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The 2018 Fire Season: A Destructive New Paradigm in Backcountry Fire Suppression, and a Challenge for the Environmental Community

Last year Azalea Lake in the Red Buttes Wilderness burned at mixed severity in the 2017 Miller Complex Fire. 

The
2018 fire
season has been very active in southern Oregon and northern California, with both
lightning and human caused fires burning across the region.
Domesticated landscapes and urban areas, as well as wildlands and wilderness areas have burned, filling the
canyons and valleys with smoke. 

At times, the fires
have burned slowly, creating low to moderate-severity fire
effects. At other times, wind and weather-driven runs have scorched the forest
canopy, spread quickly and burned with intensity. The result is a diverse
mosaic of mixed-severity fire, creating complex structural conditions, a
variety of plant communities, staggered successional stages and uniquely
biodiverse and abundant post-fire landscapes. 

Although
the 2018 fire season has been tragic due to the loss of life and the
burning of many homes, much
of the backcountry fire activity, so far, appears characteristic for our region. Fire severity has been moderated by heavy smoke inversions for much of the summer, but when the smoke lifts and the wind blows, fire behavior responds with increased intensity. (For more information on how localized wind affects fire behavior check out this research.)

 

Wildfire has triggered dynamic ecological changes on the slopes around Lonesome Lake in the Red Buttes Wilderness. Before the 1987 Fort Copper Fire this area supported a high elevation forest. The Fort Copper Fire burned at relatively high severity, and twenty-five years later the 2012 Fort Complex Fire also burned through these once forested slopes. The repeat fires facilitated the area’s transformation into beautiful meadow-like slopes filled with native grasses, wildflowers and abundant wildlife. In the canyon below Lonesome Lake the old-growth forest was maintained by wildfire and remains vibrant old forest after the 2012 Fort Complex Fire.

Wildfire
is a dynamic natural process driving ecological change, rejuvenating
plant communities, diversifying our forests, and reducing fuel in
landscapes across the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains. If managed properly and under the correct weather conditions, wildfires can be
suppressed before they impact communities, and used as a tool to restore
fire-adapted ecosystems. 

Some fires, for example the Carr Fire currently burning near Redding, California, and the Taylor Fire burning outside Grants Pass, Oregon should be responsibly suppressed to protect communities and public safety. Because fire managers prioritize front country fires during initial attack efforts, many of the fires extinguished by fire crews this summer were located close to communities and important infrastructure. Over 100 fires were extinguished on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest alone, while the most remote and difficult fires continue burning.

The Burnt Peak Fire burned in the Upper Applegate Valley
in the 2017 Miller Complex Fire. The fire backed safely to the community
below, with no loss to homes or infrastructure. The fire was fully suppressed, but impacts were minimal due to the indirect containment strategy and the patience of fire managers. The long-term effects of the Burnt Peak Fire are profoundly positive for the forest and the nearby community.

Fire managers have the ability to implement the “Appropriate Management Response” during wildfire suppression activities. This means that crews can aggressively suppress some fires or portions of a fire, while suppressing less aggressively on other portions. In some places the fire can be fought indirectly, allowing the fire to burn within predetermined boundaries to prepared firelines. This reduces fuel, restores fire as a natural ecosystem process, and allows fire crews to safely focus their energy where it is most necessary, adjacent to homes and communities.

For example, fires like the Klondike Fire currently burning in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area and Illinois River canyon, could be managed by suppressing the eastern flank before it impacts the community of Selma, Oregon, while the southern and western margin in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness could be allowed to burn into natural barriers created by the 2002 Biscuit Fire, 2013 Labrador Fire and the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire footprints. 

These recent fire footprints are likely to either not burn at all, or burn at mostly low severity. In fact, the Klondike Fire’s southern and western perimeter is currently hung up at the boundary of the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire, which is acting like a natural fire break. These portions of the fire have hardly moved for over a week and contain very little active heat according to Forest Service infrared maps.
 

The 2017 Chetco Bar Fire footprint is providing a 190,000-acre natural fuel break west and south of the current 2018 Klondike Fire.

The Natchez Fire burning on the Siskiyou Crest between Takilma, Oregon and Happy Camp, California could also be managed both to protect communities and restore a more natural fire regime in the Siskiyou Wilderness. This fire could be suppressed where it threatens communities and steered southwest into the 2017 Eclipse Fire footprint, the sparse, rocky summits surrounding Preston Peak, and the Siskiyou Wilderness Area. It is highly likely that the fire could stall out in the rocky and recently burned terrain.

The ecological impact of fire suppression activities, such as the use of bulldozers to build fireline, the ignition of high severity backburns, heavy snag removal, and the creation of
helipads, safety zones, and hoist sites in Wilderness Areas, Roadless
Areas, Botanical Areas, old-growth forests, Late Successional Reserves
and other wildland habitats is becoming more significant with each
passing year. 

Environmentalists and public land watchdogs need to be aware of the increasing ecological damage sustained in our wildlands during fire suppression activities. Just as we provide public input on other activities that affect the public lands we love, such as timber sales, pipelines, oil drilling, mining, etc., we must also provide land managers with input regarding fire management. (For information on how to track wildfires, wildfire effects and fire suppression impacts check out this link)

In many cases the impact of discretionary fire suppression activities is
far more severe than the impact of the wildfire itself. Currently,
irresponsible fire suppression is one of the most damaging forms of land
management affecting our roadless wildlands and protected Wilderness Areas. Irresponsible, backcountry fire suppression activities are degrading our wildlands, their intact roadless
values, and the complex ecosystems they support.

This dozerline was built in the Soda Mountain Wilderness in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument through miles of old-growth forests, rocky lithosol meadows filled with wildflowers, rare plant populations, and both across and adjacent to the Pacific Crest Trail. This dozerline is many miles from the Klamathon fire perimeter and did not serve as fire containment line. The impacts from the dozerline on the Soda Mountain Wilderness will be permanent, yet provided no benefit to fire suppression crews.



This
season we have seen an escalation in the war against fire and smoke, we have also seen a severe escalation in environmental impacts associated with fire suppression activities. Damaging fire
suppression tactics have been approved in many of our wildest, most
intact landscapes by both the Forest Service and BLM, including the Soda Mountain, Siskiyou and Kalmiopsis Wilderness Areas, the Big Red Mountain Botanical Area and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. 

For the first time in many years the wilderness areas of southern Oregon and northern California have been subjected to the use of bulldozers in designated Wilderness Areas. The approval to bulldoze firelines and access routes inside designated wilderness areas was virtually unheard of until this season, yet fire managers have approved dozer use in all three of our wilderness fires. 

Most egregiously, an estimated 35 miles of dozerline now crisscrosses the Soda Mountain Wilderness and adjacent portions of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Rare plant populations, the Pacific Crest Trail and other wilderness trails were bulldozed by fire suppression crews, creating extreme impacts to the region’s intact plant communities and biodiversity. The impact of suppression activities in the Soda Mountain Wilderness and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument is both unprecedented and entirely unacceptable. Both ODF and BLM are responsible and need to hear from us.
 

An estimated 3/4 of a mile of the Boccard Point Trail in the Soda Mountain Wilderness and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument was bulldozed by BLM and ODF fire suppression crews, destroying a popular wilderness trail and degrading wilderness values. The fireline was miles from the Klamathon fire perimeter and was never used for fire containment.


The environmental movement has spent many decades working to protect Wilderness Areas that are now threatened by irresponsible, environmentally damaging and overly aggressive backcountry firefighting. As
a movement we must encourage the use of restorative, low-impact fire suppression
tactics and strategies, especially in our wildlands. We must also document and address the impact of
heavy handed fire suppression activities on our public lands. In many
cases, these impacts could be avoided while safely and effectively
suppressing or managing wildland fires.

If these impacts continue to be ignored by the environmental community, many of our most beloved wildlands will be bulldozed, roaded, heavily backburned and riddled in large landings. Wilderness trails and ridgelines will become raw, weed infested dozerlines, habitat for rare plant species will be destroyed, and wild streams will be “snagged” of all large, dead standing trees. As time goes on and these impacts are repeated across our landscape, significant wildlands and important biodiversity will be lost. As environmentalist, we must address these impacts with solutions that include the protection of communities and important habitat values.

After having last year’s Miller Complex Fire burn to my own off-grid homestead surrounded by Forest Service land, without the loss of property or the need for damaging fire suppression tactics (only minimal, light backburning was used), I know firsthand that under good weather conditions our rural communities can live with wildfire and our forests can benefit from effective wildfire management. It is our responsibility as rural landowners to create defensible space around our homes and support fire crews so they can be safe while protecting private property in often rugged, remote and difficult terrain. To a certain extent our homes and the lives of firefighting personnel largely depend on our ability to be prepared.
 

A massive “safety zone” built on the 640 road north of Oak Flat and the Klondike Fire near Flat Top Mountain. The impact of safety zone development on this site will be severe, with permanent impacts to soils and botanical resources. Photo credit: Inciweb



The
Klamath Forest Alliance will be publishing a series of fire
reports for this summer’s wildfires in southwestern Oregon. We will be
exploring the mosaic of the fires, evaluating their effects
and documenting fire suppression impacts.  Please consider supporting this visionary and challenging work with a generous, tax-deductible donation. We have a lot of research and field monitoring to do across the region and we need your support!

We will be covering the following wildfires in southern Oregon:

  • Klamathon Fire in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and Soda Mountain Wilderness Area
  • Klondike Fire on the Illinois River in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and the surrounding inventoried roadless area. 
  • Natchez Fire on the Siskiyou Crest in the Siskiyou Wilderness and surrounding Klamath National Forest lands,
  • Taylor Fire on the Rogue River near Merlin and Galice, Oregon.  
  • Hendrix Fire on the Siskiyou Crest near the Big Red Mountain Botanical Area and Research Natural Area.

Look for more information on this blog regarding fire suppression impacts to wilderness areas, roadless areas and botanical areas sustained during the 2018 fire season.


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