Reckoning with Fire in the Klamath Mountains and the West

fire buring low to the ground in a conifer forest
The Red Salmon Complex burns through heavy fuels left from the Siege of ‘87 wildfire on the South Fork of the Salmon River.

Fire Management in Northern California and Oregon

By Will Harling,
MidKlamath Watershed Council

“Indian know, and bye-un-bye White Man say he know too, but Indian say, WHITE MAN YOU KNOW TOO LATE.”—Klamath River Jack, May 27, 1916, in correspondence with U.S. Forest Service Ranger Jim Casey

Sometimes it feels too late. Like the boulder has rolled so far down the mountain we cannot push it up again. We have been walking in the wrong direction for a long time, since the Spaniards and then my European ancestors used state and federal laws to ban the natural and cultural process of fire. In 1911, playing off the Great Fires of 1910, the first Chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, used this disaster to both establish the National Forest system from under the lumber baron’s feet, and to outlaw fire use. In places like Florida where Pinchot’s Dixie Crusaders went to convince the South that fire was bad, they were soon sent packing. Everyone there already knew 10 years without fire in the productive Florida rough, and you had a ticking time bomb ready to explode.

Here in the West, it took longer for fuels to reach that explosive state. It didn’t hurt the fledging Forest Service in their efforts to stamp out all fires that we happened to be in one of the wettest centuries in the last 5,000 years. But in the 1970s we began to switch from cooler wetter years on average to warmer and drier years. My first memories are of a night burnout during the ’77 Hog Fire behind the cabin at the bottom of McNeil Creek in Forks of Salmon where I was born. That year, 55,000 acres burned at higher severities than any locals could remember. Ten years later in the Siege of ’87, we had scientists coming here from around the world to study the closest thing they could find to the potential effects of a nuclear winter. In the aftermath of the ’87 fires, winter rains washed on average about six feet of granitic topsoil off Yellow Jacket Ridge into the North Fork Salmon River.

The Slater Fire burns through the town of Happy Camp, CA, on the night of September 8, 2020. Ignited by arcing power lines near Slater Butte in a 50mph east wind, the fire burned over 90,000 acres in a 24 hour period, and consumed more than 200 homes along Indian Creek. (All photos this article by Will Harling)

My family had moved over to the North Fork Salmon River in 1979, after we were evicted from the McNeal cabin and mining claim. We were one of the lucky few evicted families that found a place to stay on the river. An old miner named Jerry Kramer carved out a tiny piece of his patented land on Pollock’s Gulch, and my brother Tim and I fished the section of river below our place religiously until the ’87 fires. When the pools filled in with silt, the river heated up and the salmon runs dwindled. It has never been the same. Since that time, I have been working to understand how to bring back our salmon. And while our instream restoration work—like our recent helicopter wood-loading project on Horse Creek with logs killed in the 2016 Gap Fire—is a monumental step towards restoring a productive stretch of that creek, I am certain that only restoring the process of fire in the Klamath Mountains will turn the tide from salmon extinction to recovery.

Impacts to the Klamath Basin in 2020: Indian Creek

Nearly every year for the last decade, we have had at least one major salmon stream in the Klamath Basin heavily impacted by wildfires. This year it was Indian Creek in the Slater Fire. Not only did nearly all this key watershed for coho and Chinook salmon and steelhead burn in one 24-hour period, it burned at high intensity, killing most of the forest canopy on a massive scale. This fire burned over 90,000 acres in one day, including nearly 200 homes along Indian Creek. Pushed by a 40-mph east wind with as low as 3% relative humidity, the Slater Fire became a horizontal airborne river of fire impervious to slope or any barriers except recent major wildfires. If not for the 2017 Oak Fire and 2018 Natchez Fire footprints, the Slater Fire may have reached Crescent City, in addition to Cave Junction, in its initial run that ended up being 30 miles long and 9 miles wide.

Most of the Indian Creek watershed had not burned in over a century, and it had suffered the brunt of early industrial logging in the Klamath Mountains. Following the 1987 wildfire that last burned Thompson Ridge, there had been large-scale helicopter logging with minimal slash cleanup. It was in this carbureted mixture of brush and slash that the Slater Fire erupted when live power lines along the ridge ignited from a fallen snag. Six years earlier, the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership had presented the Klamath National Forest with a plan to restore fire process on roughly 30,000 acres in the Indian Creek watershed and the wildland–urban interface on the north side of Happy Camp. The Klamath National Forest rejected this project for one they had designed without collaboration in the Elk Creek watershed to the south. While lawsuits are being prepared against Pacific Power for not de-energizing its power lines before the predicted wind event, it is unlikely the Forest Service will be held accountable for ignoring traditional knowledge and a growing body of Western science for the past five decades, and continuing to promote fire exclusion as their primary fire-management policy.

For every family that doesn’t have a home to go back to this winter in Happy Camp, and so many other small towns up and down the West Coast, for all the life that was lost in a fire people could barely outrun in their cars, for all the damage to come when the Indian Creek watershed unravels in winter rains, it is time for us to finally reckon with the truth of fire in the Klamath Mountains and in the West.

 Our only choice is to live with frequent fire on this landscape. Let that sink in. Imagine what would need to change for every forest and grassland around us to burn every 1 to 15 years. It is happening now whether we like it or not. Nearly everywhere fire has been excluded for more than 15 years is burning in rapid succession despite the largest firefighting force the world has ever seen trying to suppress them. So what do we do?

May Fournier and Jake Shuler (Six Rivers Wildland Fire Use Module) bring fire down to homes along the South Fork of the Salmon River under a heavy inversion during the Red Salmon Complex. Starting on June 27, 2020, this fire is still not fully contained after burning over 140,000 acres in the Six River, Klamath, and Shasta Trinity National Forests.

The Somes Bar Integrated Fire Management Project

About 20 miles as the crow flies from Happy Camp down the Klamath River, the Six Rivers National Forest engaged the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership in implementing the Somes Bar Integrated Fire Management Project. This 5,500-acre project utilizes strategic linear manual and mechanical treatments around midslope properties on the western edge of the Marble Mountains to allow for the safe reintroduction of prescribed fire to all 5,500 acres in an area that hasn’t seen fire in over a century. To date, more than 1,000 acres of manual thinning have been completed as well as 68 of 800 acres slated for mechanical thinning. Protecting these at-risk private inholdings will allow for fire managers to safely manage wildfires for resource objectives on an adjacent 100,000+ acres. This project is unique in that it incorporates traditional knowledge from the Karuk Tribe along with the best available Western science. We fully analyzed the no-action alternative and have maintained high-level collaboration through implementation. Projects like this show how we can bring fire back in a good way on our terms, and save homes, legacy forests, and some of the largest and most at-risk carbon sinks in California.

Still, some days it feels like we are wrestling a 900-pound gorilla with one hand tied behind our back. While wildfires by default are managed with no environmental compliance, require no permits, and fire managers enjoy no liability or funding constraints, to bring fire back on our terms requires all this and more. For the Somes Project, we had to generate a 300-page environmental assessment, secure grant funding for implementation, work with multiple permitting agencies to secure permits, and stand down while excellent burn windows passed us by due to regional fire politics and risk aversion within the Forest Service. Tribal fire managers with federal qualifications are still not allowed to lead even pile burns, though local FS district offices are short-staffed.

Prescribed fire burning low to ground in conifer forest.
Even during the peak of wildfire season, the Red Salmon Complex burned predominantly with low to moderate severity, providing lasting benefits to ecosystems and communities.

Key to this reckoning are state and federal fire managers, in particular CalFire and the Forest Service, sharing responsibility for fire on California landscapes with a much bigger group of partners. Implementing prescribed fire will require modifications to both state and federal resource code laws, as well as to the fire culture within these organizations. Currently all incentives for state and federal fire managers support continued fire-suppression policies. Why would Forest Service Fire Management Officers—regularly lauded as heroes for putting wildfires out with no liability for their actions—choose to engage in prescribed fire where there is more personal liability, more preparation and messy collaboration, less money, and much less hero worship? Even while CalFire and USFS Region 5 increase annual prescribed fire targets, the incentives for reaching these targets don’t compare to the inherent risks. Creating a collaborative framework for managing fire, including shared liability, can help minimize individual risk and create shared ownership to support large-scale reintroduction of fire.

dark foreground, valley of trees on fire glow in distance.
The Red Salmon Complex backs down through the Hotelling Creek drainage on the South Fork of the Salmon River.

Societal Change toward More Frequent Fire

First Nations across the West must be engaged and empowered to become co-managers of fire in their ancestral territories and reservations. Locally, tribes bring thousands of years of fire knowledge to the table, as the keepers of the only proven method for safely managing fire for community protection, ecological diversity, and abundance. That state and federal laws still prohibit cultural practitioners from managing family gathering areas with fire is testament to ongoing systemic racism. Dedicated state and federal funding needs to be allocated specifically for tribes to develop fire-management programs, and laws need to be rewritten to protect cultural burning and cultural burners.

In addition to tribes, organizations including Fire Safe Councils, Prescribed Fire Councils, Prescribed Burn Associations, and other affected parties (municipalities, agriculture, timber, etc.) must be engaged in landscape-scale fire-management planning. Shared ownership of fire at the landscape scale requires robust collaboration to create a shared vision for fire management BEFORE the next big wildfire. Prioritizing where and how fuels work can be accomplished, planning the appropriate management response for wildfires in certain places and seasons, and developing local capacity in the collaborative framework of a partnership or network can expedite community fire adaptation.

four figures in prescribed burn gear wearing helmets with headlights walk beside a large nighttime prescribed burn while doing fire management.
Firing Boss Joe Jerry (Karuk 1 Handcrew) leads a tribal firing team on the Tishawnik prescribed burn in Orleans, CA on June 22, 2020.

National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020

Congressman Ron Wyden’s recently introduced bill, the National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020, goes a long ways towards creating the funding to manifest a shift to more frequent fire on the landscape. This bill, if enacted, would increase the pace and scale of controlled burns through cooperative agreements among states, tribes, counties, fire districts, non-governmental agencies such as the Nature Conservancy, and private entities. The bill allocates $300 million each to the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior to implement controlled burns on county, state, and private lands.

Societal change, however, rarely comes from the halls of Congress. Our fire reckoning begins with every one of us taking time to develop a deeper understanding of fire where we live, and taking active steps to fit our lives into the fire regimes that shape where we live. Start with your home and move out from there. Don’t stop at your property line. Connect with the organizations that are managing fire on your landscape. Learn from them. Build bridges between disparate groups that all hold a piece of the fire puzzle—from homeowner associations to fire departments, from tribes to county, state, and federal agencies. For those of you who haven’t had fire at your doorstep, this may sound like crazy talk. Rest assured it is coming. Even the coastal redwood forests were once frequent-fire forests, and they have long gone without. We have run out of time to be proactive. The boulder rolled off the mountain decades ago. But if we all put our backs to it, we can push it up the mountain again, push our world back into balance a little sooner, and protect a piece of what we love before it’s too late. 

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