Traditional Burn Plans For Acorns and Basket Materials Foiled by Bureaucratic Road Blocks

John Gibbons, a retired Forest Service burn boss, introduced prescribed fire into the understory of a tanoak stand near a neighbor’s cabin in spring, 2008. The burn reduced forest litter and ladder fuels that could have moved flames into the canopy of wildfire came later in the summer./ Photo by Erica Terence.

By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer

This fall was not the year for restoration of traditional Karuk cultural burning. It was also not the year for local Forest Service fire managers who see increased prescribed burning as one answer to the puzzle of worse outbreaks of wildfire nearly every summer.

Edicts from higher up the bureaucratic pecking order on both the state and the federal level foiled burn plans on both private and public lands despite careful advance planning and extensive site preparation to prevent the bête noire, the worst nightmare, for every forest manager, a planned fire that escapes.

Bill Tripp started working for the Karuk Tribe 19 years ago and is now their Eco Cultural Restoration Specialist. It has been one of his long term goals to restore many traditional burning practices, although it may be taking a longer term than he originally reckoned.

He said that it was part of the tribal cultural identity to know when to light understory burns in the tanoak stands as a traditional answer to the pests that would otherwise destroy the acorns.

Tripp said, “The agencies say the traditional practice is not founded in science. We launched a university study so it’ll be established in science.” He was referring to the research work being conducted in Somes Bar and Orleans by Arielle Halpern, a Ph.D. candidate from UC Berkeley. See:

Managers can measure relative humidity and other indicators of burn conditions, Tripp said, but the trees measure that on their own. Infested acorns fall first, ones with marks but no real insect entry fall next and the viable acorns with the most food value fall last.

Traditional burners could use these indicators to burn with the greatest benefit. “We try to do science,” he said, “and yet we get road blocks thrown up citing risk. That’s going to leave a risk, too: that lightning will strike when burn conditions aren’t so good.”

He said the UC acorn test sites were typical of high production oak stands, and were pre-treated with established firelines and secondary containment lines, with unlimited water supply for control, on-site weather data, several pumps, computer model runs of fire behavior,  and wide treatment boundaries. All of that was made moot by a state-wide burn ban. Once the rains fell and the ban was lifted, the area, already damp, was too wet to burn.

Tripp said, “It comes around to the question of why do agencies have the authority to regulate our sovereign practices?”

Cultural burns planned for national forests by local Forest Service districts also hit bureaucratic snags. Terry Walter, fire management officer in Happy Camp, said he had to delay lighting off 300 acres slated to burn because it would refresh bear grass and hazel shrubs, both materials needed by basketweavers.

By the time the burn ban was dropped, the units had had so much rain that they would not light. He anticipated trying again in the late spring when conditions were drying. He acknowledged the tribal distaste for spring burns because the ecological damage to wildlife, emerging plants and soils are greater, but said “Better burn in the spring than no burn at all.”

He said that someone unknown had lit off bear grass patches last summer and he wanted to get out ahead of such illegal burning. “We can meet the same need with less risk,” he said. “If they get caught because the fire gets away, they face all the suppression costs. I just want to do this the right way.”

Zack Taylor, head of the Fuels Battalion for the Forest Service in Orleans faced similar obstacles. He said the window of opportunity between too dry and too wet is often too short.

This year that was compounded when the Washington Office of the agency ruled that every local burn plan had to be approved by the Region 5 level which governs every California national forest. This additional hoop was announced just as managers were approaching burn season.

Taylor, who started in the Forest Service in 1997 and came to Orleans in 2005, had been planning to use understory fire on 260 acres in a 2005 log sale called Hazel. The burn did not happen, and, after the rains started, Orleans burners could only successfully light covered hand-piled slash and some machine piles across the district.

He heard much frustration on the federal ban voiced by other managers at a recent meeting of the California Fuels Committee, which had reps from every national forest in California.

He said that he hoped to avoid such collisions in the future with solid advance environmental documentation and good partnerships “including people in the neighborhood, local Fire Safe Councils and the tribes, all backing you up.”
Forest Service managers and traditional practitioners saw a lot of the same benefits from fall burns, Taylor said—landscapes that burn not too hot or too cold and definitely better than waiting until a summer wildfire when homes are threatened and far more natural resources are destroyed.

The job of upholding the state’s burn ban in Siskiyou County fell to Bernie Paul, the CalFire chief who came to Yreka in the early 1990s after work in Butte and Fresno counties.

He said the state typically had a burn ban from July 1 until the rains started, with some exemptions allowed. This year, he said, the state director of his agency ordered a ban that allowed no variance, the first such ban since 2003. The fire-fighting resources were spread too thin and fuels conditions statewide were too risky to allow any exemptions by the director, even ones as well prepped as the ones in Somes Bar. He said he had discussed the Somes Bar request personally with the state director.

Chief Paul said his father and grandfather had worked in the Forest Service and he grew up a strong supporter of prescribed burning, although he voiced a preference for early summer prescribed burns when the resources that could manage an escape were less committed elsewhere.

Siskiyou County actually has it easier than many parts of the state, he said. The shorter days and lower temperatures reduce risk and the state’s air quality regulations are less restrictive. He said there was a still a conflict because the best days for dissipating smoke were breezy, a problem for any intentional burning.

Despite all this, Chief Paul said his agency supported prescribed burns and especially cultural burns. He echoed a common lament among managers that budgets had lots of money to put fires out but little or none for prescribed burning.
Still, he predicted that such burning would remain and grow as part of the practical options. “A lot of the local Fire Safe Councils and the tribes are getting more training and experience and are getting better at playing the game,” he said.
Another fireman with long local experience is Jay Perkins who started his career heading fire for the Forest Service in Somes Bar and is now retired. Eventually he became Fire Management Officer for the entire Klamath National Forest and he said obstacles to prescribed burns remained.

Among them he listed risk aversion, retirement of many effective practitioners and state regs that make it problematic to put smoke in the air. Perkins said the emphasis was on suppression of wildfire although fuels reduction, which is very cost-effective in comparison, had to be a part in that.

He said fuels treatment would go “hand-in-glove” with traditional cultural burns and recalled listening to Frank Lake, a Karuk descendant and Forest Service research ecologist from Orleans, ten years ago.

Lake was then in graduate school and shared oral histories of elders who remembered traditional burning before it was outlawed.

One of the strongest requests for an exemption from the state burn ban came from Will Harling, who heads the Orleans/Somes Bar Fire Safe Council. He said, “What I cannot accept is that there are some areas we just can’t burn with prescribed fire, because in our country that means they will burn in wildfire, when we will have far less control.”

He added, “We have a grad student whose last three years of work rests on getting these burns implemented. And we have tribal members who have waited far too long to be allowed to manage resources necessary for ceremony and subsistence with fire. Not vast landscapes, just some of the few remaining decent gathering areas.”

These sentiments were echoed by Tina Bennett, a Karuk tribal member and a mainstay of the Salmon River Fire and Rescue. She remembers her grandfather telling her that he would ignite the high country meadows when they rounded up the herds every fall in order to control brush. When the practice was outlawed, the meadows became overgrown.

Closer to home, she said her mother, Lillian Bennett, used to burn off the understory of at least two acres surrounding their home every other year, after a little rain so the flames wouldn’t be too intense. When the Forest Service ordered Lillian to stop, the wild grapes and other brush, what fire specialists call ladder fuels, flourished.

Years later, a careless neighbor started a wildfire by burning trash on a day with extreme fire danger. The careful buffer that Lillian had maintained was gone and all that saved the Bennett house and five other structures was a massive and quick response by many crews, helicopters and retardant bombers.

Despite all that suppression, the fire grew to around 500 acres.

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November 27th, 2012

1 to “Traditional Burn Plans For Acorns and Basket Materials Foiled by Bureaucratic Road Blocks”

  1. "Henchman Of Justice" says:

    Great write!

    Quote to comment upon here: Tripp said, “It comes around to the question of why do agencies have the authority to regulate our sovereign practices?”

    My Response: America is an over-populated police state where “every move is monitored or is being attempted in monitoring” for money, power tripping and control TO GROW THE PUBLIC SECTOR.

    The “why” is simply answered when one understands “that people” have caved in to consumer mentalities, thus caving in to governance and regulation. The odd thing is that while “white man troops” were plundering, raping and murdering indigenous people prior to segregation tactics, the “white leaders of America” predicted America would turn into what we have now IF the world bankers got into control! Well, guess what, sometimes life is fricken odd at best! I am a white man who hates the selfish and greedy white-man culture! Shoulda lived in a different time with far less people…..! No thanks to all those mommy and daddy dearests for not considering the future of the human race before procreating a higher population count that could be subjected to such draconian life rules that destroy cultures! America sucks big time right now and has for awhile!!!!!! – HOJ

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