Oct 20, 2015
Burning Together and Learning Together
Authors: Bill Tripp
From emergency response to prescribed fire implementation
In a fire season that gave many people reason to fear the approaching flames, Klamath River, California communities are using fire to protect themselves, enhance tribal food and fiber resources, and revitalize our relationship with fire as an eco-cultural process.
306,427 acres in California have burned in wildfires so far this year, and many of our fires have been unusually large or demonstrated extraordinary fire behavior. For example, the Valley Fire burned approximately 61,000 acres of central California in just 17 hours. It’s not always enough to just create defensible space around homes; using fire to reduce fuels in areas surrounding communities can also be a necessary precaution in our fire-prone landscapes.
In a matter of weeks following this, the Valley Fire, Northern California community members and fire professionals came together to use fire in a good way on private and tribal lands in the Orleans/Somes Bar, Happy Camp and Salmon River areas.
Are acres our only measure?
This year’s Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) (learn more about TREX) completed approximately 400 acres on 20 private and tribal parcels with 90+ participants in 5 at-risk communities. In Orleans alone, we burned eight units that tied recently burned areas together along landscape features surrounding the west side of the downtown neighborhood. This only leaves a couple more units before we transition to using regular maintenance burns to manage these areas.
Some of our funders must report in terms of acres treated; however, it’s truly hard to measure the less tangible accomplishments that accompany these types of events. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, check out the Salmon River and Orleans Complexities Facebook group and this post.
Becoming fire adapted as a measure?
Intergenerational learning is paramount to our efforts. If we are going to set out on a trajectory capable of having longevity of practice in the timeframes of ecological systems, youth integration will be a key factor. One part of this educational process is to enable communities to overcome the fear of fire typically instilled in our youth during other types of fire prevention program activities. A productive approach taken by the Karuk Tribe, Mid Klamath Watershed Council, Salmon River Restoration Council, local schools and other Western Klamath Restoration Partnership and TREX partners is to teach our youth and future fire practitioners how we can use fire safely, effectively and in a manner respectful of our responsibility to the furry woodland creatures, plants, birds and other ecosystem components. In the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of the Karuk people, it is expressed that we learned to take care of this place from the animals. There are many species currently in decline, much of this decline can be attributed to fire exclusion, and we can learn from these same animals how to live with fire in this place once again.
Building a bridge between resiliency and response
The large madrone tree pictured here has already lost its lower branches. The Pacific Fisher, a carnivore that occupies these trees, is used in the ceremonial regalia of the Karuk people. The fire scar will become a future cavity if frequent fire is allowed to burn off the rotting wood inside. The madrone still has a widespread canopy, but without thinning the surrounding conifers, this tree will not survive. This illustrates why fisher habitat continues to decline. Frequent fire is an important process for creating and maintaining resilient Pacific Fisher habitat (learn more here).
When you combine 100 years of fire exclusion with a focus on managing forests to favor conifer species, these pictures represent the results. Not only would managing with a focus on mixed hardwood savanna help to restore and maintain this important habitat type, but many traditional food and fiber resources such as early spring greens may also become readily available.