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Happy Camp resident reflects on living amidst the 2022 wildfires

Karuk tribal member Kathy McCovey shows off a traditional woven basket near her home in 2021.
Erik Neumann
Karuk tribal member Kathy McCovey shows off a traditional woven basket near her home in 2021.

The McKinney Fire, and the Alex and Yeti fires are burning in Siskiyou County, along the Klamath River. It’s a vast rural area, dotted by several small towns. Kathy McCovey lives in Happy Camp. McCovey is a member of the Karuk Tribe and is a longtime firefighter. JPR’s Erik Neumann spoke with McCovey on Monday about what it’s like living near the fires.

Kathy McCovey: I'm sitting in downtown Happy Camp. My house is right across from the Klamath National Forest Happy Camp/Oak Knoll Ranger District. And it's also across from the base camp for the Yeti Fire. I see a lot of traffic going through town. It's very smoky here right now. I feel more comfortable about the Yeti Fire and the Alex Fire because I looked at Team 10’s morning briefing, and it seems like they have a good handle on fire lines to protect the residents and the towns. Those are established and they're holding really good. They’re cat lines, dozer lines that they punch in during the fire, and then they'll do “back fires” and other crew will come along and basically do what they call “back fire” from that dozer lines into the head of the fire to rob it of fuels. And they've done that. So, the smoke column is less today. It's a filmy smoke that's covering Happy Camp right now.

Erik Neumann: In 2020 the Slater Fire had a huge impact on the area around Happy Camp. Are any of the current fires burning in the footprint of the Slater Fire?

KM: No, this Yeti Fire is butting up against the footprint of the Slater Fire. But it's divided by the Klamath River canyon right now.

EN: The Karuk Tribe and other groups like the Mid Klamath Watershed Council have done a lot of work promoting and practicing prescribed burning in the Happy Camp area. Has it been possible to see any effect from that work at this point? Or is it too soon to learn anything about the effect of those prescribed burns?

KM: This would be a good fire to look at it because a lot of work was done on Grider Ridge with the Yeti Fire is. I think that's going to be like roadside thinning and other type of vegetation manipulation to cut down the fuels. So, for me, this is going to be a very interesting fire to look at the effects.

EN: What can you tell me about the fish kill on the Klamath River? How concerning is that level of die-off of fish in the river that you're seeing right now?

KM: It's devastating. It’s really hurting the hearts of our communities. What happened, what we think, the Karuk Tribe and others can't quite get into the fire area where they think that the slide happened because of the fire situation right now. But the thought is that in the watersheds that drain into the Klamath River, there was some type of sedimentary event further up slope out of the current [McKinney] Fire area. However, we had a large rainstorm that pulses a lot of rain in at once, and that may have caused the debris flow. We've had some little earthquakes up around here in the last few months too. But something caused that debris flow and they feel that part of the negative impact that resulted from that debris flow from traveling through the current McKinney Fire area was it picked up a lot of ash, a lot of debris, a lot of mud from soils that had just been burnt very hot, and all that carried into the river. And I believe it was on August 3rd and 4th, the Karuk monitoring stations on the Klamath River found that there was zero oxygen in river on both of those days. It was just chocolate with mud. So, this is devastating. People are seeing a lot of sucker [fish]. There are a lot of suckers and they have died but also we have the some of the smaller salmonoid species, lamprey eels. We don't know what the effects of this is yet.

EN: Well, Kathy, thanks so much for making the time to chat today.

KM: Thank you very much for inviting me. I appreciate it. You have a good day.

EN: You too.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.