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Slow Burn 

Wildfires around Orleans are testing how well a community, an Indian tribe and a government agency can work together

ORLEANS — The drive from the North Coast to Orleans is a long, slow, winding one across three Indian reservations belonging to the Hoopa Valley, the Yurok and the Karuk tribes. At the end of last week, it was also a progressively smokier one, beginning just west of Willow Creek and worsening through Weitchpec and up into the Marble Mountain Wilderness. That’s because this year’s fire season started much earlier than anyone expected when dry lightning in the third week of June set almost 2,500 acres of this rugged landscape aflame. (At press time Tuesday, the fire had expanded to around 6,000 acres.)

With fire-fighting resources stretched to the limit throughout Northern California, the U.S. Forest Service, the Karuk Tribe and local residents around Orleans are expecting this summer to be — like the ride back into these isolated hills — long, tedious and filled with smoke. Residents are also hoping that it will be marked by an unprecedented level of cooperation between the Forest Service, out-of-state wildland fire teams, the local community and the Karuk Tribe, which has a long, rich history of incorporating fire into the landscape.

At a public meeting held at the Junction School in Somes Bar, just north of Orleans, last Thursday evening, a handful of residents gathered to hear a status report on the fires given by the Ukonom Incident Management Team (ICT). The turnout at the meeting was uncharacteristically low, according to one local resident, but they made up for their small numbers by speaking in a unified and stentorian voice.

If the ICT thought that the residents had come to listen, it was sorely mistaken – the residents had come to make suggestions about how the fires should be fought. Just one example: The ICT explained that a road would be used to block the then-500-acre Merrill Fire (one of four fires burning in the Ukonom Complex at the time), but residents warned against stopping the fire on the upslope of a drainage ditch – burn down to the fire now, they recommended. Agency heads nodded, but no one was taking notes.

Earl Crosby, the Watershed Restoration Coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, urged the ICT to listen to locals like Will Harling, Executive Director of the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council (MKWC), and Frank Lake, a Forest Service research scientist and Karuk descendant, who’s working as the resource coordinator for this incident. Both were at the meeting.

“They know more about this district than all of you combined,” Crosby said. Members of the ICT bristled, but promised they would be open to suggestions. “We’ve seen some stupid mistakes before,” Crosby added. That’s probably because ICTs are rotated out every two weeks. This one had only been around for a couple of days, and its members were still struggling to wrap their heads around the names of local roads and ridges.

The Ukonom Complex fires are understandably low-priority in comparison to other fires burning in California that threaten much larger swathes of private property, but Will Harling considers the blaze a unique opportunity to heal the local relationship to fire.

Harling started the Orleans/Somes Bar Fire Safe Council in 2001, and later grew his organization to include watershed-wide issues. Harling, who corrected me saying he was a fire lighter, not a firefighter, talks about stewarding fire in what he refers to as the local fireshed.

“We’re in a pickle,” he said from a tattered couch in the MKWC community center in Orleans on Thursday, “because we’ve excluded natural- and human-caused fire for about 100 years.” Whereas the ICT seems to be mostly concerned with putting this fire out, Harling suggests they “let it burn.” In the future, he recommends reallocating the millions of dollars in suppression funds now being spent to fight fires toward programs designed to prevent them by way of fuels reduction.

And he’s not the only one who thinks the forests have suffered at the exclusion of fire. Bill Tripp, the lead cultural monitor on the Ukonom Complex fires, is in charge of making sure that none of the tribe’s spiritual sites are disturbed while the fire is fought. In the past, alters have been smashed by firefighters who had no inkling of their cultural significance. The Karuk Tribe has traditionally used fire to manage forests, Tripp said, although it would typically burn during spring and fall.

Tripp, like Harling, wants to see more funds available for pretreatment of forests so that in the future blazes like this year’s won’t burn out of control and overwhelm local firefighters. Tripp calls the fires a “test case on the Klamath” because they may prove that fire can actually benefitlocal resources. In the long term, he’d like to see a stronger network of tribal and local resources in place to help prevent fires before they strike and fight them more effectively when they do.

Frank Lake, who was rushing somewhere every time I saw him, stopped for five minutes on Friday morning to talk. He repeated what I had heard multiple times from others in the ICT and the Forest Service, that air support for the fires was unlikely. But he said it was precisely because of the lack of resources that communication between the tribe, the community and federal agencies was so important. An optimist, he described the situation on the ground as “promising.” Karuk Tribe Vice Chairman Leaf Hillman agreed on Thursday that “things have gone relatively smooth” so far, but he said there were a “few little bumps at the start, at the Six Rivers [National Forest] end of it.”

After the community meeting on Thursday evening, I drove along the Salmon River up a serpentine, sometimes one-lane road to the Jake Fire. Some of the residents at the meeting had said they could see the fire raging from their homes. But when I arrived, the fire, which had spread over the course of the day down to the riverbank, was just smoldering. The sky was filled with dense smoke. Ash fluttered in the air around me. A local resident stopped her truck and got out. “This is a beautiful fire,” she exclaimed.

Up the road a way, a half dozen Forest Service fire trucks were parked with their engines turned off. Captain Spanky Markin of Orleans described the Portuguese Fire burning on the other side of the river: “It’s really doing a good job,” he said. By good he meant that the slow-burning fire was clearing out the forest’s underbrush.

But, he said, even though the fire is contained by the river, it’s still not under control. He expected that the Portuguese and the Jake would join into one single fire in the not-too-distant future. As for the Ukonom Complex in general, he said, he’s been fighting fire for 20 years and he’s never seen anything this big.

Spanky grinned. He resembled the smoldering, craggy slope behind him: He was missing a front tooth and his ruddy beard was overgrown. “This could be a very, very long summer,” he said.

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Japhet Weeks

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