Wildfire: A force for doom or evolution?

U.S. Forest Service ecologist Frank Lake points out how wildfire smoke hangs in the Klamath and Salmon River valleys, lowering the water temperature for the salmon.

We’ve been taught that thick forests have always blanketed the Northwest — that our natural state is one of verdant green old growth. The idea goes that if we want to protect creatures like the spotted owl, we need to keep forests unchanged at all costs.

But what if that’s wrong?

What if varying levels of regular fire and patchwork forests are the natural state of things — one that native plants and animals need to flourish?

Seemingly against all logic, wildfire can make whole river systems flow stronger and cooler.

On a warm July day, U.S. Forest Service research ecologist Frank Lake takes us for a drive along the Klamath River and its tributary, the Salmon River, nestled between the Trinity Alps and the Marbled mountains.

Due to a regional inversion, smoke from nearby fires in California and southern Oregon is hanging like a veil over the valleys. Lake’s newest research shows that this smoke acts like a giant reflector, bouncing back solar radiation to cool the air and the water beneath it.

And during a period of drought and high temperatures, it could not come at a better time for the fish that give the Salmon River its name.

“The salmon particularly are really at stressful levels that are lethal, and the few degrees of cooling from the smoke can be that life or death situation for many of those fish,” says Lake, who works for the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station Fire and Fuels Program.

Cultural teachings

So not only is fire needed by many animals, but smoke can also be a boon. Lake’s research into the dance between fire, smoke and salmon draws from his cultural teachings from the Klamath Basins indigenous tribes: the Karuk and the Yurok.

“When we look at the function of smoke, many times its seen in the media as being detrimental — human health, air quality issues — but from a tribal perspective, smoke is an essential part of the natural process,” he says. “The tribes have a perspective that fire is medicine.”

Like many indigenous Americans, the Karuk and the Yurok developed sophisticated burning practices over the centuries as a form of landscape management to select for certain foods like acorns and berries (both for their own consumption and to draw animals like deer and elk for hunting), to regenerate shrubs for things like basket materials, to control pests and to keep the landscape open around villages, among other reasons.

For the Karuk, in particular, fire was also central to their relationship with salmon.

“Fire plays a lot of roles around the survival of salmon and how that’s ingrained in ceremony,” says Bill Tripp, the deputy director for eco-cultural restoration at the Karuk Department of Natural Resources. “Historically those burns were an annual occurrence.”

Tripp says the burns were effectively outlawed beginning in 1911, which led to fire suppression policies across the West.

“We, as Karuk people, believe that those are still our religious freedoms. We still have the ceremonies,” he says. “We just haven’t been able to light the fire that gives our prayer meaning for over a hundred years.”

That is, until recently. Now a partnership between the Karuk Tribe, state and federal agencies, and local organizations like the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council and the Salmon River Restoration Council is on the front lines of implementing new policies. They allow prescribed cultural burns. The area has even become a hotbed for teaching prescribed burning techniques to organizations and firefighters from around the country.

In addition to smoke’s cooling effects, fire will also help the salmon by altering the forest.

“Lately I’ve been calling it a ‘Genocide Forest’ because you see most of these fir trees that are in high densities, because even during droughts, Doug firs continue to suck, and they’re big water hogs,” says Chook-Chook Hillman, a natural resource technician with the Karuk Department of Natural Resources. “When you’re keeping fire, you don’t have the densities of Doug fir sucking up the water table.”

Regular fire also sets in motion small landslides, and that debris replenishes salmon habitat over time. Here, again, it’s about the right amount of fire — regular, low-severity fires — as megafires can create massive landslides that are much more problematic, in addition to destroying all the foliage that serves as a shading function for waterways.

“So there are a lot of connections that are just starting to be researched in-depth, but have been well founded in ceremonial practice,” Tripp says of the way that many cutting edge ideas in fire ecology are now serving to validate many tribal practices grounded in traditional ecological knowledge.

No one is advocating we let all fires burn freely — especially the human-caused ones. But a strong consensus is emerging that, as crazy as it sounds, we need to restore regular fire to the land to help our fellow plants and animals survive.

This is an excerpt of an article available at http://bit.ly/2yzDnKa.

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