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Let it Burn 

Orleans fire symposium highlights need for controlled burns

The challenge for the fifth Klamath Fire Ecology Symposium in Orleans was to leverage changes in national and state fire policy to allow for more prescribed fire and managed wildfires at opportune times in an era that sees wildfires grow harder to control every season.

It is a big claim that a little conference in the far flung reaches of Humboldt County can presage changes not just in the Klamath Mountains, but across the West, but the 100-plus attendees, tribal leaders, scientists and agency practitioners from across the country, were ready to share their work and to listen to one another. And by the three-day symposium's close, state and federal officials had sung the praises of controlled burns and indicated a willingness to move past the suppression-first approach to fire management.

During the symposium's keynote presentation, retired fire ecologist Carl Skinner stressed that fire is returning whether we like it or not, but that how this fire comes back, as the destroyer or the redeemer, really depends on us.

Skinner's presentation, summarizing work with University of California at Berkeley's Scott Stephens and others incorporating dozens of fire studies from across the Sierra Nevada mountains, showed an unmistakable pattern in fire regimes dating as far back as tree rings could take them with any statistical confidence; about 400-plus years.

Four periods emerge from the data. One begins with their earliest samples and ends in the early 1700s. Another stretches from then up to the mid-1800s, and then a third goes until 1911 when the federal Weeks Act marked the onset of our current fire suppression policy. Here, the fire record flatlined for nearly a century, up until present day, when the West seems to be on the precipice of a new fire period: the era of megafires.

After researchers looked at all the known climate patterns that might have influenced fire regimes in the Sierras and did not find any relationship to these periods, they began looking at other potential factors.

One fit like a glove: periods of settlement that disrupted native communities throughout the region. First it was Spanish settlement in the 1730s, followed by the Gold Rush in the 1840s. Both disrupted the relationship between humans and fire in unique ways.

Finally, the death knell for native burning came when Gifford Pinchot, the founder of the U.S. Forest Service, used fire suppression in the wake of the Great Fires of 1910 to justify the existence and growth of his new agency.

Skinner and other presenters said that use of fire as a tool is the best hope to maintain and restore the legacy of old growth forests, and the once vast expanses of oak woodlands and grass savannahs that the first Spanish settlers described more than three centuries ago. Skinner's keynote presentation finished with a clear message: After what may be the last wet winter for a long while, there is no better time for fire managers to consider using managed wildfires in these moderate conditions to begin restoring these historic fire regimes, before the next megafire comes.

For Yurok tribal member Margo Robbins, who had presented the day before on the nascent Cultural Fire Management Council, Skinner's findings were bittersweet. This is what tribal people in the Klamath Mountains have been saying all along: Fire is the most important tool for managing the myriad resources the Yurok, Karuk and Hupa peoples depended on for survival. It is what keeps the world in balance. It is why, as Bill Tripp, with the Karuk Department of Natural Resources, explained in his presentation that the Karuk people lit off the top of Black Mountain outside of Orleans every August, followed by Offield Mountain upriver at Somes Bar on the new moon in September.

Ignition in late summer would be an unthinkable act to most people today after a century of fire exclusion. But this ceremonial burning at the landscape scale not only protected the villages of Panámniik and Ka'tim'îin, (the Karuk place names for Orleans and Somes Bar) but also called the salmon up the river by creating a smoke inversion and lowering water temperatures enough to allow passage to their spawning grounds.

This co-learning between traditional knowledge and western science, grounded in practicality by presentations from fire managers, sociologists and economists, has become the hallmark of the Klamath Fire Ecology Symposium since its inception in 1997.

The first symposium, organized by local conservation biologist Carlos Carroll, called attention to the short-sighted practices of salvage logging in the wake of high severity wildfires. In 2008, the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, the Karuk Tribe and the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station collaborated to bring the symposium back as a venue to get all the people holding a piece of the fire puzzle together under one roof in the Klamath Mountains.

The symposium has been held every three years since and has consistently attracted esteemed fire ecologists and the most knowledgeable traditional fire managers.

This year, Ken Pimlott, the director of CalFire, flew in on a helicopter only minutes before his address to the packed room, a community center cobbled together out of the guts of an old grocery store. In his address, Pimlott, a Humboldt State University graduate, reaffirmed his commitment to significantly increasing CalFire prescribed burning acres and, perhaps more importantly, to increasing their burning with partners.

Pimlott's staff is looking at agreements that could pave the way for sharing both resources and liability in returning good fire, prescribed fire, to the wildland urban interfaces, where communities blend into the forest.

U.S. Forest Service Deputy Regional Forester Barnie Gyant followed Pimlott, stressing the importance of fully analyzing the effects of no action, in contrast to knee-jerk suppression, in this era of megafires.

He acknowledged the importance of embracing managed wildfire as a tool to get ahead of the next wildfire. And it was no accident, he said, that his boss Randy Moore had selected Merv George and Nolan Colegrove, both tribal members and ceremonial leaders, to lead the Six Rivers National Forest.

Here in the Six Rivers, an historic agreement between Region 5 and the Nature Conservancy is being used to pilot cross-boundary burning with mixed fire crews between public, private and tribal lands.

On the final day of the symposium, participants toured prescribed burns implemented through the Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX), and through a local agreement between the Six Rivers National Forest and the Karuk Tribe. It is one thing to talk about fire but another to walk through a recent burn and see all the life coming back.

At the West Simms unit just above Orleans on the edge of a 2013 wildfire that nearly destroyed the town, Forest Service research ecologist Frank Lake, of Karuk descent, led people through an area that, two years before, had seen its first fire in a century. The area had been burned with only a narrow manual fuels treatment, not much more than firefighters building fire lines to suppress wildfires would do, to hold the fire on the perimeter. Fire was the only treatment on the 67-acre interior.

This strategy uses burn timing, when the conditions are such that the controlled burn targets the ground and ladder fuels and specific trees in the canopy, while leaving the legacy firs and oaks dating back to the pre-fire suppression era. This approach avoids costly thinning treatments and is essential in the rugged mountains of the Klamath region, where just putting a human on a hillside, much less with a chainsaw, can be dangerous. It is a demonstration of treatments the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership will begin modelling in the coming years at a much larger scale just upriver in the nearly 6,000-acre Somes Bar Integrated Fire Management Project.

That project may become a focal point of the symposium three years from now. The public will be invited, and conference organizers remind that it is up to everyone to bring good fire, the redemptive fire of people learning to live in place again, back to the Klamath Mountains and throughout the West.

The fire knowledge shared at this year's Klamath Fire Ecology Symposium, both in presentations and the hum of conversation, was deep and broad, tying together the social, cultural, ecological and economic threads of fire into a clear vision for the future of fire management.

As the crowd walked along the edge of an old meadow reappearing out of the thicket as the symposium drew to a close, they noted signs of elk, scat and nibbled foliage, which locals said had long been absent. The small stream meandering through the meadow, denuded immediately after the burn, was now covered with a mat of Indian tea (Yerba Buena), and chain fern, iris, huckleberry, azalea and hazel. "As a practitioner, as someone who gathers for ceremony and to feed my family, as a hunter, I walk through here and it just makes my heart happy," Lake said.

Will Harling is director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council. Malcolm Terence is a writer whose rural neighborhood has been threatened by large wildfires three times since 2006.

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About The Authors

Will Harling

Malcolm Terence

Malcolm Terence is an editor, along with Susan Keese and Don Monkerud, of Free Land, Free Love, Tales of a Wilderness Commune. He is a frequent contributor to California Teacher and EcoNews. Before he moved to the Black Bear commune in 1968, he was a newspaper writer in Los Angeles. For other insights into the... more

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