Lessons in the Ashes

As Orleans blazes smolder, critics say logging profits are undermining fire prevention



Large fires in and around Orleans last week have sparked new criticism of the Forest Service's plan to reduce wildland fires in the remote and mountainous community.

The Dance Fire burned more than 600 acres before firefighters contained it on Friday. Flames destroyed the home of a tribal elder, as well as two other outbuildings. And the blaze came dangerously close to consuming even more tribal housing.

Since then, three fires on nearby Sawyers Bar Road grew to nearly 8,500 acres, with only 11 percent contained as of Tuesday morning.

As the firefighting continued, residents and Karuk tribal officials complained that Orleans homes were put in unnecessary danger and some land was needlessly sacrificed to the flames because the Forest Service had allowed logging profits to color its decisions about fire prevention.

The Forest Service denies that, countering that it has chosen areas to thin timber because they were the best places to defend the community, not because the lumber there was profitable.

In August 2008, Six Rivers National Forest Supervisor Tyrone Kelley approved a plan to reduce fire danger on public land near Orleans. The plan — designed in collaboration with the Karuk Tribe, fire safety groups, environmentalists and the community — called for logging and clearing dense underbrush so that fires can't burn as hot, fast and destructively. Under the plan, a handful of pruning and burning techniques were to be used to thin nearly 2,700 acres of forest. About 1,300 of those acres were designated for commercial logging, and the remaining 1,400 were non-commercial.

But the plan got off to a troubled start. In 2010 the Karuk Tribe, the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), the Klamath Forest Alliance and the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center sued the Forest Service, after a logging company hired to thin trees used cable yarding — a log-moving system that uses cables that can damage trees — near a sacred Karuk trail.

A court-ordered settlement resolved the dispute in 2011, with an admonishment that the Forest Service must include the tribe in further planning.

Then, last year, EPIC complained about the Forest Service's practice of tractor logging. Kimberly Baker, the executive director of the Klamath Forest Alliance and a public land advocate for EPIC, said the tractor logging causes "serious soil damage and compaction" and that EPIC expressed its concerns to the Forest Service. "They have listened to our complaints — and that's about all I can say. We haven't necessarily seen a change in tactics but they are more aware of our concerns," she said.

On Friday morning, retired schoolteacher Sue Terence was inside her house with the air purifier on, a half mile from the Butler Fire that sparked overnight last Wednesday. "I can hardly think straight," she said. "The nearest ridge is the only one of three that we can see. Our oxygen level is going down quickly."

Local crews had held the fire to the neighboring watershed, Terence said, and Friday morning state and federal firefighters — fresh from fighting the Dance Fire — had taken over.

As crews raced to contain the latest fire in the Salmon River complex, Terence said she worries that the Forest Service's funding for the fuel reduction plan is tied to its profits from logging. Without strict oversight, she said, logging can actually create conditions that feed future fires.

Logging — particularly helicopter salvage logging — has left large amounts of slash and vast fields of dense brush, Terence said. Logging companies paid for roads and made their profits, she said, and "now we're facing the costs of the catastrophe that follows."

Still, she added, she understands the Forest Service's problems. It has the unenviable task of fixing 100 years of poor fire management, and its fuel reduction plan is still in its infancy.

The Karuk Tribe and Klamath Watershed Council have been working with residents and communities to thin high-risk areas on private land, Terence said, but fuel reduction on public lands is only lurching forward. The Healthy Forests Restoration Act, signed in 2003, was designed to protect forest communities, but Terence said that in the case of Six Rivers National Forest, thinning is too concentrated on ridgelines.

Bill Tripp, of the Karuk Department of Natural Resources, worries that the fuel removal plan has focused on valuable timberland instead of homes and communities.

"I would've rather seen the money spent on implementing the priorities in the community wildfire protection plan," he said.

That plan, called the Orleans/Somes Bar Community Wildfire Protection Plan, was developed in 2009 by local fire safe councils, the Karuk Tribe, the Forest Service and others. It lays out guidelines for preventing and fighting fires based on the unique and rugged topography of the Salmon River.

But the plan is just a recommendation, which Tripp says the Forest Service ignored when it prioritized which areas to protect. "We need to kind of get people back together and figure out how we're going to address some of these priorities in the community's plan and not keep falling back to the economic value the resources provide as the reason for why an area is treated."

Tyrone Kelley, forest supervisor for Six Rivers National Forest, said that's just not what's going on. The Forest Service may have had some early clashes with critics over its logging methods, but it has always focused on protection before profits, he said.

"It's a tough piece of ground back there," Kelley said over the weekend, taking a moment from coordinating with firefighters still trying to get a handle on three newer blazes.

Despite "early struggles," Kelley was optimistic about the progress made on reducing fuels. He thinks that more advanced planning and work with the Karuk tribe to recognize archaeological sites will reduce cultural concerns.

While he didn't have specific figures in front of him, Kelley said only 500 to 700 acres of the project area was timberland. Logging wasn't an emphasis, Kelley said, and all proceeds from that logging went back into the fuel reduction plan.

The focus on ridgelines, he explained, was considered the best defense for Orleans from fires that started out of the area. With a sort of defeated chuckle, Kelley said that wasn't much good when it came to the Dance Fire, which began inside the community. The cause of the Dance Fire is under investigation, according to the Forest Service.

Despite the disagreements, both sides praised each other for expanding lines of communication and a mutual commitment to an end — if not a means.

It's not just prevention tactics that raise concerns among community members. Kimberly Baker said EPIC is concerned about the Forest Service's practice of bulldozing firebreak lines. She said fire crews cut 200 miles of bulldozer lines in Shasta-Trinity National Forest in 2008.

Backburning — when firefighters light smaller, controlled fires to stop a fire's progress — is also problematic, because it can cause high severity fires that kill trees, Baker said.

Tripp, the Karuk resources official, said that with better fuel reduction efforts around Orleans, a Karuk elder may not have lost her home. After meeting with the Forest Service and community members this week, Tripp said he hoped the Dance Fire would serve as a wake-up call that fuel reduction efforts need to increase.

It's time to act now, Terence said, because without quick, dedicated repairs, the last century's logging damages will fuel more devastating wildfires in Orleans and neighboring towns on the Salmon and Klamath Rivers.

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