Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Wildfire and Firefighting in Klamath Country

Last summer’s wildfires are history but on the burned landscape there are lessons to be learned. That’s one reason KlamBlog has been in the Klamath Backcountry in recent weeks studying those fires. Here’s what we’ve learned:

The complaints which surfaced in local media last summer about smoke from excessive and unnecessary backfires and burnouts were justified. KlamBlog observed the natural wildfires and the burnouts in the Marble Mountain, Siskiyou and Yolla Bolly Wilderness and surrounding forest lands. In all cases the natural wildfires burned in a mosaic of various intensities dominated by low intensity underburns and interspersed with high intensity patches from ½ to 10 acres or so where all trees were killed.

Natural Fire Mosaic - Yolla Bolly Wilderness, June 2009

This is the pattern which fire researchers tell us was dominant in these mixed conifer forests before the coming of white Europeans. The fact that this pattern persists today supports the hypothesis offered by some scientists and local natural historians that wildfire in the remote and rugged Klamath Mountains Backcountry has never been effectively suppressed and that as a consequence fire behavior here is well within the natural range of variability.

Observing the effects of backcountry fire up close also confirms that fire in the Klamath Mountains has combined with other natural processes to create the Old Growth forests which once dominated this landscape and which survive in wilderness, roadless areas and other reserves. While wilderness lovers avoid areas where wildfires burned recently, we recommend seeking out these areas in order to observe first hand the process of forest renewal through fire.

The natural fire mosaic evident throughout the Klamath Backcountry is in stark contrast to most areas where Forest Service managers and incident commanders ordered backfires and burnouts. These areas are intentionally burned at high intensity; this typically results in large expanses where every tree has been killed and where erosion, landsliding and resulting watershed degradation is accelerated. Below is a photo of a burnout Six Rivers National Forest managers ordered lit on south-facing slopes along the Little North Fork Salmon River. The area in the photo is congressionally designated wilderness.

Forest Service Burnout, Little N. Fork Salmon River.

Burnout occurred summer '08, Photo June '09

Many of these burnouts and backfires were fired off far from the natural wildfires. As in other big fire years (77,87, 94, 99), it was the coming of fall rains – not firefighting - which extinguished the natural wildfires while they were still far from the backfires and burnouts which agency and fire managers had ordered.

In the southern portion of the Marble Mountain Wilderness the local Forest Service ranger stopped all these firing operations as soon as management of the fire was returned to his control. At least some agency managers know the Klamath Mountains well enough to realize that backfires and burnouts are risky propositions here which may themselves threaten communities when winds shift. An example of this occurred in 1999 when an escaped burnout threatened the towns of Willow Creek and Hoopa while the natural Megram Fire never got near either town. Fall rains, not firefighters, finally extinguished not only the natural fire but also the ill-advised burnouts and backfires.

Firefighters and agency managers are accustomed to complaints during wildfire suppression actions. Traditionally, however, these complaints fade away with the coming of fall rains. But there are indications that residents of the Klamath Mountains are not about to move on this time – at least not so soon. Spurred on by health officials of the Hoopa Tribe, Northwest California reporters continue to focus attention on the health effects of wildfire smoke – including whether some of those impacts could be avoided if agency and fire managers attacked wildfires directly rather than lighting large burnouts and backfires many miles from the natural wildfires.

Largely because of the work of local Fire Safe Councils, Northwest California’s rural residents are becoming much more knowledgeable about how fire works in surrounding forest ecosystems. Rural folks in Klamath Country appear to be coming to the conclusion that the burnouts and backfires - which consume the vast majority of taxpayer dollars spent “fighting’ these fires - are not necessary to protect communities and actually constitute an increased risk through escaped backfires and burnouts and the extra health-destroying smoke they create. At least one NW California newspaper – the Record Searchlight of Redding – has continued to focus on the health impacts of smoke – including whether backfires and burnouts are unnecessarily exacerbating those impacts.

It is unlikely that the simmering anger and outrage in rural Klamath Country about the manner in which fires are “fought” will have any impact on national wildfire suppression policy. The voices of western rural residents are typically not heard within the corridors of power in Boise (seat of the vast Firefighting Bureaucracy) and Washington, DC – from whence the money flows.

The local congressman for most of Klamath CountryWally Herger – could help. But Mr. Herger appears spectacularly uninterested in the impact of unhealthy smoke on his constituents. Instead his emphasis is on promoting the false claim that commercial logging can reduce the risk from wildfire – a position which pleases the private owners of Sierra Pacific Industries, California’s largest timber corporation and the source of substantial contributions to Herger’s campaign war chest.

Meanwhile Klamath Country forest watch organizations are focused on the impacts of proposed post-fire logging. These organizations say they do not have the resources to take on the ill-advised and inappropriate use of backfires and burnouts during suppression actions or to advocate on the national level for more sensible backcountry fire suppression policies and practices.

A movement to change backcountry fire suppression policies and practices may be advancing within the Forest Service, however. Klamath National Forest managers, for example, expressed outrage at how last summer’s Ukonom Fire was managed by their colleagues on the Six Rivers National Forest. These managers are particular critical of expensive and ill-advised burnouts and backfires like the one in the photo above as well as of the extensive firing of Lower Salmon and Trinity River inner gorges.

If those who want to change how backcountry wildfire is fought and managed within the forest watch, fire safe and tribal communities could link up with concerned Forest Service managers the likelihood that backcountry firefighting policy and practices could be reformed would increase dramatically. But these organizations are more accustomed to inter-group conflict than cooperation; it remains to be seen whether they can come together to promote a backcountry fire suppression reform agenda.

As KlamBlog was in the backcountry studying last summer’s fires lightning strikes caused new wildfires in Klamath Country. A Forest Service bulletin appeared one morning on our windshield – part of an effort to keep local residents better informed. The bulletin announced that two fires burning in the Salmon-Trinity Backcountry were being allowed to merge because “firefighter safety” would be compromised if the fires were fought directly.

To KlamBlog this sounds like the same scenario that occurred last summer: Firefighter safety concerns in the rugged and remote Klamath Backcountry prevent direct fire suppression. Fire crews back off and managers rethink strategy.

Let’s hope they don’t decide to fire-off more destructive backfires and burnouts!

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