Earlier this month, as wildfires were ripping through California’s wine country, government and tribal agencies collaborated with non-profits to deliberately set prescribed fires further north in the western Klamath Mountains.
The Klamath Training Exchange – or TREX – strategically put fire on the ground to protect towns from wildfire, to restore native cultural traditions and to train crews in how to use “good fire” to fend off “bad fire.”
Will Harling is looking over a broad, flat river bar covered in grasses and brush, just outside the small town of Orleans in Humboldt County. In Karuk tribal traditions, this place is called Tishawnik.
“This fertile river bar in a bend on the Klamath creates so much fuel every year that if it doesn’t get burned regularly, then it’s just this ticking time bomb waiting for an up-canyon wind and an ignition source to drive fire right into town,” he says.
That’s exactly what happened in 2001, and again in 2013, destroying several homes.
“Part of the goal of TREX,” Harling says, “is to get fuel breaks all around the community of Orleans so that people aren’t fearful of fire anymore, so that we can let fires burn in the back country again.”
Harling is director of the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council, which is heading up this exercise. A crew in yellow fire gear and hardhats is standing by with shovels and hoses. After a final check on wind, temperature and humidity, a crew member walks the gravel road, torching the grass along the edge.
The breeze quickly whips the fire up and pushes it across the dried grass. Crew members are watchful, but relaxed; the fire is doing exactly what they want it to.
Bill Tripp is with the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources. He says this particular prescribed burn is intended not only to provide wildfire protection, but to support native cultural traditions, as well.
“There are a lot of medicinal plants and basket materials out here that also benefit from fire,” Tripp says. “So we’re hoping we can get fresh sprouts in the willow and scorch off the invasives like Himalayan blackberry and star thistle to provide easier access to our traditional practitioners.”
Tripp notes that most of the crew staffing this burn are tribal members. Vikki Preston is one of them. She says that for her, the burn here at Tishawnik is connected to family, as well as tribal traditions.
“I remember when the Orleans fire came through,” Preston says. “We were standing on my sister’s porch and we had to get out of there as soon as we could because the fire was just here at Tishawnik coming across the road. Part of why the Tishawnik burn is pretty special is because it creates that defensible space around her home.”
TREX trainee Rony Reed uses a drip torch to set a prescribed burn on a grassy river bar on the Klamath River known as Tishawnik. The area is just outside the town of Orleans, CA, and has been used for centuries as a place for Karuk tribal people to collect medicinal plants, food and basket making materials.
About an hour north, outside the town of Happy Camp, ecologist Michael Hentz takes me to a burn that was done yesterday. Hentz also works for the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council.
“We picked this fire specifically to encourage meadow restoration,” he says.
You can see the mosaic pattern, where dry debris on the forest floor burned, and green grasses didn’t.
Hentz points to the relatively few large trees, being crowded by small trees, slowly turning what had been a grassy meadow into forest.
“Historically, I might argue, that you might have three to eight trees per acre in this meadow complex,” he said. “They would tend to be very old oaks, old incense cedars, old sugar pines. Currently we may have 300 trees to the acre.”
Burning off the encroaching growth, he says, will help restore the meadow.
“Our meadows are very rare and habitat-rich places. So the fact that we’re losing these meadow complexes means we’re losing a lot of wildlife habitat, a lot of ecological diversity.”
The Watershed Council’s Erica Terence acknowledges that deliberately setting fires in a region that’s lived with more than its share of fire and smoke in recent years hasn’t always been an easy sell. But, she says, the Training Exchange presents an opportunity to foster a shift in community perspective.
“So that we know how to keep our towns and our other valued resources safe, and still coexist with fire in our midst.”
TREX organizers hope that sharing the know-how of using “good fire” will help communities reclaim fire as a positive tool for managing a healthy landscape.