Learning to Burn Again

Scott Harding ignites ground fuels with a drip torch at Pearch Creek in Orleans. Agencies, tribes and non-profits sponsored the exercise to build fuels reduction skills in the region. Earlier, Harding was part of a crew that burned the part of his own property that had not burned in last summer’s Butler Fire. Photo by Stormy Staats, Klamath-Salmon Media Collaborative.

Scott Harding ignites ground fuels with a drip torch at Pearch Creek in Orleans. Agencies, tribes and non-profits sponsored the exercise to build fuels reduction skills in the region. Earlier, Harding was part of a crew that burned the part of his own property that had not burned in last summer’s Butler Fire. Photo by Stormy Staats, Klamath-Salmon Media Collaborative.

By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer

The burn plans were signed and all the permits finally granted. The crews, packing tools and wearing fire gear, gathered along Gold Dredge Road in Orleans. Firelines were in place. Then they waited, ironically, for the morning dew to dry.

They were there to ignite prescribed fire at Tishániik, the Karuk ceremonial area and also the starting point for devastating Orleans wildfires last year and before that in 2001. It was a key part of a major campaign this month to provide the reliable fire protection to homes from Weitchpec to Happy Camp and up Salmon River.

Bill Tripp, Eco-cultural Restoration Specialist with the Karuk Tribe, said the area was regularly burned by Karuk villagers a century ago, before traditional burning was outlawed. He said Tishániik fires were lit to clean the area for World-Renewal dances and to promote new growth of willows, an important basket material.

The whole valley used to get burned every three years in a rotation to keep wildfire out of the village. Three units on either side of the river were alternately burned to stagger the effects. Tripp sees the potential for this TREX model bringing the right mix of resources to the area to reestablish frequent burning around the communities.

“We’ll have to do a lot more preparation before we can burn like we used to,” he conceded. “Peoples houses aren’t buried in the ground with rocks all around them anymore.”

At that point, Tripp got a radio call from the burn boss asking whether a string of small snags along the fire line a quarter mile away could be dropped to reduce hazards. The trees were probably killed by last year’s wildfire and the burn boss was checking whether they could be removed without any cultural impacts.

Finally, the fuels at the Orleans site were dry enough and this year’s priest, the fatawanun in Karuk language, asked burners to clear the immediate area while he said a prayer and lit the first flames.

It was fire from a traditional elk horn, carefully packed with tinder since early morning when the firefighters first started milling around for their morning briefing.

The firing and holding crews, all part of this year’s training exchange, moved into their positions. Back country fire engines crept along bulldozed fire lines. Radios crackled with orders and reports.

Jaclyn Goodwin, Karuk self governance officer, and Aja Conrad, a recent UC Berkeley graduate who now works at Junction School in Somes Bar, lit their torches from the fatawanun’s fire and brought it into a thicket of willows. They were both TREX trainees, and tribal members making good weaving sticks from this place as the Karuk women had always done.

“Women did a lot of the burning,” Tripp said, remembering the stories of his grandma Bessie Tripp. “It could be that their under representation in current fire management is part of why our relationship to fire is broken. And it could be how we fix it.”

TREX is a cooperative venture of tribes, agencies and non-profits, especially the Fire Learning Network (FLN), which is jointly funded by the US Departments of Agriculture and the Interior, and administered by the Nature Conservancy. Teaming up with the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, they brought a cadre of burners to the mid Klamath last year for a couple days of burning as part of the Fall 2013 Northern California TREX. They managed nine burns in two days last year, but this year’s TREX was unprecedented in scale and scope.

The list of co-sponsors is long and includes the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, Karuk Tribe, US Forest Service, CAL FIRE, Yurok Cultural Fire Management Council, Salmon River Restoration Council, Orleans Volunteer Fire Department, Firestorm, and Orleans/Somes Bar Fire Safe Council. Such a diverse array of partners were able to piece together a large and effective number of personnel, equipment, burn plans for many units and last minute permits to bring burning along the Klamath River to the next level.

More than 50 people, ranging from long-time veterans of fire and prescribed burns to newbies, took part. At least 20 of them were locals who had formal fire qualifications or took the 25 hours of online courses to get them. By the time it was done, TREX crews had lit 32 units for a total of 240 acres and improved fuel conditions around at least 150 homes.

Jaclyn Goodwin was one of the newbies and she said she was there to learn what prescribed burning was all about. She said she often reviews tribal grant proposals that involve burning so she wanted first-hand experience. She also wanted to participate in cultural burns for the basket weavers.

Another lighter, Rick O’Rourke from the Yurok Cultural Fire Management Council, said he had already been part of a June TREX project further downriver, and it all made sense to him. “Grandma always told us that fire is what we should be doing. It helps with the food sources and the cultural resources and it protects our houses,” he explained. “We’re healing our people from the ground up.”

José Luis Duce fights wildfires in Spain, what the Spanish call a bombero forestale. This year was the second time he’d come to help re-introduce fire in the mid Klamath region. This visit has included TREX burns in New Mexico ponderosa pine forest and grasslands in Nebraska.

He said the tribal traditions, things like burning for hazel and the other basket materials, was more alive here than at the other locations. He also noticed how much the property owners supported the burn crews. “You show up and they bake you a pie,” he said.

The property owners who may qualify as the least likely to invite TREX burners were the ones at Rainbow Mine up the North Fork Salmon River past Sawyers Bar. The Whites Fire swept through there in August and even destroyed two of their 11 structures.

Despite that, they asked for help lighting a steep 24-acre patch that was protected from the August burn but was directly downslope of their structures, a classic dangerous situation for the next fire.

Will Harling, Executive Director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council (MKWC) and one of the main organizers of the TREX effort, said the prescribed burn at the Rainbow Mine with its large component of heavy fuels on the ground was one of the hottest they’d ever burned.

It was conducted with six burners and a two-person holding crew with one small Type VI fire engine. Harling said that if the patch had burned during the wildfire with August fuel conditions, the outcome would have been “way different.”

The owners kept a watchful eye, and were pleased to see the ground fuels disappear with minimal damage to the overstory.

Another property owner who had survived recent wildfire was Scott Harding of Forks of Salmon. His property burned in the Butler Fire on August 11 and 12, 2013. Firelines on that burn allowed the wildfire to remove unwanted fuels on half his property, but left the remainder at risk.

Harding joined the TREX training, carried a drip torch to help in the lighting at his own place, and feels it is much safer as a result.

He said the Salmon River is dominated (98.2 percent) by federal ownership and hopes that it all someday is made safer by wider use of prescribed burning. He said, “Hopefully the 1.8 percent of private land can leverage the other 98.2 percent.”

Karuk Tribe rep Bill Tripp was uncharacteristically giddy by the end of the burning. “We’ve been trying to make this happen for a long time. In ten days, we burned as many acres as we have over the last seven years. We still need to grow this thing on the landscape scale. We’ve come to agreement in principle. Now we need it in practice.”

At the end of every day the crews, veterans and beginners alike, returned to their Orleans base as tired and footsore, as caked in ash and diesel, as their regular season counterparts.

Still, one of the most difficult assignments of all fell to Nancy Bailey from Weitchpec, a longtime mainstay of the MKWC’s core staff. Before the Tishániik fire was even kindled, Bailey had the task of notifying Orleans locals, at the end of a smoky summer and just a year after an arson fire there had scorched the entire community, that another fire was coming.

She reported, “The activity in town seemed to promote a kind of contagious, if slightly nervous, excitement.”

Most of the 50 people she visited ranged from supportive to thrilled and only a handful fell in the “grumpy to outright angry” category. Most of the objections were about air quality but a few asked her who they were going to sue when their house burned down.

“At least one of those nay-sayers changed his tune and was actually thrilled after seeing the clean successful burn in his neighborhood,” Bailey said.

Funding for the TREX has been secured for the next five years. As long as the organizers can continue to predict the fickle fall burn window as well as they have the past two years, there will be an even larger and more organized effort next year. There will also be a Spring TREX based out of Weitchpec next year as well.

“Our goal is to return fire back to the people again,” said Harling. “Success isn’t measured in just acres, but by the locals who choose to carve a few weeks out of their busy fall to help bring good fire back these mountains again.”

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