How To Ditch A Century of Fire Suppression
by Will Harling
Last August 4, a handful of local firefighters were gathered at the Pigeon Shoot, a rickety wooden platform built atop a rock outcrop on a knife edge ridge just east of the Rainbow Mine, the first private property to be threatened by the White’s Fire. Located in the headwaters of the North Fork Salmon River in the east side of the Middle Klamath River watershed, this fire spread rapidly through forests where fires had been effectively excluded since fire suppression was invented over a century before. Standing at the Pigeon Shoot, it was easy to see the gravity of the situation. Fire was slopping over the nearest ridges on all sides, and flames whipped up by pre-frontal winds of a crackling thunderstorm reached 400 feet into the sky as they vaporized a fir plantation just across Music Creek. It was a living version of Tolkien’s Mordor. In this moment I saw the gravity of the larger situation: over half of the Western Klamath Mountains have not seen fire in a century and we are seeing the worst drought cycle on record.
Rainbow Mine had been constructed hastily in the early part of the 20th century by miners who were mining investors from the Bay Area more than anything else. Legend has it they got the money to construct the 11 Sears Roebuck kit houses on the 100+ acre property by taking what gold they had found, packing it into the barrel of a shotgun and blasting it into a tunnel wall for a photo shoot. It was one of the most indefensible properties I had ever seen, with houses built out over the edge of steep slopes where firebrands would funnel under the house. Others were built up against the hillside where boulders and rolling chunks of debris coming off the steep hillside above would inevitably come if the fire passed through.
Herculean efforts by professional and local firefighters and over $100,000 in retardant drops saved all but two of the structures. Past fuel reduction and controlled burning downslope along the steep, one-way access road allowed firefighters to stay and defend. We won this battle against steep odds, but looking at the intensity of last summer’s fires, the homes that were lost and the salmon streams that are set to unravel over the coming decades, it is clear we are losing the war. Nearly $200 million dollars has been spent already on suppression and repair of the 2014 Klamath wildfires. This feels like a punch in the gut when I think back to our last school board meeting where we discussed how to cover basic facilities repairs like leaking roofs with an ever shrinking budget. Obviously, the answer is not to let places like the Rainbow Mine burn or stop suppressing all wildfires. A recent plan covering 1.2 million acres of the Western Klamath Mountains that emerged from the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership demonstrates how we can greatly reduce costs by up to 90% over the coming decades, better protect homes, and begin to restore the fire resilient forests of a century ago.
The key is getting controlled fire back onto the landscape at much larger scales by constructing strategic fuelbreaks along roads and ridges through manual and mechanical fuels treatments to safely contain these burns. This strategy uses some of the same tactics of firefighting, but we can choose cooler times of year to burn and create local jobs and revenue through constructing more effective fuelbreaks. Once fuelbreaks have been established around communities, allowing wildfires to burn in the backcountry like they have forever is something we can embrace again. The safe use of controlled burning was successfully modelled during the Fall of 2013 and 2014 during the Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX). Plans for a larger TREX in Happy Camp, the Salmon River, and Orleans in the fall of 2015 are under way, but we will need community support on many levels to make it work. Now is the time for us to create a new relationship with fire in these mountains. I hope you will join us. Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to get involved in this year's training.
Will Harling serves as Director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council. Born and raised in the Middle Klamath, Will brings a lifetime of local knowledge and a love for this place to the work of watershed restoration.