By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer
Barely a century since burning by tribal people and others was outlawed, the clamor and campaign for its return continues to grow.
Government fire managers, politicians, tribal restorationists and just-plain people who remember smoke-free summers and a bygone era when the woods were a source of calm, not a pile of kindling, will take great interest in a new video production from Orleans.
The documentary “Catching Fire” lays out the argument for using prescribed fire, that is, using burning in safer times of year than the height of the dry season to reduce increasing forest fuel buildups.
The film, which will be shown at 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 4, at MKWC’s Panamnik Building, was produced by Will Harling, coordinator of the Orleans/Somes Bar Fire Safe Council, and Stormy Staats of the Klamath-Salmon Media Collaborative.
After the hour-long film, there be a short discussion plus appetizers, coffee and tea.
The documentary is also available on YouTube at http://tinyurl.com/ccd56xj.
Many locals appear in the film and two of the stars are Leaf Hillman, director of the Karuk Department of Natural Resources, and Bill Tripp, Eco-Cultural Restoration Specialist with Karuk DNR.
In the film, Tripp explains, ““It’s an important part of Karuk culture to burn. Just about everything we use is fire dependent. It’s such an ingrained process in Karuk culture, it is a component of our religion. The smoke carries the prayers and the fire answers them.”
Hillman says the traditional burning was a management tool for acorns, basket materials and much more, besides fuels reduction. He links the laws against traditional burning with campaigns to rob native people of the resources they needed to survive, much as the buffalo were extirpated from the Plains.
“The strategies that got us here were well-funded propaganda. My kids are still bringing home Smokey Bear stuff from school. Even today when science disproves Smokey’s policy, it is perpetuated,” he said.
Harling, in the film, says that the tribal burning suggests a template and he adds, “Their experience burning in the area for thousands of years is incredibly valuable when it comes to understanding the seasonality and prescriptions when we are implementing burns on private lands, so to that extent ever since our formation we have worked closely with the tribe to identify not just what areas need to be treated, but what types of treatments were specific to that vegetation type, to that slope, to that aspect, and more importantly what types of ecological processes were we affecting and what were the species that we might be impacting by implementing burns in different seasons.”
The issue of costs is explored by Tim Ingalsbee, the executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. He says, ““On a per acre basis, fire suppression is one of the most expensive land management actions we do. For each dollar spent preparing for fire, we save $7 in fire suppression… We need to invest in prescribed fire and prevention.”
Terry Walter, the Forest Service fire manager from Happy Camp, addresses the public aversion to smoke. He argues, “You have no control where smoke goes during the wildfire. And so that’s why we are trying to do the prescribed burning. We can control the smoke more, the fire intensity more, what happens to the vegetation out there… If (the public) sees us doing good things, it will be acceptable, if they see us doing bad things we lose that good opinion.”
Another Forest Service manager, Mike Beasley from the Six Rivers National Forest, says, “The frequency of escapes is very low, less than 1%, but it sticks in people’s minds.”
And Ingalsbee adds, “Dealing with fire of any kind is inherently full of risk. We can minimize this risk with prescribed fire. It is the opposite with wildfire. Regarding risk, we are sending firefighters out to fight wildfires in the riskiest of conditions. Prescribed fires are the least risky option.”
The upcoming showing in Orleans is not exactly a premier. It has already been shown at the recent Tahoe meeting of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, where it was received with applause and even cheers.
At a smaller showing at the Association of Fire Ecology Fire Congress in Portland it prompted much discussion about target audiences as well as a little criticism about the cavalier treatment of the Smokey Bear campaign.
Harling, the co-producer, said the work began two years ago and moved into high gear in the summer. Fourteen speakers are quoted in the film and twice that many photographers and videographers contributed stills and footage.
Rex Richardson from Forks of Salmon contributed the background music and actor Peter Coyote did the voice-over narration. Coyote, before he entered the movie business, already had a long history with many locals, including many local Indians.
In his biography Sleeping Where I Fall he tells stories of fishing, gambling and hunting with Karuks like Hambone Tripp and Willis Conrad.
Coyote said he was already familiar with prescribed burning and explained, “Gary Snyder’s community up at San Juan Ridge has been working with the Forest Service for a number of years doing controlled burns, and chewing up dense stands of underbrush in the chippers, restoring their woodlands to conditions of care.”
His voice is a familiar feature on many television commercials and at least 50 documentary films. He said he thought the film was well done and “a good introduction to people about the subject, and to the Rivers area in general.”
Staats, co-producer with Harling, started working with video around the time of the 2002 fish kill and has worked with video teams in Palestine and on the Arizona-Mexico border.
“Working under stressful conditions in the Middle East taught me to edit and problem-solve faster and gave me a broader look at the similarities between colonization in Palestine and colonization of Native land in the US…” she said.
Both Staats and Harling are already planning future projects together.