It was only ten days until the October 1t start date of the 2014 Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX), and things weren’t looking promising. More than 50 would-be participants in the TREX — some coming from as far away as Spain, some who would be lighting their own properties – were waiting for the call. Wildfires were still skunking around in the backcountry after burning nearly 200,000 acres across the Western Klamath Mountains on the heels of a record drought. Needless to say, CALFIRE was not even beginning to consider lifting the burn ban.
TREX organizers, including Incident Commander Tom Fielden who’d spent many years in these mountains pushing a drip torch, hung their hopes on a possible storm, a few days out, that just might deliver the needed two inches of rain, So the call was made for everyone to come.
And the rain came a week before the TREX, an uncanny two inches that fell fairly uniformly across the six rugged mountain communities where the burning was planned. In an unprecedented show of support, CALFIRE invoked a little known clause in California public resources code that allows the Unit Chief to exempt prescribed burns implemented “for health and safety purposes” from the burn ban. Humboldt County Unit Chief Tom Hein, only weeks away from retirement, issued permits for 32 burn units on 17 properties that were directly adjacent to 150 homes. The TREX was on.
But the story goes deeper. Twice in the last decade, on wetter years than this, CALFIRE had issued state-wide burn bans that tied burning in this far northwestern part of the state to conditions in Southern California. Representatives from the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, tired of watching perfectly good burn windows pass them by due to the statewide ban, met with CALFIRE director Ken Pimlott in 2013 to request burn bans be implemented and removed at the unit level. True to his word, even though 2014 was the driest year on record, Pimlott ordered unit-level burn bans, and as the TREX approached he supported Chief Hein in issuing permits under exemption for the TREX burns.
Even deeper still is the reason why the head of the largest firefighting force in the world would go out of his way to support this early Fall burning in the hinterlands of California. Rewind the clock to the summer of 2001, another severe drought year in Northern California. Near the end of summer, an arson fire was lit on a windy afternoon along the Klamath River in the middle of the small town of Orleans. A seemingly idyllic valley framed by high mountain peaks, Orleans represents both the hope that comes from people being isolated enough to have to depend on each other, but also the sadness and dysfunction of boom-and-bust rural towns across the West. And front and center is the ongoing struggle of the Karuk Tribe to restore their culture in the aftermath of the Gold Rush holocaust.
This fire, named the Dance Fire by agency dispatchers with little cultural sensitivity, was lit near the Tshanik Ceremonial Grounds where the Karuk had brought back the White Deerskin Dance, one of a series in the annual World Renewal Ceremonies. Historically, this fertile river bar was burned every year: after thousands of years living here the Karuk had an impeccable sense of what we now call defensible space. But defensible space was almost a byproduct of maintaining the cultural landscape, that, as fire ecologist Frank Kanahwa Lake described it, was their grocery store, their hardware store, their church.
But these cultural burns had not taken place for a century, and so in 2001 this fire quickly spread with the up-canyon wind, right to the edge of town. The suppression force — honed, if not perfected, here in this land of frequent fire from both arson and lightning — sprang into action. Retardant drops from the river’s edge to the highway along Gold Dredge Road saved the homes on the other side, and ground forces backed up by helicopter water drops put out spot fires as they crossed Highway 96.
The fire was kept to a mere 40 acres on Orleans Bar, but it opened the community’s eyes to this fire threat, not from campaign fires marching steadily towards town for months, but from fast moving fires within the valley itself. The recently formed Orleans-Somes Bar Fire Safe Council rode this wave of fire prevention consciousness to enlist many of the town’s residents to allow brushing on their properties in the coming years. Unfortunately, the timber operator who somehow acquired ownership of the Tshanik ceremonial area, was not interested in any fuel reduction beyond a hasty salvage operation to cut the merchantable trees.
Fast forward to 2013. Another drought year. Another arson fire at Tshanik that was again immediately dubbed the “Dance Fire.” But this time the winds were stronger, the fuel drier than before, and the fire swept across Highway 96, burning through the center of town. Heroic efforts by residents and firefighters alike caught the fire that night around 450 acres, with no fatalities and only one home lost. At the community After Action Review for this fire, long-time volunteer fire chief Tom Bouse called everyone out for letting this happen again. Bill Tripp, the Eco-Cultural Restoration Specialist for the Karuk Tribe, responded in his usual quiet voice that if the Tribe had been able to manage this area with prescribed fire, neither of these wildfires would have even been possible.
As fate would have it, the property was sold to the Tribe the next year, just as burn units were being laid out for the Fall 2014 Klamath River Prescribed Fire TREX. Tribal fire managers worked with the Incident Management Team for the TREX to create a burn plan and establish containment lines. In a nod to tribal sovereignty, the Fire Safe Council requested the necessary LE-5, LE-8, and air quality permits from the state. Leading up to the burn, the Fire Safe Council conducted extensive community outreach, including door-to-door notifications, which demonstrated overwhelming support for restoring intentional fire in the Orleans Valley. Of the 50 residents interviewed, 48 supported of the burn, and one of the detractors came around after it was implemented.
On the day of the Tshanik burn, over sixty firefighters gathered for the morning briefing at the old grocery store in the center of town. It now housed the Fire Safe Council, the post office, and several other non-profits, but for the 10-day TREX it was doubling as the Incident Command Post. The fatawanun, or medicine man in Karuk language, for that year’s White Deerskin ceremony talked about the role fire plays in ceremony.
“The smoke from the fire is what carries our prayers up into the sky so the creator can hear them,” the fatawanun said. “It is important to think good thoughts; for your families, your fellow firefighters, for the land, as you put fire on the ground.”
Hanging from a string over his shoulder, he carried a carved elk horn for packing the fire as Karuk men had done since time immemorial. Inside, a coal smoldered in a bed of tinder. Six hours later, when the resources were all in place at the unit, and the grass had dried in the heat of mid-day, he took the coal from the elkhorn, laid it on the tinder in the grass, and blew.
As the sound of the fire crackling grew louder, and the wisp of smoke rose up, a Bald Eagle flew low and silent directly overhead. Jackie Goodwin, the Tribe’s Self-Governance Director, and Aja Conrad, a tribal member who just graduated from UC Berkeley, were participating in the TREX and were asked to spread the fatawanun’s fire into an adjacent stand of willows along the banks of the Klamath River. Traditionally, Karuk women managed these very same willow stands for basket materials. To this day, Karuk baskets are among the most prized globally for their quality and artistry.
The 84-acre burn at Tshanik was the largest of the TREX, and significant in that it was the first time in more than a century that the Tribe was able to restore cultural fire use here without persecution. A CALFIRE engine from the Elk Camp station on Bald Hills came out to provide holding support along Gold Dredge Road where the wildfire the summer before had come so close to burning nearly 50 homes. This controlled burn symbolized for many present the dawn of a new era of prescribed fire use for both community and cultural protection.
The 2014 Klamath River TREX as a whole demonstrated how diverse groups could come together to safely bring fire back to the Wildland Urban Interface where it has been long absent, and provides an example of how we can create the structure to increase the scope and scale of prescribed burning in rural communities across the West. Utilizing the Incident Command Structure, and adhering to NWCG training standards, a team of federal, state, tribal, NGO, and local partners including private contractors and volunteer fire departments, were able to both learn together and burn together.
A recent memorandum of understanding between USFS Region 5 and The Nature Conservancy provides the framework for burning across public and private boundaries to achieve the goals of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. Unfortunately, due to the burn ban, the 500 acre unit on Forest Service lands was not able to be permitted during the TREX, so the 240 acres of burning accomplished was kept to private lands.
Key to the success of this event was a highly qualified overhead team that included two Type I and six Type II burn bosses, a lean but dedicated planning team, and mid-level experienced firefighters from Firestorm Wildland Fire Services, Inc. that helped train the 19 participants who completed their basic firefighter II training on the first day of the TREX.
As part of the training opportunity, two RxB II’s trainees from the Forest Service came all the way from Utah’s Wasatch Mountains for the opportunity to make progress on their Task Books. One of these, James Turner, said “we got more burn boss and trainee assignments in the past 10 days than we have in the last five years on our home unit.” Jose Tenorio who works for the BIA in New Mexico, came from Albuquerque, and successfully completed his RxB II task book on this TREX. “I want to bring my whole crew out next year to learn about burning in mixed conifer forests,” he said. “And you are all more than welcome to come to my pueblo any time!”
TREX organizers plan on creating a Type III Incident Management Team to implement the Fall 2015 Klamath River Prescribed Fire TREX. Bill Tripp, with the Karuk Tribe, envisions a future where this local Type III team can be utilized for local wildland fires when needed, but is primarily focused on making the best of every Fall burn window to bring good fires back to the WUI before the bad ones come. With seemingly endless drought, it is a daunting task, but local landscape-level planning efforts through the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership provide a framework for how this can be done in a timely manner across their 1.2 million acre planning area. By strategically implementing manual and mechanical fuels treatments directly around homes and infrastructure, in addition to linear treatments along roads and existing fuelbreaks, we can garner public support for prescribed burning through the TREX structure on a much larger scale.
For next year, nearly $2 million in funding for the Partnership from the Forest Service and others has been allocated to begin planning for large scale projects around the communities of Happy Camp, Somes Bar and Orleans. An interdisciplinary team including staff from the Forest Service, Karuk Tribe, Mid Klamath Watershed Council, and others will help to expedite treatments on 5,000 acres of public and private lands, while preparing for programmatic NEPA on a larger 50,000 acre treatment area in the years to come.
Key to the success of this model is public support. Only when residents feel safe, when they have good fuelbreaks around their homes and valued resources, can we begin to tackle the fire debt from a century of fire suppression in the WUI. The TREX model has the potential to expedite creation of these fuelbreaks and allow fire managers more options for controlled burning, as well as fire suppression actions when needed.
In the After Action Review at the end of the TREX, many shared how powerful the experience was for them. “Life after TREX just isn’t the same,” admitted Sam Berry, one of many community members engaged by the TREX burns. Berry, a local who fulfilled a firing position directly below his home – built by the Red Cross after being lost in 1987 to a wildfire — is working on his Firefighter I task book and has signed up for more Nature Conservancy sponsored training exchanges around the country.
Jeremy Bailey, the originator of the TREX model with TNC and the Fire Learning Network, showed up for the last two days of the event. “This is a life dream to be able to work with communities and get fire back in the hands of the people who have had fire taken from them,” he said.
Tripp couldn’t agree more. “It was great to start to turn the corner from where we have been for so long around here. It’s phenomenal. This TREX is making it start to come together. You are all a part of it and that’s a great thing.”
Will Harling is executive director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council and co-director of the council’s Fire and Fuels Program.