The rains may have started, but locals and top officials of the Six Rivers National Forest met in Orleans recently for a candid look at the summer's wildfires, especially the Nickowitz Fire, the only large fire in the Forest Service's Orleans district.
It was a meeting with two agendas. The first, the announced agenda, was to examine what tactics worked and didn't work on the fire, which grew to around 7,500 acres. The second was to offer another layer of agency credibility in the high stakes collaboration for managing wildfires in the Mid-Klamath region.
Lightning ignited 240 fires in Northern California at the end of July, and crews quickly controlled all but five of the blazes in the Six Rivers Forest.
Even though the burnt Nickowitz acreage approached 12 square miles, it isn't considered a very big fire in California's fourth year of drought. By the end of the season, the five Orleans area fires totaled about 188,000 acres or almost 300 square miles.
But Orleans district ranger Nolan Colegrove said the Nickowitz terrain was very steep, with thick live and dead vegetation, what firefighters call fuel. Despite that, post-fire surveys of soil damage showed that more than 95 percent of the area was unburned or received very low or low damage ratings. Ultimately, the Nickowitz Fire would be considered a burn that would reduce fire risk there for several years into the future.
Colegrove said there are places in the burn area where the ocean is visible in the distance and the marine influence, with its fog and cool breezes, reduced the fire's intensity. There was also a frequent smoke inversion layer from the other fires nearby that served as a cap on fire behavior.
The same lightning storm created difficult-to-control fires that surrounded the communities of Hayfork and Mad River, so those fires were given a higher priority for resources like crews, aircraft and other equipment. The Nickowitz area is part in the Siskiyou Wilderness, but also is laced with logging roads built before the expansion of the wilderness.
The remoteness and the moderate fire intensities allowed Six Rivers Forest Supervisor Merv George to press for tactics that would keep the fires from getting unnecessarily hot. When visiting fire managers proposed using helicopters to drop incendiary balls to speed up burn out operations, George said he and Colegrove lobbied for less damaging approaches.
The helicopter in this use carries a dispenser that injects glycol into ping-pong-like balls containing potassium permanganate. The combination takes about 30 seconds to generate enough heat to ignite the ball, enough time to drop it out of the helicopter and into the area to be burned.
Instead, in the Nickowitz area, crews lit small burns along the firelines, just ahead of the fire's spread, and built short "check lines" to slow the fire's advance. Colegrove compared the lines to speed bumps on a road. Crews also torched most of their burnouts at night, when fire behavior is generally less severe.
Despite the moderate fire behavior there were areas that were not easy. Colegrove said elite hotshot crews turned down at least three proposals to enter certain areas for safety reasons, saying the areas were too steep and so distant from roads that evacuations would be difficult, especially if a crew member were injured.
George said the tactics used battling the fire were consistent with the Minimum Impact Suppression Tactics approach often used in wilderness fires. George said it would be useful if the service could get the same results from the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (WKRP), a long-term, multi-interest planning effort launched in 2013 to build bridges between agencies and both sides of the so-called Timber Wars.
The Nature Conservancy-sponsored U.S. Fire Learning Network has aided the collaborative effort, finding areas where the competing interests are in agreement and focusing efforts there. These common interests included a replacement for fire suppression and a sustainable economic base for local communities.
In this way, the WKRP is a more even-handed effort to bring rival interests together than earlier iterations, which environmental activists said were more like the Forest Service asking the community to sign a blank check.
Some of these earlier efforts were stalled or even abandoned after environmental groups and the Karuk Tribe filed or threatened lawsuits.
George said the WKRP approach works to blend traditional native burning with modern science and law. "The idea is simple, but getting there will take work," he said. "It's an anomaly. Everyone is watching us now. People are asking, 'How do you do this?'"
George also said he has told visiting firefighting teams that he doesn't want salvage logging to take place in areas where crews may have lit tactical burns because he doesn't want the public to think trees were killed intentionally to create harvest opportunities.
Kimberly Baker was at the session representing Klamath Forest Alliance and Environmental Protection Information Center, groups with long histories as watchdogs and litigants of Forest Service plans. She asked if the roads and firelines were effective to control the spread of the fire, and inquired about the condition of the roads afterward the fires.
Leroy Cyr, a Forest Service fish biologist in Orleans, said several old logging roads that had been decommissioned years earlier were re-opened during the fire. To decommission a road, heavy machinery removes the fill at stream crossings, restores the natural terrain along the road bed and then replants the area in an effort to reduce the amount of sediment delivered to streams and rivers. Post-fire repair work had again decommissioned the roads, Cyr said, and removed even more fill at the crossings than the original work.
Baker also asked if many snags were cut, referring to standing, dead trees that have great value to wildlife. Roberto Beltran, a Forest Service forester, responded that snags were only dropped along firelines and roads so they would not be a hazard to firefighters.
Karuna Greenberg, restoration director at the Salmon River Restoration Council, asked whether any of the firelines were strategic, that is whether they could play a role in fire management in future years. Bill Tripp, the deputy director of eco-cultural revitalization for the Karuk Tribe and a key organizer of the WKRP initiative, responded that the Nickowitz Fire was at the southwest boundary of the 1.2 million-acre planning area for the WKRP. "Once you have the whole ridge burned out in 10 to 15 years, then you won't need five dozers to make line. [Using fire like that] is what people did before there were dozers."
George also responded to Greenberg, indicating that additional preparation will be key for long-term management. "There may come a time when we can let it burn," he said. "There are strategies you can use when an area is prepared, but we're not there yet."
Malcolm Terence is a freelance journalist who's written for the Two Rivers Tribune, the Siskiyou Daily News, California Teacher and the Los Angeles Times. He is also a former firefighter and timber cruiser for the U.S. Forest Service.