Meeting of the Fire Minds
By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer
For years the residents of the wildfire plagued areas of the Klamath National Forest felt their input to fire agencies was greeted with a variety of brush-off responses.
Simplified, the attitude seemed to range from “Don’t worry about a thing,” to a brusque dismissal of local input.
After the fires this summer were over, the Forest Service invited locals to sound off at a series of eight meetings. The sessions, called After Action Reviews, asked what worked, what didn’t and what comes next.
The meetings were held in the Scott Valley, in Klamath River towns, Macdoel on the Eastside, Yreka and Sawyers Bar on the Salmon River.
During the summer, one of the driest on record, 220,000 acres were afire in the Klamath Forest and, at the peak, 6,800 firefighters were deployed. It all cost approximately $175 million.
The Two Rivers Tribune attended the Salmon River AAR session. The area near the community of Sawyers Bar burned in the White’s Fire and there were a few days when the town itself was threatened.
The community input was a mixture of praise and complaints but the local tone was more civil than public meetings of the past on the Salmon River. Also, the agency people present dropped the brush-off attitude of past encounters, and mostly listened.
The crowd was divided around four tables, each looking at a different aspect of the fires including communication, operations and tactics, community safety and the fires effects on the landscape.
Mary Huffman equipped each table with many large sheets of flip chart paper for note taking and Huffman, the facilitator, called the approach World Café. Meeting participants rotated from table to table throughout the evening.
One of the first comments at the tactics table was from Mike Kerrick, a retired firefighter from Sawyers. He said that one of the visiting fire teams had been unaware of the weather forecast and was caught off guard.
He said the fire crossed the North Fork of the Salmon River in a place where “there was nothing but resource damage,” employing the vocational jargon for burnt trees and wildlife habitat.
If the weather hadn’t shifted, Kerrick said, “it would have been very damaging to people or property.”
Locals said the agency teams told Sawyers Bar residents that they would be fully capable of protecting structures in the town when the time came, but it turned out that there was a serious shortage of pumps to run USFS sprinklers when the threat came. People in other Salmon River communities sent up more than a dozen of their own pumps to fill the gap and local volunteers joined agency crews to handle their installation.
Lyra Cressey with the Salmon River Restoration Council questioned the fire team for saying structure protection would come when it was needed. It would have been better if the community was alerted that firefighting resources were already spread too thin covering other wildfire fronts in the area.
One speaker said that 95 percent of the firefighting resources at the start were concentrated at other nearby fires and that the imbalance allowed the explosion of the fire that caused a huge pyrocumulus cloud. That’s a version of a cauliflower-shaped cumulus cloud that sometimes forms over volcanic eruptions or very hot wildfires.
Mike Appling, the deputy fire chief for the Klamath Forest, said he’d only seen the towering pyrocumulus clouds form three times before in his entire firefighting career but that the fires this season added three more to his career scorecard.
The pyrocumulus on the Salmon River’s White’s Fire created its own lightning—downstrikes that may have been the cause of the Happy Camp Complex fires.
Many speakers called for more prescribed burning and other fuels reduction projects to get ready for future fires. Sharon Hoppas, a member of the SRRC board from Cecilville, said many prescribed burning plans were stymied by air quality standards set in Sacramento.
“To deny burning in the winter because of smoke sets up getting much more smoke in some future summer,” she said.
Hoppas quoted County Supervisor Marcia Armstrong, who frequently says that all fires must be stopped and that people don’t like smoke. Hoppas disagreed. People needed air filters in their homes, she said.
The shared sentiment at the Sawyers Bar meeting seemed to be that it was better to face minor smoke from intentional burning than to suffer the massive smoke emissions that blanketed Northern California and Southern Oregon last summer at the height of the wildfire season.
Not all of the comments were critical. Some, but not all, of the visiting fire teams were praised for their operations and their communication with locals. One speaker especially praised Tom Browning, a division supervisor in the 2013 Butler Fire, who attended nightly neighborhood meetings there, to share strategies and developments.
Grantham, the KNF supervisor, was praised for requesting that the visiting teams create a record of any fires they light as part of their suppression activities. The hope is to follow the outcomes of different ignitions and decide which ones achieve the objectives.
The history of such lighting is mixed and ill-recorded. Some of the lighting, often called backfires or burnouts, especially from the bottom of slopes, has done huge resource damage. Other lighting has reinforced marginal firelines, sometimes dramatically.
Grantham said the backfire data was still a work in progress but hoped to improve the practice by looking at what worked and what did not, not an easy task in a setting with so many complex variables of terrain, fuels type, weather and more.
Will Harling, executive director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, praised the collection of such data and said there should also be studies of the effectiveness of fire retardant use. The aircraft that drop the retardant are one of the large expenses of modern fire fighting and the retardant chemistry is suspected as a threat to wildlife.
Kimberly Baker, a forest activist with Klamath Forest Alliance and the Arcata-based group EPIC, said future studies should also address construction of firelines built with bulldozers. She said the suppression benefits of such lines—150 miles of them this summer—needed to be weighed against their environmental damages.
There was also praise for the community liaisons who connected community members with visiting fire teams to disseminate information and who helped law enforcement officers when they delivered evacuation advisories to threatened neighborhoods.
Peter Brucker, one of the founders of SRRC and a veteran of many fires (including two that burned down his homes at Godfrey Ranch), said the Salmon River needed “a big, global fire plan with private, public and tribal input so that we could set priorities for future treatments.”
Will Harling from MKWC agreed and said, “This is one of the most complex fire environments possible.”
He has long advocated fuels treatment around communities in the off season as the first step in restoring a sustainable fire regimen in a period of climate change, fuels accumulation and highly flammable tree plantations left from an era of widespread logging.
After attending all of the meetings, Forest Supervisor Grantham said, “I learned that one team that I had thought had connected well to the communities was more a 50-50 – yes they did/no they didn’t, deal. I learned that more local people had been employed by fire teams than I had known (although people still want more locals employed). My view was reaffirmed many, many times over that firefighting crews did a great job out there – fire fighters worked hard, were respectful and cared about the communities they were working around.”
Grantham added, “Folks were candid and, with few exceptions, very respectful and focused on how to make things better in the future. The public gave us the gift of their time and opinions in each of those meetings, and I am very grateful.”
The full set of chart notes, as transcribed by Forest Service staff, are available at http://goo.gl/sqAhNL.