Klamath program uses fire to manage landscape

Firefighter: 'The land is starting to speak to us and the fires are screaming at us and the fires will be heard'

Klamath River TREX firefighter trainee Jess McLaughlin ignites a pile of woody debris on the Goodwin property in preparation for broadcast burning once the weather and fuels dry out during burn operations earlier this month along the Klamath River. (Mid Klamath Watershed Council — contributed)

For the fifth consecutive year, the Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) took place along the Klamath River in an ongoing effort to develop the Klamath River community’s capacity to safely and effectively reintroduce fire onto the local landscape.

The training exercise included local, state and federal agencies and 87 participants, including tribal members, local contractors, firefighters and nonprofit organizations, who spent two weeks learning about fire behavior, its impacts to the local environment and how to use fire as a tool in land management.

“It really pairs people up with mentors in firefighting and allows them to do controlled burns so we can develop a local workforce so we can reintroduce fire management on a larger scale here on the Klamath,” said Erica Terence, public information officer for TREX on Thursday. “A big part of this process is engaging local tribal people as leaders in prescribed burning so they learn how fire cleans up the forest floor to improve the health of local plants.”

One goal of the burning is to improve the conditions so plants like huckleberries or plants used for making baskets can thrive, and it also helps local wildlife like elk.

Terence said the interaction with local tribes and residents is crucial because the aim is for local residents to learn how to handle fire, conduct controlled burns and get trainees the qualifications they need to be recognized by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

Firefighter trainees burned hundreds of piles during the rainy first week of this year’s TREX, in preparation for a broadcast burn during fire training exercises along the Klamath River earlier this month. (Mid Klamath Watershed Council — contributed)

“The exchange brings together fire professionals and local residents and we only perform the burns when the conditions are correct. We do a lot of work to ensure we burn at the right time of year and we make sure we have the personnel on the ground to mitigate an impact to the local environment,” Terence said. “This is an incredible opportunity for residents to get on-the-ground training and experience that, (which) will position us to be more self-sufficient when fires come.”

The use of fire as a land management tool is crucial to the local habitat and for 14-year wildfire veteran and Karuk Tribal member Greg Arteche who leads the fire crew Karuk K-1, the goal now is fire prevention and not fire suppression.

“The forests are past overgrown and they have been mismanaged for so long that if you don’t do something about the fuel loads, you will get catastrophic fire,” Arteche said Thursday, adding that getting people comfortable with fire is key to the training as well. “People are so scared of fire and with TREX we have a lot of coming together to work. It takes a lot of hard work to even prepare for TREX and what we do is pretreat areas where we will burn. We gather up piles and ready them for burning and pretreating the land allows us to create fire-resistant landscapes.”

Arteche spoke about how the devastating fires in Santa Rosa and in Southern California serve as examples of what he calls “poor land management,” but it takes knowledge of the local flora and fauna to properly use fire to manage that landscape.

“The land is starting to speak to us and the fires are screaming at us and the fires will be heard. It’s the human factor that’s affecting these timber stands, not nature,” Arteche said and added that getting local residents involved is crucial along with learning that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. “Cal Fire is starting to shift from fire suppression to fuel reduction and that doesn’t mean you cut down everything, you have to know which trees and bushes are fire resilient. We want to change the perspective from where fire is viewed with fear to one where fire is healthy and helps keep the forest in balance.”

Terence said the ultimate goal is to get residents along the Klamath River to a point where they are self-reliant and can use fire to manage their lands as was done in the past.

“In our community, people know a lot about fire but we want them to become more competent in how we manage fires and our own landscape,” she said. “I think a lot of the changes we are seeing are people knowing what they are doing when it comes to wildfire.”

Dan Squier can be reached at 707-441-0528.

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