Aug 03, 2017
You Just Never Know What You’ll Get into this Time of Year: A Day in the Life with Karuna Greenberg
By: Karuna Greenberg
When you get to work on Monday morning, what are your top priorities for the week?
Over the weekend, we experienced an intense thunderstorm throughout the Salmon River and across the Klamath Mountains. With it, came extensive lightning, torrential downpours, marble-sized hail, and the year’s first new fires (14 in total)! My first priority is to gather information from USDA Forest Service personnel and others with firsthand accounts about active fires starts and locations, what resources are at play, what the current management strategy is, and what risks, if any, they pose. I will pass this information onto the local community through the Salmon River and Orleans Complexities Facebook group, e-mails, and phone calls. By mid-morning, there is already a slew of questions and observations about the storm and its implications on social media and in my inbox. Once I’ve got good information flowing, I move on to other pressing matters.
The Salmon River Restoration Council (SRRC) is a small, community-based non-profit that has been working for 25 years to collaboratively assess, protect, maintain and restore the ecosystems within California’s spectacular Salmon River watershed. As the restoration director, I oversee our program work, assisting our program coordinators with diverse efforts related to fisheries, noxious weeds, education, monitoring, instream habitat restoration, fire and forestry, with a particular focus on our collaborative activities and partnerships. This keeps my days and weeks interesting, exciting and also a bit hectic. On any given day, I may be working with 2–5 different program staff, several funders, numerous partners and a variety stakeholders.
Who might you talk to?
The phone calls I’ll make regarding last weekend’s wildfires will likely include the Salmon/Scotts River district’s fire management officer, our district ranger, other fire and fuels staff, and maybe even a local packer with extensive knowledge of the wilderness area affected. The Klamath National Forest’s lead fire prevention officer, Jen Bray, will likely stop in to discuss the fires and answer any questions while she’s on her rounds throughout the watershed.
After our extremely wet winter and spring in the Klamath Mountains, there has been a lot of conversation about the increased opportunities that this year offers for managing the right fires for resource benefit. When fires start away from communities, there is the desire and willingness to pause, collect data, engage in conversation and analysis, and truly consider the risks and benefits associated with both suppression and management. One thing we have learned is that these mountains are going to burn, and it is up to managers and the public to help decide when and under what circumstances it is going to happen. An important consideration is the implications of deferring that risk to the future, when conditions will likely be far worse.
Today is one of those days when this conversation comes to life. Of this weekend’s 14 fires, all are out or in mop-up and patrol status, except one. The Island Fire cropped up late; it is located deep in the Marble Mountain Wilderness at an elevation of around 5,000 feet and is bound on three sides by previous wildfire footprints. While the fire is burning in an area that hasn’t seen fire in over 100 years, it is far from any communities or infrastructure, its progress is being moderated by this year’s record precipitation, and it is in rugged wilderness terrain, where the risks associated with putting large numbers of firefighters on the ground are high.
So, a call with local fire movers and thinkers, Bill Tripp of the Karuk Tribe and Will Harling of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council (MKWC), is in order. We discuss the potential of managing fire in the Marble Mountain Wilderness this year. By the end of the day, I will have talked with Patty Grantham, the Klamath National Forest supervisor, about the Forest’s willingness to manage the Island Fire for resource benefit. During that exchange, I’ll offer my assistance as the lead community liaison for the Salmon River community. That role will include getting information out to the communities affected, holding discussions around the importance of managing fire when the circumstances allow it, and listening to community concerns and thoughts.
I for one would rather see these beautiful places experience fire now, under favorable conditions, than on a windy day during a drier summer.
Are you working on any projects that involve a large group of partners?
Since starting my current position in 2012, I’ve been involved in collaborative work around restoring fire’s process and function in the Klamath Mountains. The Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (WKRP) brings together a diverse group of local, tribal, state and federal partners who are united by mutually identified and shared social, ecological, economic and cultural values related to restoring resilient ecosystems at the landscape scale. WKRP’s work emphasizes place-based management and is founded upon traditional ecological knowledge and practices.
After extensive efforts to reach agreement in principle, WKRP is moving forward with three exciting and distinct pilot projects. Two of the projects, the Somes Bar and Happy Camp Integrated Fire Management Projects, focus on restoring fire to areas around communities that haven’t seen fire in over a century. The strategy is to preemptively treat these high-risk areas with linear fuel breaks and prescribed fire before the next wildfire. These projects aim to protect local communities from high-intensity wildfire, while allowing for the increased ability to manage, rather than suppress, wildfire.
On the Salmon River (where our third project is), we’re addressing similar goals from a different angle. Rather than looking at the areas that haven’t seen fire over the past century, we are focusing on an area that has seen the most fire recently. In the past 10 years, over 40 percent of the Salmon River watershed has burned in megafires. While that may seem like more than our fair share of fire, this is a trend that will likely only increase throughout the West. For this reason, it is essential that we develop and test strategies to restore healthy fire to these recently burned landscapes. Recent fire footprints, and areas that have seen frequent fires over time, offer many opportunities to safely restore fire, using minimal resources. The reduced fuel load makes implementing prescribed fire at large scales much more feasible. Additionally, not restoring fire in these landscapes generates considerable risk. If we wait too long after a wildfire, fuels build up to levels where prescribed fire is increasingly dangerous, manual and mechanical fuels reduction is cost prohibitive, and future wildfires are likely to burn at high intensity. The goal isn’t to stop wildfire, but to jumpstart the restoration process by taking advantage of the heavy lifting done by recent wildfires, creating a patchwork of diverse fire regimes that act as a buffer between local communities and wildfires in the backcountry.
Working with this diverse and dynamic group of people has been one of the highlights of my job. It isn’t easy grappling with these momentous and complicated issues, but as our relationships grow, trust is slowly rebuilt and we are becoming stronger and starting to actually get things done. Somewhere through all of the workshops and field trips and late night strategy sessions, we are creating lasting solutions that will, if all goes to plan, positively affect this landscape for generations to come.
Can you tell us about the Klamath Fire Symposium?
In early May, MKWC and local and regional partners (the Karuk Tribe, the Salmon River Restoration Council, the Six Rivers and Klamath National Forests, the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council and the California Fire Science Consortium) held the 5th Klamath Fire Ecology Symposium, which focused on increasing the pace, scale and quality of fire in the Klamath Mountains.
The symposium has been held every three years since the mid-2000’s, bringing together esteemed fire ecologists, fire practitioners, managers, students and other interested parties. This year’s symposium created some much-needed magic and instigated critical conversations about prehistoric, recent-past, present and future management of fire in the region. The event kicked off with opening remarks from local and national heavy hitters including, Leaf Hillman of the Karuk Tribe, Ken Pimlott of CAL FIRE, and Barney Gyant (the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region’s deputy regional forester). The symposium closed with powerful talks by Paul Hessburg and Carl Skinner. Check out the excellent article that Malcolm Terence and Will Harling wrote about the event in North Coast Journal.
What different types of shoes do you wear on the job?
It’s summer on the Salmon River, and all of our programs are in full swing: from invasive species eradication to fisheries monitoring to in-stream restoration to prescribed fire design. And, there’s always the potential for a fire to ignite, causing the Community Liaison Program to spring into full gear. We established the Community Liaison Program after the 2008 wildfires to facilitate timely and transparent communication between managing agencies (in our case the Forest Service), fire suppression teams, and local community members and organizations during and after wildfires. This time of year, I have an arsenal of shoes on the ready. My go-to ones are a trusty pair of Chaco flips. They take me to and from the Salmon River Restoration Council, to most local meetings, down to the swimming hole during lunch, and really anywhere within their limits, which I push beyond the norm. Sitting next to the door is also a recently cleaned and greased pair of Whites fire boots, with a double pair of tall socks tucked inside … ready for action. A pair of felt bottomed boots, booties and waders wait at the office for fish surveys and in-stream restoration site visits, several such days await. There are light hiking boots for unit layout meetings, site visits with landowners, noxious weeds removal, and community wildflower hikes. Don’t forget a comfortable, but classy, pair of flats for the partnership meetings, and of course, a well-worn pair of tall leather boots for dancing … you just never know what you’ll get into this time of year.
Work is over; what’s next?
As the end of the day nears, I head to a nearby swimming hole. I’m curious to see how the high water levels this year have affected the places that I know well along the river. Although we have had many winters over the years with higher individual water events, this spring had the highest consistent flow of any year on record, which has been gauged since 1911. We still don’t know all of the implications of such consistently high flow. One way of getting a sense of it is looking for changes in geomorphology along the river. And it’s a great excuse to swim at as many beautiful places as possible at the end of long, hot summer days.
At the swimming hole, the river is still rushing, the last of the snow melt from the mountain peaks giving it a slight milky tinge. The beach has shifted; that nice sandy area in the shade where we’ve spent so many river birthdays has washed away, leaving a much less appealing gravel bed and exposed alder roots. However, a new swath of pristine sand has appeared in the eddy just upstream. The water is pure refreshment, tingly after you’ve been in for a few minutes. Revitalizing! This makes it all worth it.
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