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Friendly Fire Fight 

This year, the Forest Service is giving locals more space in the command room

click to enlarge Map by Miles Eggleston/The North Coast Journal
  • Map by Miles Eggleston/The North Coast Journal

Up in the Trinity Alps Wilderness, our first serious wildfire of the season is burning. It was sparked by lightning on July 1, along with 15 other fires on the Six Rivers National Forest that have since been doused.

The Backbone Fire exploded from 300 acres to 3,300 acres between Saturday and Monday as it overtook another fire coming over from the Shasta-Trinity National Forest side of the boundary-marking Devil's Backbone Ridge. By Tuesday it covered nearly 5,000 acres. At press-time, hotshot crews had helped slow the spread of the fire on the ridge, which is 36 miles northeast of Willow Creek and just four miles east of the Hoopa Valley Tribe's reservation boundary.

The incident report on California's InciWeb Web site, which tracks wildfires, was hopeful in its Tuesday update, saying crews had made significant progress. And, in a phone conversation Monday evening, Six Rivers National Forest Supervisor Tyrone Kelley said the cooler weather and north-east winds predicted for later this week would help crews fight the fire.

"And we had good spring rains this year, and so it's still pretty green up on top," said Kelley.

But fire season has officially begun. And you know what that means: a great, collective inhalation by the mountain people of the last sweet mountain air before it's replaced by a summer-long choking smoke. Not that it's a certainty this summer will be like last summer, or other smoky summers, when the fires burned so long that some people had to leave their mountain homes and retreat to the coast just so they could breathe, only to return home after the winter rains began.

And, fire season generally means the flaring of another sort of blaze, the political one: over salvage logging, fire-prevention measures, smoke-sick elders and, especially, who knows the forest best -- the locals or the Forest Service.

But this fire season, maybe things will be different -- at least on that last issue. On Monday, Supervisor Kelley met with the Chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, Leonard Masten, to talk fire strategy -- and Kelley has had frequent meetings with mountain dwellers over the past year or so to talk fire prevention and strategy.

And, this Wednesday, Six Rivers will welcome a small team from the Atlanta-based National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) to assume command of the Backbone Fire until it is completely contained -- a move that Kelley hopes will provide more continuity than in years past.

The Backbone Fire, in a way, might be a good symbolic place to test this new, more communicative approach by Six Rivers N.F. It's burning within the footprint left by the 1999 Megram Fire, a hot, severe -- and severely politicized -- fire that consumed 125,000 acres and wasn't snuffed until November, when the rain came. That conflagration produced fodder for academics, environmentalists, land managers and fire fighting tacticians to mull for years to come.

The Forest Service blamed the severity of the Megram Fire, sparked by lightning, on masses of fuel left by a 1995 windstorm that blew down or snapped off hundreds of trees. It wanted to salvage first the blowdown logs, and later the Megram fire leftovers; both plans were thwarted by environmental lawsuits. Masten, the Hoopa Valley chairman, said in a phone conversation Monday afternoon, after he'd met with Kelley, that he was concerned that the Megram Fire, and the previous blowdown, had left a lot of fuel that could aid the spread of the Backbone Fire to his reservation. So far, the wind has been kind -- blowing west to east, away from the reservation.

"But there's nothing stopping it, if it comes our way," he said. "And our main concern is air quality."

He remembers the Megram Fire. "It was very intense," he said. "The fire was in a wilderness area, so they couldn't use vehicles to fight it, and the nearest they could take equipment was on the reservation."

The Megram Fire did come onto the reservation, Masten said; he thinks the Forest Service should've fought it more aggressively before that happened. The smoke made a lot of people sick with asthma and other conditions. "We had to move people to Eureka," he said.

This time, said Masten, the Forest Service is taking a more aggressive approach -- lots of helicopters and hotshot crews -- even though the area in which the Backbone is burning is steep and hard to reach. It'll also be tricky because there are Hupa cultural sites in the area. Masten said Kelley took note of those concerns.

"There's nothing the fire could harm," Masten said. "No structures. But these are sites where our people, the heads of our ceremonies, go to pray and to gather medicine. And it's important that there not be equipment in there."

Hoopa Valley Tribe fire crews will aid in the fire fight, Masten said. And the tribe, and other locals, will get some ear-time with the fire managers.

Last year, when the mountains were on fire, local residents complained about a lack of coordination between residents and imported fire crews. In particular, they were frustrated that every two weeks the fire teams would rotate: the old crew and managers would leave, and a new team would come in and have to learn the lay of the land, and the fire, all over again. And sometimes the new guys would resist advice from the locals.

This year, Kelley said, Six Rivers is taking a new tack, one other forests have recently tried. While fire fighters will still rotate in and out, the fire management team -- the one from NIMO -- will stick with the fire till the end.

"We're going to be engaging the community more, and we're going to do all we can to communicate with everyone," said Kelley.

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Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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