Unleashing the TREX

Why officials think controlled burns can save California from wildfire


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Bill Tripp remembers a chilly morning when he was 4 and his great-grandmother Bessie Tripp, the legendary Karuk Indian elder, was still asleep. At first, he passed the time cracking acorns, but then decided to start a fire in the wood stove.

Bessie woke and quietly intervened. Bill remembers that Bessie came around the corner toward him in her walker and said, "If you're gonna' play with fire, then you are going to do something good with it." She led him outside into the black oak woodland filled with hazel and instructed him to start cutting it down and scattering it to dry.

Together, Bessie and 4-year-old Bill burned off a layer of oak leaves around the area and came back later for the dry hazel, which could be used to make baskets.

Fast forward 40 years to early October and Bill Tripp now holds the bulky title of deputy director of eco-cultural revitalization for the Karuk Tribe. He was telling stories to a handful of reporters, tribal leaders and local politicians who had gathered near where the Salmon River pours into the much larger Klamath. Nearby a large team of newbie and veteran firemen were about to set fire to Tripp's immediate neighborhood as part of the annual prescribed burning training in the mid-Klamath.

Bessie was already more than 100 years old when she showed Bill how Indians lit small fires to prevent big fires, as well as to help manage cultural resources, from basket materials and acorns, to elk and deer, and, even, salmon.

Bessie's lessons still guide Bill. He serves as a co-chair of the Western Region Strategy Committee, which oversees implementation of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy, and also works as a co-lead for the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership. In both of these roles, he stands as a powerful advocate for reforming our current fire management policies at both local and national levels.

This fire knowledge that Bessie shared has proven to be a gift that continues to guide local prescribed fire activists today as they seek respite from the megafires that plague Northern California with uncanny frequency.

During the training, Tripp focused on the attempts to return to the kind of frequent intentional burning that his ancestors used around their villages and beyond until a century ago. In the early 1900s, fire management was the subject of a long debate. On one side, were miners, ranchers, settlers and natives who all lit small and frequent fires for different reasons. On the other, sat the U.S. Forest Service, which argued for absolute suppression of all wildfires to increase timber production and provide direction for the fledgling agency in the wake of the Great Fires of 1910.

Suppression won the argument with the passage of the Weeks Act in 1911, which expanded the Forest Service and effectively outlawed intentional, or prescribed, burning. Local Indians resisted for decades, and many were shot at, arrested or beaten for trying to manage the land as they always had.

Tripp gestured to the surroundings and his listeners looked up the steep canyon slopes where the Salmon River reaches the Klamath drainage. It is an area of strong winds that shift from up-canyon in the afternoon to down-canyon at night, what fire scientists call "diurnal." In between, the winds swirl back and forth, making this a valuable training ground for fire practitioners learning the art of controlled burns in the Klamath Mountains.

He recounted the fire history of the place, including a large, damaging fire in 1973, which burned at high intensity from the river to the ridge. By that time, fire exclusion policies had converted the area from an open forest of old growth black oak, sugar pine and grass into even-aged forests — a condition considered undesirable by ecologists, but merely a cost of doing business for the silvicultural managers of the past century.

As Tripp spoke, the handheld radios delivered word that the lighting was about to begin. In prescribed burning, like in fire suppression, weather plays an important role and is tested and re-tested almost constantly. Rain had fallen a few days earlier, so the challenge was to burn the grass and brush, the vegetation that carries fire the best, when it was dry enough to burn hot, but not so hot the fire might get out of control.

On the higher of two roads, several crew members began lighting the grasses. They used drip torches, which look like a teapot with a curly neck and are filled with a mix of gasoline and diesel fuel, a combination that provides sustained heat without an explosion.

The first pass quickly established a blackened strip at the top of the burn area, a buffer to reduce the chance of the fire spreading uphill. With that horizontal pass in place, the lighters began subsequent passes, as they worked their way down to the lower road.

Tripp, who actually is the property owner of the parcel getting ignited, turned to the burn boss, Jeremy Bailey, and said in a calm voice, "When it hits the blackberries, it will get up into those trees there and burn hot." Bailey agreed.

But instead of moving to change the tactics of the out-of-area firing boss, they waited for the lesson to unfold. Tripp explained later that they didn't intervene partly because the wet conditions would keep the fire from going too far, partly because they believed in lessons learned first-hand.

The low brush and grass were being consumed completely into a black swathe that held the promise of green meadows next spring. But the shifting winds pushed the fire to the left sidehill into a thicket of blackberries, much like the hazel that Bessie Tripp burned with Bill as a child. The thicket flared in a noisy rush. The flames shot up under a 60-foot Ponderosa pine, its lower branches thick with clusters of long dead needles; the tree and those around it sent up a whoosh of 20-foot flames that carried ash and burnt debris high into the sky.

Orders crackled over the radio. Two heavy-duty pickup trucks converted into fire engines moved into position and started their pumps. The holding boss reported that the fires had ignited two spot fires in the dry grass above the unit and crews moved to contain them.

Rony Reed, a local Karuk tribal member who grew up dipnet fishing with his father just across the confluence at Ishi Pishi Falls, sprang into action, scratching line around the fast moving fire to contain it. Another spot fire was creeping up behind him, and his supervisor yelled for him to drop back to the safety of the road as other firelighters-turned-firefighters cut line along the outer flanks of the two spots. These experiences with fire, within and outside the lines, will serve Reed well in the coming years.

Crew members began walking a grid above the burn unit to see if there were any other potential spot fires and to make sure the first two were fully extinguished. Most of the dry grass and low brush was gone. Whether the Ponderosa pine and the few other tall trees in the area were unharmed will take longer to assess.

Bailey, the burn boss, watched all this unfold with the eye of a veteran teacher. He's worked eight years as the program director for the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) for the Nature Conservancy's Fire Learning Network, one of the key sponsors of the two-week burn training, along with the Karuk Tribe, Mid Klamath Watershed Council, federal and state land managers and local nonprofits. Before Bailey became the director of the TREX program, he spent 15 years fighting fire with the Forest and National Park services.

When word came that the spots were out, completely out, and there were no others, he headed upslope to scout the adjacent unit, the next area to burn. It was a small flat that once held the Somes Bar schoolhouse. He assessed the density and dryness of the fuels and the design and execution of the fireline dug in advance of the ignition.

Bailey said that the two spot fires would be discussed in the "after action review," standard procedure in both wildfire suppression and prescribed burning. Bailey said people in other professions are always surprised to hear that firemen have a culture of sharing their missteps so they and coworkers can learn from them.

Based in Salt Lake City, Bailey works with these training exchanges all over the country, but said the Klamath TREX was the most community based..

"The Klamath TREX is the best solution to the wicked problem we face today, how to get community ownership of the problems of wild fire," Bailey said. "Another thing about this Klamath TREX, we take all the standard excuses for not burning — weather, funding, community support, regulations — and we're debunking them. Year after year, we just stand and deliver."

He said every state in the West was getting confronted with its own version of the 2015 Valley Fire in Lake County that ultimately spread to more than 75,000 acres, killing four people and destroying nearly 2,000 buildings. It was the kind of tragedy that starts the search for new strategies, Bailey said.

Perhaps no one is looking harder for these new strategies than Ken Pimlott, the state director of Cal Fire. Last year, Pimlott ascended to hero status in the eyes of the Klamath TREX when he used a little known clause in California Public Resource Code that allowed him to issue the TREX burn permits even as a burn ban was in place on grounds that the burns would increase public safety. This allowed the 2015 TREX burns in this wettest corner of California, around Orleans, to be implemented before the start of the fall rains that dampen most intentional burning. Pimlott's order came as smoke from the Valley Fire still lingered, and his predecessors would likely not have dared put their stamp of approval on more fire, even intentional fire, on the tail end of such a disaster.

Pimlott, who graduated from Humboldt State University in 1988, said his agency was bringing prescribed burning to 40,000 to 50,000 acres a year in the mid-1980s, mostly in chaparral brush fields, but projects grew more complex in areas near communities, what managers call the Wildland-Urban Interface.

New environmental regulations pushed the advanced planning, survey and documentation costs of prescribed burns up just as budgets were being cut, Pimlott said.

More than anything, he said, there was a need to get buy-in from a public that may have already been living with smoke from months of increasingly huge wildfires and which had grown to fear fire. Pimlott said he wants Cal Fire to resume burn projects, starting at 3,000 acres per year, but growing to 20,000 acres annually, coupled with another 15,000 acres of mechanical treatment.

He said the waiver he granted the Klamath TREX last year was intended to send a message around the state to Cal Fire managers that they had his support in promoting local burn initiatives. He explained that, when the request came last year from the Karuk Tribe for the TREX burns, he identified a few still uncommitted resources based in Humboldt County as back up and granted permission to burn. "I have the utmost respect for the tribal communities," he said.

Pimlott's message about the importance of prescribed burning is echoed by Malcolm North, a researcher with the U.S. Forest Service and a professor at University of California, Davis.

"If you understand that fire is inevitable, you understand that you can't keep it out no matter how good you get at suppression," North said, adding that the public has two choices, either fire on "our own terms, or the other where you do triage and have very little control. Plus you kick the risk down the road. You need to use fire when the factors are in your favor."

North found himself at the center of a public flap last year when the Forest Service tried to get him to disown an article he authored for Science Magazine in which he said suppressing every fire in overgrown forests is not only expensive but dangerous and ill-advised. He noted that the present suppression strategy puts out 98 percent of fires, but that the remaining 2 percent of wildfires turn into megafires that generate 97 percent of total suppression costs. North also questioned the use of forest thinning, a big favorite of the timber industry. He said firemen divide forest fuels into three types — surface (on the ground), ladder (between ground and tree tops) and crown.

"I used to think the thing you're most worried about was crown fuels, but the most important is surface fuels, with ladder fuels a close second," he explained.

Thinning, he said, does not reduce surface fuels, citing many studies showing it is either a wash or makes conditions worse. North's alternative is the use of fire, either through prescribed burns, or, when the conditions allow, letting wildfires burn without suppression.

Jay Perkins, a retired fire management officer of the Klamath National Forest, said he came to the area in the early 1980s with a mandate to increase the amount of prescribed fire. By the late 1990s, he boasted, "We burned more than any other national forest in Region 5 (California). I wanted to beat the Stanislaus National Forest. We had good burners, expert burners, and they all loved to burn, 10,000 acres-plus a year, and then life changed."

The biggest change, he agreed with Pimlott, was a bottleneck of regulations, including air quality emissions and production of complex and costly environmental documents. "It was costing $100 per acre just to survey for wildlife," Perkins said. "The landscape has evolved with fire and these creatures have evolved with fire. When fire burns a thousand acres it doesn't scorch a thousand acres."

The other hurdles Perkins and Pimlott encountered for prescribed burning have been the lack of experienced supervisors and burners and a dearth of what Pimlott called "social license," jargon for what projects will be tolerated by local communities and beyond. There is fatigue with smoke and a fear of fire reinforced by generations of Smokey Bear commercials and worries that controlled burn projects will escape their boundaries.

Will Harling, a founder and director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, a fast-growing restoration nonprofit in Orleans, is one of the experts building this social license across Northern California.

Born on the Salmon River, a Klamath tributary, Harling worked during college for the Forest Service doing wildlife and fisheries surveys. He was also drafted on to their fire crews during big wildfire incidents. He said the first prescribed burn hosted by the watershed council and the Orleans Somes Bar Fire Safe Council was in the spring of 2003 around the home of the late Tony Hacking, a Forest Service wildlife biologist and a MKWC board member. Hacking's burn showed the 17 local landowners who showed up to help how fire could do the heavy lifting in maintaining a 5-acre fuel break around his home.

This burning was informal to start, but by the following year a dozen or so local landowners had banded together to help each other conduct burns around their homes. This model closely resembled the highly effective, low cost Prescribed Burn Associations used throughout the south and Midwest, the practice of neighbors helping neighbors to get good fire back on the ground. Interest in this model is high in areas like Southern Humboldt and the Van Duzen watershed, where local groups like the Yager Environmental Stewards are partnering with Cal Fire and the Northern CA Prescribed Fire Council to increase burning on private lands.

MKWC grew over the years with many programs in addition to fire, and received grants along the way that allowed the purchase of special equipment and insurance for the burn programs. At a Fire Learning Network conference in Texas in 2010, Harling and Tripp met Bailey, who sold them on the TREX model. They challenged Bailey to help implement a TREX in the mixed conifer forests of Northern California, a complex affair compared to the less risky grassland burns previous TREX events typically went after.

Bailey sent a vanguard of Spanish firefighters to the Klamath in 2012, and the following year Lenya Quinn Davidson brought the Nor Cal TREX through Orleans, conducting nine prescribed burns in two days. Then in 2014 and 2015, came the meteoric rise of the Klamath TREX, which abandoned the ultra-low budget model of the past by garnering more than $400,000 in state and federal funding each year to create a local Type III incident management team to handle the technical feat of implementing more than 25 burns in a two week span.

This year's TREX lasted two weeks with nearly 80 trainees, more than half of them local. The training cost $250,000 to $300,000 to organize and host, mostly paid with grants from the Forest Service and the California Fire Safe Council. If that amount sounds large, contrast it with what public agencies have hemorrhaged on wildfires in recent years. On a large fire — and there are often several going at once in California — agencies spend $300,000 before lunch on any given day.

Harling said $550 million has been spent in the Klamath Mountains over the past decade and more than 500,000 acres have burned. It costs almost $800 per acre to suppress fire in forested country like the Klamath, but fighting fire around communities, in the Wildland-Urban Interface costs more than twice that per acre.

Harling said the TREX operation builds social license on multiple levels. Locally, it includes notification of affected residents through door-to-door visits and benefits like the loaning of HEPA air filters from the Karuk Tribe to neighbors who may be smoke-sensitive.

On a broader level, the intentional burns are creating perimeter fuel breaks around the rural communities so fire managers can safely let some wildfires burn in the back country, and gradually restore the kind of natural fire intervals that existed before Native burning was outlawed. "It is all about the co-ownership of fire on this landscape by local, state, tribal and federal fire managers," Harling said. "We will only be successful in this venture when we accept the success, the responsibility and the risk together."

One satisfied client is Alan Dyar, a retired school administrator in Happy Camp, about an hour's drive upriver from Orleans, an area that has been hammered repeatedly by wildfire, including the 2014 Happy Camp Complex that started across the river from Dyar's home.

"I'm tickled with the way (the controlled burn) went," he said. "They cut a line around it, torched it off and it was done when I got home from Virginia."

Dyar is not a standard-issue environmentalist. If anything, just the opposite. He's been a strong supporter of increased logging but is also an active participant in a planning effort in the region, called the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership.

The partnership is a collaboration that's brought players on many sides of the timber wars into the same room to chart a new course for forest management, and done it through many long sessions over three years. Merv George Jr., forest supervisor of the Six Rivers National Forest, said the purpose is to help the Forest Service plan outcomes on the ground. One of its goals, he explained, is to prepare the land to see fire again.

George was a member of the Hoopa Tribal Council in the late 1990s, when he worked with tribal elders on cultural prescribed burning by the tribe's department of forestry, so this is not an empty boast. He said the enormity of the 1.2 million-acre WKRP planning area was too much for the Forest Service to handle alone, so TREX helps by getting more people qualified to put intentional fire back in the landscape. He called TREX "one of the tools in the toolbox" in his agency's approach to ecological restoration.

The Klamath TREX uses an Incident Command Team organizational structure similar to the one the Forest Service uses in wildfire. There is detailed and highly targeted training of newcomers, and all the way through the hierarchy there are trainers and trainees. Many participants act as both, underscoring the emphasis on building capacity for larger scale burning the future.

A few weeks before the TREX, North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman visited the Karuk Tribe's Department of Natural Resources in Orleans. Tripp was lead speaker and explained that the fire suppression model had failed, and that his tribe was part of the WKRP collaboration and TREX to show what can be done.

He said the problems of wildfires come from a flawed perception that humans are separate from nature. The challenge is to blend traditional tribal burning practices with Western science and technology.

On the day of the burning near the old Somes Bar schoolhouse, Tripp mentioned that the Tripp family cemetery was just up the hill and pointed to the area, noting it was scheduled for a low-intensity under-burn later in the day. Bessie Tripp was buried there, he said. Locals remember, years before Bill was born, when his uncles George and Hambone took them for whole nights of catching eels and telling stories just downriver at Ike's Falls.

In the first light of morning Bessie would clean and fry the eels, probably in the same cabin where she later caught the 4-year old Bill playing with matches. They still talk about the crisp succulence as they ate them and they speculate what Bessie, if she were still around, would have thought of the TREX burners, many of them young tribal members, and of her great grandson, who is now helping to teach entire communities the lessons she handed down that morning at her cabin four decades ago.

"We learned to manage from the animals," Bill Tripp said. "If you listen to the animals, they are asking for this good fire to come back. The fire is working through us. It is time."

Malcolm Terence 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. He has had both wildfire and prescribed fire near his home since then.


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