in a century and the most flammable forests in many more. Fires across the state have already burned more than 4 million acres. Compare that to 2018, when 1.67 million acres burned, and consider 2020 is not even over yet.

So the TREX organizers from the Karuk Tribe and the nonprofit MKWC had to make changes, even as local and national support grew for the idea of burning areas of forest at a relatively safe time of year, rather than hoping wildfire won't burn through them at the hottest, driest time.

Prescribed burning is not a new idea, of course. Local tribes routinely burned away dangerous brush near their villages for generations, until the practice was forcefully banned by white authorities a little more than a century ago.

Federal and state fire agencies replaced the Native burning with a policy of suppression, putting out every fire while it was small. But unburned forest just stockpiled deep reserves of litter and logging slash, and that, compounded by climate change, has made big fires almost impossible to corral.

Karuk Tribe Natural Resources Director Bill Tripp has a long history of promoting prescribed burning but said planning has proven a challenge in 2020.

"This year, because of COVID-19 risk, we're planning a more localized event, but due to the long duration smoke impacts and Forest Service statements that they're not burning this fall, it seemed unrealistic that we could burn in the ordinary TREX two-week window," he said.

In recent years, TREX trainings have brought more than 100 participants from all over the country — and even other parts of the globe — but they will rely mostly on people from local river communities this year and tackle one unit at a time, instead of two or three per day. Tripp said there were also still questions of getting burn permits from the North Coast Air Quality Management District and Cal Fire, which have been reluctant to even grant permission to burn slash piles. In the wake of such a harsh wildfire season, permitting for prescribed burns could be even tougher than usual.

"We've aligned all our funding sources to get this done," Tripp said, "and we'll get as much done as we can between now and the end of June. It's important to know that traditionally Karuk people didn't light prescribed fires from the time when the birds come back in the spring until the constellation Pleaides shows itself in mid-June. This year we could burn piles through the winter and broadcast (understory) burn in February and early March in the black oak/pine/ceanothus types."

"People are taught to be afraid of fire," Tripp explained, "and people are taught to use it in a suppression process instead of paying mind to the ecological benefits that fire, used in the right way, can produce."

Even as this article is written, amid both Red Flag warnings and falling temperatures, the mid-Klamath skies are still often smoky from two nearby wildfires, the Red-Salmon Complex and the Slater Fire, which began three and two months ago, respectively. Neither is yet contained and little or none of the usual seasonal rain has begun to fall.

Climatologists have long predicted a multi-year drought for the West, infrequent rainy years notwithstanding. A recent article in Science, reports, "Global warming has pushed what would have been a moderate drought in southwestern North America into megadrought territory."

The authors, from universities across the country, cite a study that "used a combination of hydrological modeling and tree-ring reconstructions of summer soil moisture to show that the period from 2000 to 2018 was the driest 19-year span since the late 1500s and the second driest since 800 CE." They conclude that human-caused climate change has vaulted normal variability into the megadrought category.

On the ground, that is reflected by the record-breaking spread of fires across all of California so far this year. As of Oct. 18 there had been 8,685 fires listed by CalFire and the U.S. Forest Service that had burned through a combined 4.1 million acres.

Between them, the two mid-Klamath fires, the Slater in Happy Camp and the Red Salmon Complex above Hoopa, Orleans and Forks of Salmon, have burned through nearly 300,000 acres. And fire season is not over yet, especially in Southern California. The costs for just those two fires have already exceeded $150 million.

This pressure has made fire agencies — U.S. Forest Service and CalFire — hold off with any commitments of staff or supplies to this year's TREX prescribed burns.

Ted McArthur, forest supervisor, wrote: "Prescribed burning is a critical component of our fuels management on the Six Rivers National Forest. We will continue to evaluate conditions and when conditions and timing is right, we will engage in prescribed burning. We are currently working on fire suppression on every unit on the forest. The fire activity is greatly diminished; however, our employees are fully engaged in fire suppression and repair.

"However, there are still wildfire threats in this area. We value the partnership we have with both MKWC and the Karuk Tribe. We will continue to work in support of our mutual goals.

"It has been an unprecedented year in fire suppression on the Six Rivers National Forest and California. We recognize we need to get ahead of this trend of increased fire activity and severity," McAuthur continued. "However, we need to make sure we mitigate the immediate risks we are facing prior to engaging in other important work."

Nolan Colegrove, a USFS ranger who heads the Ukonom, Orleans and Lower Trinity districts, said the conflicting demands for crews from fire suppression calls across the state and for energy to join in fall prescribed burning is a persistent problem.

"The last few years, we've had good conditions for prescribed burning up here, but we couldn't switch because we're still on call for fires in Southern California. Or there are burn bans," he said. "By December, the conditions are too wet."

Colegrove said the Forest Service has an "enormous" number of slash piles and large amounts of understory sites beneath forest canopies, but consistently runs into obstacles like ongoing wildfires or early wetting rain.

"Some people don't believe in climate change, but firefighters are on the front longer, the burn season's longer and the fuels are drier," he said. "We need a lot more prescribed fire done. We've been positioning ourselves, we have support from the forest, the region and the Washington office and right now is really good burn weather, but they'll tell us, 'No, Southern California is still burning.'"

He said the Hoopa Valley Tribe, where he headed forestry before joining the Forest Service as a district ranger, had a large component of cultural and prescribed burning. He particularly boasted that the burns reduced the bugs, which damage the acorns, once a food staple in the Native diet throughout the region.

This reporter made repeated requests to CalFire, the state fire agency, for comment on prescribed burning and permit issuance for this article, but the queries were not answered.

When Harling, MKWC's director, traveled with Darragh to the Happy Camp blaze, they rode in MKWC's rehabilitated fire engine, a survivor of a flood in the mid-West. He said that the government agencies — US Forest Service and CalFire — talk favorably about prescribed fire but avoid actually doing much "because there is no political upside to prescribed fire. Even though risk is managed, if something goes wrong, careers are at stake. But you can do anything in wildfire suppression without blame or ridicule."

Harling describes the growth of wildfires in recent years as "a perfect storm pairing our misguided attempt to remove fire from California's ecosystem, and our transition from one of the wettest centuries to one of the driest."

He praised the state of Florida for its approach to prescribed fire and cited its average annual numbers, 1.5 million acres of prescribed fires versus 100,000 to 200,000 acres of wildfires. He contrasted that with California, which averages more than 2 million acres of wildfire compared to roughly 50,000 acres of prescribed across state, federal and private lands.

"How do you want your fire?" Harling challenged. "On the hottest day of the summer or on the edges of fire season in June or in October, November and December?"

As evidence, he noted that one spreading face of the Red Salmon Complex stalled when it hit the footprint of the 2013 Butler Fire.

The answer for river locals seems clear, if not quite unanimous. When Harling spoke at a community meeting in Happy Camp two weeks after the start of the Slater Fire, he asked the crowd if they could handle a little more smoke if it came from prescribed burns that would make communities safer. In a video of the meeting, many people raised their hands in support.

He said the small-scale prescribed burning that MKWC had done in the TREX projects of recent years had mixed success against the Slater Fire. "At least five units that we'd treated within the Slater footprint ended up saving trees, but were not large enough to protect the structures. (At Dean Davis's place) we'd been unsuccessful for years in asking the Klamath (National Forest) to burn with us across national forest land to an upslope road that might have been a large enough firebreak to save Dean's home."

"We have been waiting for the Klamath National Forest to collaborate on cross-boundary burns in Happy Camp and the Salmon River ever since the Klamath TREX began in 2014," Harling said. "We have existing agreements that allow this type of burning, and there are cross-boundary burns with federal environmental compliance."

Vikki Preston grew up in Orleans, which was, before white people, a collection of villages that protected themselves from wildfire with frequent intentional burns on a rotating basis. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in Native American studies and then returned to Orleans, where she joined the volunteer fire department and has been active in past TREX burns. She is a member of the Karuk Tribe and works as a cultural resources tech for the tribe while also pursuing a master's degree from Humboldt State University.

"Right now, sitting in the smoke, I worry about my grandma and other elders I know," she said. "I had to help my sister evacuate from the Dance Fire in 2013. I walked out with my nephew who was just a few months old. Having to deal with smoke and fire reopens wounds of the whole historical trauma based on a lot of struggle, and on colonization. It reopens those old wounds, having to deal with smoke and fires, forest management, the law, land seizure."

She said she worked on TREX burns on her grandmother's land and, before TREX, her late grandfather used to burn without all the permits and plans that are now required. She said he'd burn with other people, always a little worried because it was illegal.

And Preston applauded the change in scheduling this year.

"Because we'll get to burn the whole season instead of just two weeks," she said. "Instead, we'll have a variety of burn windows for different areas as they have good conditions. A lot of this is about Indigenous sovereignty."

Malcolm Terence (he/him) has written for the North Coast Journal, the Two Rivers Tribune, the Siskiyou Daily News, California Teacher and the Los Angeles Times. He last worked on a fire crew in 1987 and has since had both wildfire and prescribed fire near his home.

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