2013 W. Klamath Mountains Wildfires: A Success Story
Authors: Will Harling, Mid Klamath Watershed Council
This article demonstrates how one community successfully prepared for and responded to a serious wildfire. It originally appeared in the Spring 2014 Mid Klamath Watershed Council newsletter and is being reprinted with permission.
The 2013 Butler Fire originated from a series of arson starts along the Salmon River on August 1, 2013. As it spread, it burned through an area that hadn’t seen fire in several decades through incredibly steep terrain in one of the driest years on record. To the south lay the footprint of the 1977 Hog Fire with its lingering snag patches and logging slash. To the north, the fire spread through slopes that hadn’t burned in over 80 years directly adjacent to private inholdings at the mouth of Butler Creek.
These homes had had large fires burn very close in 2006 and 2008 on the north side of Butler Creek and across the Salmon River. A significant investment in fire prevention work from the community, the US Forest Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service during and after these fire events allowed firefighters to safely defend the 10 structures there during the Butler Fire.
Butler folks had faced this event before and were prepared, with the help of the local community and firefighters, to defend their homes once again. An old ditch line constructed by miners in the 1800’s was identified after the 2008 fires as the place to hold future fires upslope of the homes. Thirteen acres of prescribed burns had been conducted by the Orleans Somes Bar Fire Safe Council between this ditch and the homes below, since 2008, and in the past two years, the Salmon River Fire Safe Council had brushed more than 10 acres along the ditch line.
As the fire approached, 40-plus community members who had just mobilized to help save the town of Orleans from another arson fire, came up to see how they could pitch in. While some crews prepared the homes for fire, others established perimeter firelines and brushed along the main water line. Still others organized an emergency evacuation plan for volunteers. Some people brought food, and supplies like brass fittings to get hydrants online. And Rebecca Lawrence, a Facebook pro, whipped up the Salmon River and Orleans Complexities Open Group that allowed people to communicate and organize even when phones were out and roads were closed. When the agency hotshot crews showed up a couple days later, they were grateful for the prep work already accomplished that allowed them to focus on bringing the fire safely past the homes with minimal use of burnouts.
Post fire, the Butler Flat community is continuing their work of living with fire. Firelines are in place to implement a prescribed burn to protect a tan oak acorn gathering area used since time immemorial by the Karuk Tribe, and to treat the fuels between the ditch where the wildfire stopped and the structures. Plans for a new 40,000 gallon pond at the end of the old miner’s ditch are underway to increase the water available for fire suppression.
Butler residents are now advocating for wildfires to be allowed to burn around them through these recent fire footprints to clear away vegetation killed during these recent fires and open up the forest floor. Working together, local, tribal and federal partners modeled how residents in this rugged, remote country can have positive outcomes in the face of wildfires.
Restoration of historic fire regimes is essential if we hope to retain our forests and their stored carbon in the face of climate change. Climate change is predicted to increase the size and intensity of future fires in California and across the West, making the shift away from the policy of full fire suppression imperative. Areas that have had multiple recent fires, like the south side of the Wooley Creek drainage, show the benefits of restoring something that looks more like our historic fire regime. Wooley Creek’s remoteness, and bold decisions by Forest Service line officers to allow wildfire for resource benefits in this area have created an example of the incredibly diverse and fire resilient forests that once blanketed this landscape. MKWC and its partners will continue to promote this new approach to dealing with fire in our landscape.