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‘Cheerleading for a broken system’: fire exclusion in the Klamath National Forest

Smoke rises from the McKinney Fire on August 8, 2022.
Smoke rises from the McKinney Fire on August 8, 2022.

A conversation with Will Harling of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council about the McKinney Fire and the need to talk more about beneficial fire in our public lands.

In late August Klamath National Forest Supervisor Rachel Smith wrote a statement celebrating the success of her agency at suppressing the McKinney Fire and several smaller fires in the region. But not everyone agreed with her assessment. Will Harling is a firefighter and the director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, a Siskiyou County nonprofit that does local land management including leading large prescribed fire trainings. JPR’s Erik Neumann recently spoke with Harling.

Erik Neumann: You wrote a very critical response to a Facebook post from Rachel Smith, who's the forest supervisor of the Klamath National Forest. In it she talked about their success managing, the McKinney Fire and putting out other fires along the Oregon-California border this summer. You describe what she wrote as “cheerleading for a broken system”. What was it exactly that you disagreed with in what she said?

Will Harling: Well, it's really what Rachel wasn't saying. The experience that people like me have had living here my whole life on the ground is just watching everything we love being destroyed by the effects of fire exclusion and fire suppression on our landscapes. What we see time and again with the Forest Service response to wildfires is just cheering on the firefighters. And in the moment, you know, the public agrees. I mean, we all agree. We want to save our towns from being burned down, and in that moment, we do need to suppress fires. But what's disingenuous is not addressing the root cause which is the wildfire paradox – the more fires we put out, the more at-risk our communities are.

Really what I was pointing out was that we have to stop playing the short-term game of just cheerleading on our firefighters as they fight these impossible battles, and die, while not addressing the root cause which is, we need to be proactive about managing fuels on the landscape. So, my plea to Rachel was to be truthful with the public, to be honest about these trade-offs, to not treat every fire suppressed as this major victory, and to really start to be culpable. That fuel accumulation that we have out there on the ground is the responsibility of the state and federal fire management agencies who strictly focus their efforts on fire suppression and fire exclusion, and they don't get their offense on the field in off-season to any meaningful degree to deal with the fuels problem.

EN: This is obviously a nuanced conversation. Are you suggesting that officials should have left the McKinney Fire burn longer or do less suppression?

WH: Absolutely not. That's what they always come back to us [and say] ‘You want us to stop suppressing fires’? No, I want you to treat the emergency as a year-round occurrence. The emergency doesn't go away when they put the fire out. The emergency is all the time. And really, our society criminalizes fire starts. But what we need to criminalize is fuel accumulations. Letting fuels accumulate to the state where all you need is an ignition and a wind event to cause a town to burn down and people to die, that's a criminal act in my mind.

EN: Just to be specific, how do you see these sort of bad management techniques having a direct impact in communities around where you live like Klamath River or Happy Camp or Orleans with the fires this summer?

WH: Every wildfire tells a story. Let's just start with the 2020 Slater Fire that started in Happy Camp near Slater Butte Lookout on “Black Tuesday,” September 8, 2020. Now ostensibly, Pacific Power is getting sued for that fire start, but as the lookout described, a treetop blew from 100 feet away from the line, on those 50 mile-per-hour winds with 3% humidity, and arced those lines. You've got Pacific Power who's providing a public service. They're bringing powered everybody's homes and yet they're the ones who are being criminalized. But if you look at the path of that fire as it burned 30 miles into Oregon, all the way up to Cave Junction, and a 30 mile by nine-mile-wide swath; what caused that to be a destructive fire was the lack of fuels management on that landscape and the history of fire exclusion and the history of logging without cleaning up the slash. That's what made that a deadly fire, caused 260 or so homes to burn down and two deaths.

People who were walking through that burn footprint you know found whole herds of elk, just decimated. In that one day, millions of living things died. Trees there were over 1,000 years old. I don't see that as Pacific Power’s fault. I see that as the fault of the agencies who would think it was okay to manage a forest like that. It's not okay. Tribal cultures are suffering great losses because they can't get the materials they need to carry on their culture, because of the lack of fire on the landscape. And communities where we live, live in fear every summer because we're surrounded by a time bomb of fuels on surrounding public lands.

EN: If fire suppression or fire exclusion is the problem. What are the long-term solutions that you think need to be discussed in moments like this when people are actually paying attention?

WH: We've spent a lot of time over the past 20-plus years developing a sound alternative to the current way of managing fire in the Klamath Mountains. First off, that includes looking at risk-based management decisions throughout the year. With all the funding that's coming down for fuels reduction, understanding where these places are that we keep coming back to to fight fires and investing in those, so that we have a network of well-planned fuel breaks starting at our communities and going out in the wild land that allows us to have a chance at stopping those fires that we don't want in the middle of summer that could burn a town down, but also give us the opportunity when the time is right, say in November or October, when we're seeing beneficial effects from those wildfires, to choose to let some fires burn for resource objectives.

There’s so many locations out there that are completely surrounded by recent wildfire footprints. Maybe it's a 4,000-acre or a 10,000-acre patch that has wildfire footprints all around it. There's literally no risk that a lightning start in that landscape would come out of there and burn a town down. And yet, we're still putting out those fires. Back to that example of the Slater Fire, it burned 30 miles in one day, but the reality was, if it wasn't for two recent fire footprints just to the west of that – the 2017 Oak Fire and the 2018 Natchez Fire – the fire models showed that that fire would have burned 50 miles all the way to the coast and burned down the town of Crescent City that very first day. So, those recent fire footprints, the Oak and the Natchez Fire, firefighters, through the suppression mentality, would see that as a failure, that those fires burned roughly 30-40,000 acres those previous years. But what we know is that those fire footprints were the only thing that saved the town of Crescent City and potentially hundreds of people from dying.

I think we need to start to tell that story in the media and with the public and that's what the Forest Service isn't doing. They won't tell the full story. It's all about the heroic firefighters. And I agree, firefighters are heroic. I am a firefighter. I spent 27 hours on initial attack on that Slater Fire watching homes burn. It's a hard life that firefighters lead, but honoring firefighters – truly honoring firefighters – is addressing the heart of this problem, which is getting at the fuel backlog on the landscape and working with communities to create buffers of treated fuels around our communities, so that we can choose to let some wildfires burn at the right times a year for resource objectives.

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.