Editor’s Note: This is the second blog in our Project Firehawk series. The title refers to a cohort of Australian birds, known as Firehawks, who carry fire in their beaks to spark change. The blogs in this series explore the core underpinnings of our work and may, in some cases, challenge the status quo. We have asked the series’ authors to be bold, tackle hard questions, and help reveal needed shifts in our relationships with fire. We hope this series causes you to pause and initiate a larger conversation about what it really means to live better with wildfire.

It is fitting, given the nature of the Firehawk, that this blog focuses on prescribed fire. The author, Will Harling, has carried fire many times to spark change. We asked him to carry some of that fire with his pen this week to help illustrate what CAN BE if we stop focusing on what we *think* we can’t do (burn) and when we *think* we can’t do it (in the unforgiving California summer). By listening not to the barriers that we have constructed for ourselves, but instead to the land itself, we can change our future with fire. Relationships, forged over time, made this story possible. Traditional ecological knowledge, with practitioners willing to listen to their places, made this story possible.  What can you make possible? 

Everyone left. Our drip torches were put away and our Nomex was at least headed toward the wash (even if it hadn’t made it yet). We had finished an incredible fall 2019 Klamath Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX); over 100 participants and 50 members of the media attended. Even though we burned 17 units in 10 days, we proceeded to miss several weeks of the best fall burning conditions in the Klamath Mountains in over a decade due to lack of resources. 

Our cooperative burning partners felt the limits of a model that relies on outside resources to increase capacity. We had returned fire to burn units in critical places with a diverse mix of burners from local, state, tribal, federal, international and non-governmental organizations, but we had to spend too much energy getting permission to burn during burn suspensions… and then rain cut our burning short. 

Since October 2014, the first year of the Klamath TREX, when the Karuk Tribe brought cultural fire back to Tishawnik Bar after a century of fire exclusion, we realized that early summer burns there were key to reducing invasive species, including star thistle, Scotch Broom and Himalayan Blackberry. A previous wildfire at Tishawnik in June 2001 just happened to be lit at time when the head-high star thistle had yet to go to seed. When compared to our 2014 cultural burn there, the wildfire was more effective at reducing the invasive plants that had taken hold of the river bar in the wake of massive hydraulic mining and the cessation of cultural burning. But it was all we could do to get burn permits for that first Klamath TREX in the fall of 2014. Pulling permits from CALFIRE and air quality for a summer burn was outside the realm of what was possible. Too many massive wildfires, like the 2008 complex of fires that started in June, were freshly burned into our collective consciousness and we just didn’t have the social license to burn during wildfire season.   

But this June, more than 100 successful prescribed burns later, our relationships with permitting agencies, partners and the community had shifted. We had earned their trust. Tired of seeing these burn windows pass us by, we took a page out of the Forest Stewards Guild’s All Hands All Lands approach to year-round interagency burning and began developing a local inter-agency burn team. While the scaffolding of agreements and formal structure is still being developed, we were able to put many of the practices into play this summer to redefine our prescribed burn season and expand the scope of what was possible. We took advantage of this fleeting window between too green and wet and too hot and dry.  

June 2020 Tishawnik prescribed fire. Photo courtesy of Will Harling.

On June 22, 2020, nearly 40 local TREX participants from the Karuk Tribe, Mid Klamath Watershed Council, US Forest Service and Orleans Volunteer Fire Department gathered at the tip of Tishawnik Bar, in a wide sweep of the Klamath River. While crews prepped holding lines in the 107 degree sun and cottonwoods bent in the stiff upcanyon winds, local residents gathered on the overlook across the river to witness the spectacle. As soon as the sun fell behind the ridge, the winds died and the window opened. This burn, conceived on a Friday and implemented on a Monday, took a flood of communications between the Karuk Tribe, Mid Klamath Watershed Council, the Six Rivers National Forest, permitting agencies and the public to become a reality. Many years of intense collaboration and practice from our past TREX events congealed, and an interagency crew of old fire dogs, next generation fire leaders, and newbie firefighters took a giant leap of faith together, burning 33 acres between 8pm and 1am the next morning.

A fire burns in Tishawnik with smoke rising

Photo courtesy of Will Harling. June 2020 Tishawnik prescribed fire.

A fire burns in the evening with a mountain behind it.

Photo courtesy of Will Harling. June 2020 Tishawnik prescribed fire.

We could have called this burn off for any number of reasons: triple digit temperatures for the foreseeable future, limited equipment, liability, smoke concerns, and of course, the global pandemic. But the plants were telling us it was time.  The land was telling us it was the right time to burn. The native grasses had gone to seed while the invasives had not. Fire now could tip the scales like none of our previous fall burns could hope to have done.  Because we were listening to the land, and to the cultural fire practitioners who are this land’s adept students, we were able to work through long standing constraints imposed by a fire culture centered around suppression. Tribal, NGO and Forest Service leadership addressed each potential barrier and found a path around, holding space for our misfit band of burners to do something together that none of us could have done separately. 

The After Action Review, under starlight framed by wisps of smoke and the lingering glow of fire still working through the willows and berries, was short and sweet. What was planned. What happened. What worked well. What we could do better next time. We were exhausted, dusty and covered in poison oak, but firefighters young and old offered up lessons learned like daylight wasn’t just around the corner. This is what good fire looks like. It isn’t pretty. Constantly re-evaluating hundreds of variables from firefighter safety to cultural and ecological objectives to cost and relationships. Through a window in the smoke, the Big Dipper pointed clearly to the Pole Star. It’s what guides us: to be ready when the land is ready for fire.  

Will Harling is the Director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council and is actively involved in instream and upslope restoration in the Western Klamath Mountains. He has been working to restore fire process in this place since 1995. Will has been involved with the Fire Learning Network since 2009, and also participates in the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network and Indigenous People’s Burning Network.

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