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The View on the Ground at a Prescribed Burn 

Spreading Good Fire

The test fire is about to start in a meadow encircled by woods on the flattest piece of terrain anyone can remember walking here in the Klamath River Basin. Are the hoses charged? Is the pump in the river working? Are all resources staged and in their places?

A test fire is a term fire practitioners commonly use when lighting fires — an exploratory ignition used to indicate how fire will behave in the fuels to be burned, which allows the burn boss in charge of the whole operation to call it all off if they don't like what they're seeing.

The burn location is a piece of private property on a large, sweeping bend in the river that juts out from the west bank of the mountainside north of Happy Camp. Just a year after the devastating Slater Fire burned into the local community, the people in these places seem more ready than ever for intentional fire.

And Klamath TREX is more ready than ever to bring the fire.

click to enlarge TREX trainee Cody Gray operates the drip torch. - PHOTO BY BRUNO SERAPHIN
  • Photo by Bruno Seraphin
  • TREX trainee Cody Gray operates the drip torch.

The annual event — geared to provide quality fire training assignments while accomplishing collaborative controlled burning on landscapes where fire has been excluded for more than 100 years — was stretched from two weeks to seven this year, with most participants cycling through as their schedules allow for shifts in October and November.

People around the country and globe are increasingly ready to learn to burn, leaving their day jobs behind and traveling long distances to sleep and work in tough conditions for weeks at a time. That's what this Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (Klamath TREX for short) is all about: sharing skills and tricks of the trade, increasing comfort levels with intentional fire and building comradery and networks among burn practitioners.

While awaiting word that everything is a go for ignitions, the Karuk Tribe's fuels captain, Michael Sanchez, moves around talking with the individuals selected to carry drip torches for the day. He's been assigned to function as what's called a firing boss, meaning he directs the application of fire during the broadcast burn planned for today. He is soft spoken but carries a big presence, with long legs and a quiet confidence. A Karuk tribal member who grew up in Happy Camp, Sanchez spent the bulk of his fire career at the U.S. Forest Service in neighboring Orleans, amassing fire experience and qualifications.

Once the torches tip toward the ground and the lighters take off in staggered rows, Sanchez roves between the flames, inspecting how much of the undergrowth and other fuel on the forest floor is burning. He assesses whether the lighters need to make adjustments to meet the objectives for the day's burn.

Sanchez likes what he sees enough to continue marching igniters through the trees, toward a nearby residence. The property owner wants fire in these woods, too, hoping it will make the place safer when the next wildfire threatens. After Sanchez, Firestorm burn boss Keith Alvord, and TREX Operations Chief Eric Darragh confer over the radio on the overall positive results. Darragh notifies the Yreka Dispatch Center that the test fire was successful and the "RX" burn on this unit will continue with ignitions. Dispatch acknowledges the transmission with a few words — brevity is expected in fire radio communications — and the low-intensity burn moves ahead.

The next day, an adjacent unit is on the docket. Group cohesion among very diverse participants is starting to come together. Teams of igniters and fire engines work seamlessly.

Firing, holding and contingency resources all know their assignments after intensive briefings earlier in the day. Darragh, the operation's chief, acknowledges that not everyone staffing the five fire engines on site are federally qualified engine bosses but says he's not worried. All are familiar with their equipment and very capable of fulfilling their required roles for today's operation.

And based on the black in the adjacent unit they burned earlier this week, which sits between today's unit and the nearby residences — as well as the mellow weather conditions expected — those qualifications won't be needed. Bodies to drag torches, wield hand tools and haul hoses, however, are needed. Thirty-five bodies showed up this week to do the work while sharing knowledge and skills to train each other.

Many of the young Karuk fire crew members are so accustomed to working together that very little talking is needed as they reel out hose to cool off trees that are heating up too much in the burn. They strain against the resistance of their Type 6 fire engine and, sometimes, sling the hose over one shoulder as a balance point for aiming the high-pressure stream.

TREX burns set out to achieve different objectives. While fire safety for the local neighborhood is at the top of the list, this burn will serve another valuable function. Conifers and brush have encroached on the meadow in the middle of this unit after a century of suppression starved the forest of fire.

Cultural practitioner and Karuk basket weaver Kathy McCovey is on site, observing the day's burn.

"I think those pines might be from off site — see how they're flagging and dying," McCovey says, explaining that a few things — including drought and pathogens — might cause that. "I'm thinking, if they're from off site, their seed stock might have brought that disease with them. Or maybe because the ground grew compacted here with mining activity ... ."

McCovey sees signs this was likely once a Karuk village site, including the direction the slope faces, which exposes it to plenty of sunlight. It was probably an open meadow, she says. The unit is about 16 acres in size — about 2 of which remain intact as meadow.

Out ahead of the firing team, Happy Camp old-timer Butch Whitehouse throws sticks out of the way and examines the vegetation he finds. Whitehouse has Karuk ancestry on one side of his family. He's a retired logger who first started working with the Happy Camp Fire Safe Council 19 years ago after working on the devastating Biscuit Fire in nearby Southern Oregon. Since then, the Fire Safe Council has been absorbed by the Mid Klamath Watershed Council's (MKWC) Fire and Fuels Program. Whitehouse stuck with the Fire Safe Council through the change of hands, and MKWC leadership was happy to have the experience and extra hands on site.

Whitehouse stops to talk about what led to this point in time.

"Yeah, it's grown," Whitehouse says of the fire safe council since MKWC took it on, "and I hope it keeps growing."

Happy Camp used to be based on timber industry, he says, and before that mining sustained the town. As those industries have died out, ways of earning a living have become scarce, Whitehouse says.

"And then this [fuels reduction and prescribed burning] stuff turns up," he says. "And this is a necessary thing. And hopefully, there's a future in it. You know, I've got my son ... he likes this stuff and he's got other friends that do the same thing. I told him it's a great thing. ... The thing about my son is he's probably one of the smartest people I know. He's a computer whiz. His older sister says, 'Dad! He could be making 60 bucks an hour on that computer, making websites,' and I'm going, 'He's your brother – you talk to him.'

"But he grew up camped out on logging jobs with me, learning to run heavy equipment since before he could even see over the dash," Whitehouse continues. "He's done this work ever since."

Once you get Whitehouse reminiscing about all the wildfires he's been on, all the way back to the 1980s within a 100 miles of here, it's a steady stream. You needn't ask him twice why this "prescribed fire stuff" is necessary.

"Look at the area we live in, with fuels up and down from the forest floor to the treetops," he says. "This is fire protection. Period."

The benefits of this type of burning go beyond community protection from wildfires, however. Whitehouse is also happy to see the poison oak that his wife's skin reacts to set back. He likes other fire effects he's seeing here on the ground, too.

"It's thick and heavy in here," he says. "You don't want to bring fire through too fast or you'll miss stuff."

In a wildfire, things often get out of hand by the time firefighters can get to it but, in contrast, prescribed burns stay under control with crews on site, Whitehouse says.

"You'll still have flare-ups but the landowners have a lot of trees here," he says. "When I was in high school, we used to hunt down here when it was a meadow with water running through it. But it's closed in since then with trees."

Sanchez, called "Meeko" by his peers, grew up hunting in this country, too, in a later generation. Sanchez talks about the projects on his plate, including grant reporting, organizing and participating in TREX, and overseeing contractors brushing and piling.

Three weeks after the broadcast burn, the weather has turned much wetter and less favorable for this type of burning. Although the rainy conditions put a damper on carrying fire across the whole forest floor because fuels are too wet to burn well, the rains haven't dampened the ambitions of TREX organizers, including Darragh and Sanchez. They see an opportunity to focus more on valuable training with participants and burning piles of forest fuels, readying for broadcast burns where the piles were for the next time a good burn window presents itself.

Many of the piles being burned during this year's TREX are inside the 5,570-acre footprint of the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership's (WKRP) pilot program called the Somes Bar Integrated Fire Management Project. The pilot proposes to treat the targeted acreage with manual and mechanical thinning and piling, to be followed by pile burning and then broadcast burning.

The project has fallen behind schedule, with delays piling up. One of those delays has been with one of WKRP's key partners, the U.S. Forest Service, which still prioritizes fire suppression over pile burning and under burning. For the first time in years, however, Six Rivers and Klamath national forests found the leeway in their staffing and budgets to finally tackle some broadcast burning and pile burning with TREX partners. The forest service's involvement in TREX is a new development, but a step in the right direction, TREX organizers say.

"It is nice to get to some of those piles," Sanchez says. "It seems like we're doing better than most years at getting to those piles. We've been able to get quite a bit done. I thought it would be more chaotic, but the whole TREX organization has been smoother than I expected."

Sanchez participated in a few isolated TREX burns in the past but this is his first year being involved on the enterprise from start to finish.

It's also the first time he can remember getting such a good burn window and getting so much accomplished without getting shut down. Fire weather watches and red flag warnings in other parts of California routinely result in CalFire pulling burn permits for the Klamath TREX, even when local weather conditions are much different than elsewhere in the state. Blanket burn bans have become the norm in California, Sanchez points out.

Sanchez followed his cousins on a fire career path, and his love for the outdoors and spending time in the mountains reaffirmed that choice.

Fire is fun and beneficial, but it's also a responsibility, he says. Thanks to a few key mentors in the fire field, especially forest service prescribed fire specialist Robert McConnell, Sanchez has wanted to be responsible for using fire to cultural and community benefit and for teaching the next Karuk generation coming up behind him. As a hunter, more than anything else, it's the benefits of fire to wildlife that motivate him to keep learning more about the practice and keep getting better at reintroducing fire in the right places at the right times of year.

Growing up in Happy Camp, Sanchez remembers there were regularly fires in the summer. He wanted them, he recalls, because he knew the fire scars would make better hunting grounds in the fall.

"Learning the areas that I'm from is honestly what kept me going in fire, getting up in the high country and knowing that I was going to see a lot more this way," he says.

Sanchez says helping to make people in the community more comfortable with fire and restoring cultural resources for tribal people are the most important aspects of TREX to him. This year's burn on the river bar on the south end of Orleans was on a piece of property now owned by the Karuk Tribe, done for both community protection purposes and to meet cultural objectives.

"We were hopefully able to provide some good materials for basket weavers," Sanchez says of the burn. "I learn a lot in those environments when we're focusing on those cultural objectives. That's what I'm here for."

Erica Terence was born and raised on the California Salmon River in the Middle Klamath Region. After studying communications at Seattle University, she moved back to The River to work at conservation nonprofits, including the North Coast Environmental Center, Klamath Riverkeeper and the Mid Klamath Watershed Council. She is now a co-founder of two affiliated nonprofit organizations geared for fire policy reform and prescribed fire training and intentional burning. Those recently formed organizations are Torchbearr Action and Torchbearr. She served as the head public information officer for this year's TREX but wrote this story after the exchange — and her job in it — concluded.

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