USA — In Orleans, a small river town in the heart of the Klamath National Forest, a group of about 100 residents, Forest Service officials, tribespeople and scientists came together for three days this week to try and hash out a better way to fight wildfires with fire, an effort first inspired by American Indian traditions of small burns on a frequent basis.
“In the last few years, we’ve spent over $180 million and lost 13 lives in the north state fighting fires,” said Will Harling, of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, who organized the meeting. “How can we convince politicians that fire suppression isn’t a sound policy?”
Many Forest Service officials, scientists and government officials attended the conference, and most agreed with Harling that trying to put out all fires in national forests and in timberlands is a practice doomed to failure.
“Since the l970s, fire policy and practices have changed dramatically,” said Mike Beasley, the deputy fire manager for the Six Rivers National Forest. “There is more acceptance now for the need for fire in the landscape than ever before.”
Beasley spent eight years as a fire manager in Yosemite National Park, where burns were prescribed as early as the l970s and where lightning-caused fires have been allowed to burn to thin forests and reduce the fuel loads. The idea is that fire cannot be kept out of forests forever and that more frequent low-intensity burns reduce the risk of a catastrophic crown fire.
The theory is old news to Sue Daniels, the “burn boss” for the Forest Service in Happy Camp, a town of about 2,000 people not far from Orleans. She told the conference that she was being pressured by her supervisors “to burn more acres for less money every year.” From her perspective, the problem was not willingness but capability.
“My district extends from Ashland in the north down to the Marble Mountains in the south, from Dillon Creek on the west to I-5 on the east,” she said. “I have two people working for me, on all our projects, from prescribed burns to timber sales to civic and cultural actions.”
Carl Skinner, a geographer for the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research station in Redding, sympathized,
“I’m all for prescribed fire,” he said.
“I’ve been using it for my entire career. But I don’t see that we can do enough of it to make a difference on a landscape scale, because there are too many constraints.”
Skinner in his opening remarks stressed that climate change will greatly add to the risks and the costs of fighting wildfires in the north state and around the country.
“The fire season is getting longer, by as much as 70 days a year,” he said. “That’s happening now. We’re going to get a lot more vegetative growth, which will fuel bigger fires, and we’re going to have higher temperatures and more extremes generally.”
He pointed to the fires that burned across west Texas this month as the kind of extreme conditions firefighters will face this century.
Skinner added that prescribed fires can be useful locally, to reduce the risks of a fire in a particular area, and that during a big wildfire, local officials can work with fire teams from outside the area to reduce fuel loads and the risk of an unstoppable fire. This was a theme picked up by Nolan Colegrove, the newly appointed district ranger, who is of the Hoopa Valley tribe.
“When you’re in a big wildfire, the decision-making process is a little different,” Colegrove said. “We want to get to be ready for when those fires do happen and front-load those values, from the community, from tribal members and from resource managers, so that we’re not scrambling with the next Incident Command team that comes in.”
Harling, who organized the fire ecology symposium with backing from the Nature Conservancy, among many other groups, said he believes from his experience with dozens of burns in the sparsely populated Orleans area that fire is a vital safety tool.
“Prescribed burning may not be the silver bullet, but I really believe in the value of burning on private lands, especially on fuel breaks,” he said. “I have driven by too many fuels-reduction projects that were brushed and left and a couple of years later you can hardly see them for all the stump sprouts.”
Harry Vaughn, a former Forest Service worker from the Happy Camp area, pointed out that at one time local tribespeople were put in jail for using fire as part of their way of life.
“I grew up logging old-growth redwoods, so I see that value,” he said. “But I also see the value of fire to reduce young fir growth, for the water yield, for medicinal plants and for many other purposes. There is so much knowledge here, so much to be learned.”