Scientists, Tribes, Firefighters Trade Solutions

A barren hillside, severely burned in last summer’s wind-driven fire in Orleans, is the back drop to a discussion on fire severity and intensity at the fire symposium. The two scientists who moderated were Carl Skinner, left, from the Forest Service, and Rosemary Sherriff from Humboldt State. /Photo by Malcolm Terence

By MALCOLM TERENCE, Two Rivers Tribune

Carl Skinner was just one month from retirement last week, the final stretch in a long, productive career. It’s the month when many are tempted into short-timer minimalism, but instead he traveled to Orleans for three busy days of conferencing with fire managers, tribal practitioners, fire-aware locals and other scientist-researchers like himself.

The event was the fourth Klamath Fire Ecology Symposium sponsored by the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, the Northern CA Prescribed Fire Council, US Fire Learning Network, and California Fire Science Consortium.

Skinner started with the US Forest Service in 1968 in fire management and shifted in 1988 to the agency’s research station in Redding where he is a prominent author or co-author of countless studies about fire conditions past, present and, by implication, future.

His work has examined how fire, and its exclusion, has affected the development of forests in the Klamath area. It has also looked at the consequences of different fuel treatments including prescribed fire.

His research has helped build a greater understanding of what’s happened over time absent fire. His work in many ways reinforces the claims of tribal activists that a hundred years of fire suppression has made the region dramatically more hazardous.

He recalled that early in his career as a fire manager near Shasta Lake, he would listen to his native neighbors, Pit River tribal members. “They talked about how they used to maintain the oak stands with fire,” Skinner recalled. “They treated hundreds of acres with great success.”

His scientific work is intended to be applied, he explains. He has attended his share of science conferences, of course, “but for work to be applied, you need to work with the people who are going to do it and get their feedback. It’s valuable to keep the research grounded.”

The was plenty of opportunity at the symposium with nearly 20 presenters, an audience of as many as 60 people at a session and a special premium of tasty home-cooked meals.

One of the first speakers in the program was Bill Tripp, deputy director for cultural revitalization with the Karuk Tribe, who outlined accomplishments of the last 20 years as well as remaining challenges.

The era has been one of development of NGOs supporting re-introduction of fire and a growth in tribal capacities. There as been growth of academic support from Whitman College, University of Oregon and UC Berkeley in bridging traditional practice with scientific research.

Tripp serves on a technical committee working to form a cohesive national fire strategy that hopes to restore landscapes that can handle periodic fires. The Orleans/Somes Bar community was one of eight nationwide to receive special support for their efforts through the Fire Adapted Communities program, a result of this national cohesive fire planning.

He said that air quality enforcement was an obstacle to prescribed burning, a rule that does not restrict wild fires, which often generate far more smoke (and do more damage) than cooler intentional burns.

A partial solution, he suggested, would be to grant traditional cultural burns their own legal exemption. He also issued a complaint that the Karuk workforce, which faces 50% unemployment, is bypassed in the hiring for many fuels reduction projects.

The head firemen of both the Klamath and the Six Rivers National Forests presented on the second day of the conference. Ed Guzman from the Klamath said his forest was one of 12 nationwide slated to get $3 million annually for three years for fuels reduction work through internal US Forest Service and Natural Resource Conservation Service funds.

The projects would go from the Scott River area down river to Dillon Creek and the workforce would come from the Karuk Tribe, fire safe councils and other entities through service contracts. A big issue, he said, was how the project accomplishments could be maintained over time.

Minton, from Six Rivers, said Forest Service national leadership is paying increased attention to reducing risk to firefighters. He echoed the familiar plaint that budgets and staffing have shrunk in recent years, so there was an additional emphasis on effective spending. In the national USFS Forest Chief’s letter of intent this year, Minton noted that the Chief recognized that firefighters should consider the deferred risk of putting out fires to communities and firefighters in the future.

Will Harling, the MKWC executive director, suggested that last summer’s wind-driven fire in Orleans showed that it would be good to invest in firefighting capacity through our local volunteer fire department, and to prepare for future fires in this same footprint by reaching out to affected landowners to maintain fuelbreaks over time.

Ron Reed, cultural biologist for the Karuk Tribe, has coauthored studies with Dr. Kari Norgaard, an environmental sociologist at the University of Oregon. Reed said the exclusion of fire in the local

landscape has had drastic health and social impacts on Karuk people and their culture. Disease rates among his people are three and four times national averages for diabetes, heart disease, obesity and childhood obesity.

Reed was appointed by the secretary of agriculture to a forest research advisory committee that works to link science and traditional knowledge. “Western science is good at a lot of things,” he said.

“Traditional knowledge is good at a lot more. There is a need to bridge the two.”

Crystal Robinson, a scientist with the Karuk Tribe, reported that she was already running detailed water quality studies in the Salmon River watershed when the fires began at the beginning of August last summer.

Her probes showed that water and air temperatures, both critical for salmon survival, dropped as the canyon filled with smoke. Before the fires, dissolved oxygen was approaching the lowest levels on record but they improved as the water cooled.

One set of tests showed that three creeks along the North Fork, an area of severe burning and highly mobile soils, spiked in turbidity, a measure of dissolved and suspended solids. They reached 200 times ordinary levels for aluminum and exceeded the standards for drinking water although no domestic water is drawn from those creeks.

In conclusion she supported the goals of traditional burning as an alternative to hard-to-control wildfires.

The last of the speakers was Louise Wagenknecht, a retired Forest Service silviculturist who provided a historical perspective.

She recalled going with an elderly Karuk woman into the back country to pick huckleberries but finding the berry patches were no longer there. They had been crowded out by brush which the Indians had traditionally controlled with periodic use of fire.

The first clearcut logging began in the 1950s with 10-15 acre projects. They were small enough that natural reproduction from the surrounding trees could handle restocking.

When clearcuts were ratcheted to three times that size, there was a need for clearing and burning of the clearcuts, sophisticated tree nurseries to supply restocking and then herbicide treatments to combat brush and hardwood competition.

The agency needed to demonstrate that the new plantations were generating wood volume equal to the old growth being extracted, a biological fiction called “sustained yield.” All of the industrial stars had to align just right to make it work at a time when the Happy Camp district alone was logging 55 million board feet every year.

The new conifer plantations were easy targets for wildfires and activists near and far began objecting to such widespread use of herbicides.

Wagenknecht’s first two books in a trilogy are White Poplar, Black Locust, about her early childhood at the mill town of Hilt and Light on the Devils, a recounting of her high school years in Happy Camp.

The third book will cover her work with the Forest Service and she said after the fire symposium that it will give her fresh energy to get it done.

In his closing remarks and in the expected style, Will Harling thanked the many presenters and the funding sources. His mention of Nancy Doman, the cook, got biggest round of applause.

Then he said there might another symposium in another three years, “unless we’ve overcome all the challenges by then of fire in the Klamath region.” The improbability of that got the biggest round of laughter and no shortage of clapping.

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