The Klamathon Fire
|The Klamathon Fire burned lightly in upper Hutton Creek in the Soda Mountain Wilderness.|
The Klamathon Fire: Tragedy, Devastation & Natural Fire Mosaic
Yet at other times, the fire crept and smoldered, burning at mostly low to moderate severity in the backcountry of the Soda Mountain Wilderness. Ecologically speaking, the fire was beneficial and productive. The impacts to homes, infrastructure and public safety were significant and are important to acknowledge; however, the ecological benefits of the Klamathon Fire have been mostly overlooked.
|Skunkbush (Rhus aromatica) vigorously regenerating two months after the Klamathon Fire in the Horseshoe Ranch Wildlife Area.|
To make things even more complicated, as the Klamathon Fire entered the backcountry of the Soda Mountain Wilderness, fire weather and fire behavior moderated dramatically, yet the BLM’s damaging fire suppression response led to extreme environmental impacts. For those who know and love this wild region, the results were devastating.
The Klamathon Fire demonstrates the many difficult conundrums of wildfire in our region. In many situations a single fire can be tragic and devastating to human communities, but also ecologically beneficial at different times and in different locations within the fire. The Klamathon Fire is a prime example of the potentially complex outcome of wildfire.
The Klamathon Fire began as an escaped burn pile on July 5, 2018 outside the town of Hornbrook, California, south of the Klamath River. Pushed by 35-40 mph winds and fueled by fine, grassy fuels, the fire jumped the Klamath River and began growing quickly in open woodlands, grasslands and along the riparian area of Cottonwood Creek. By afternoon, the fire was over 1,000 acres and had raced through the small community of Hornbrook, burning 31 residences, 3 non-residences, and 37 commercial buildings. The fire took the life of one resident in Hornbrook when his home was engulfed in flames as he tried to evacuate. A firefighter was also burned over in his engine, and he sustainied serious burns to his face and body. For the community of Hornbook, the Klamathon Fire was both deadly and devastating. In this sense, the Klamathon Fire was surely a human tragedy with long-lasting impacts.
The fire quickly jumped I-5, closing the four-lane freeway, and continued spreading north towards the Colestin Valley, west into the Siskiyou Mountains and east into the Soda Mountain Wilderness. Funneled by the mountain valley and pushed north by high winds, the fire spread quickly, and by July 7 had grown to 22,000 acres. Fire crews worked furiously to protect homes, private property and private timber as the fire raged through mostly private ranch land and timberland owned by the Fruit Growers Supply Company (FGS).
At the northeastern fire perimeter the Klamathon Fire spread into the Hutton Creek, Slide Creek and Scotch Creek drainages, entering the Soda Mountain Wilderness and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. On the afternoon of July 7, the winds shifted, pushing the fire back onto itself and drastically minimizing fire intensity.
|ODF fire crews bulldozed nearly 30 miles through the Soda Mountain Wilderness, including almost the entire Lone Pilot Trail.|
Despite a significant moderation in fire behavior and spread, the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), working under the direction of the Medford District BLM, began bulldozing into the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area on old roads, and in some locations, creating entirely new dozerlines. ODF crews bulldozed across the Soda Mountain Wilderness over 20 miles from Pilot Rock to Agate Flat, reconstructing old, long abandoned roads. Crews built massive helicopter landing pads and “safety zones,” bulldozing large areas where all vegetation was cleared to bare mineral soil. They also bulldozed streams, riparian areas, rare plant populations, archeological sites, and misapplied fire retardant directly into headwater streams.
Ironically, according to the BLM, roughly 80% of the Klamathon Fire was contained using hand built firelines. In fact, the vast majority of bulldozed “fireline” built in the Soda Mountain Wilderness was not used for fire containment and is many miles from any of the actual fire perimeter. Most of the routes opened with bulldozers were located mid-slope, winding in and out of watersheds, and climbing from canyons up to high ridges and then back down again. Simply put, this bulldozing was not strategic for firefighting objectives and was not done to provide direct fire containment, instead the dozer routes were built to facilitate convenient vehicle access through the Soda Mountain Wilderness, where motorized use is strictly prohibited.
|A large landing cleared with bulldozers in the Soda Mountain Wilderness near Camp Creek.|
With complete disregard for the intent of the Wilderness Act and their congressionally mandated obligation to preserve wilderness character, the Medford District BLM approved the use of bulldozers in the Soda Mountain Wilderness, not for direct fire containment line, but rather to provide vehicle access throughout the protected area. In fact, the BLM has proceeded to approve routine vehicle access throughout the Soda Mountain Wilderness for over two months since the Klamathon Fire began, and even after it has been out.
They also built extensive dozerlines along the high ridge between
Porcupine Gap and Bean Cabin, directly adjacent to, and in some places,
crossing the Pacific Crest Trail. Crews bulldozed a large portion of the
Boccard Point Trail, a former roadbed that had been fully
decommissioned and revegetated to become a very popular wilderness trail. Nearly the entire
Lone Pilot Trail was also bulldozed from Pilot Rock to Lone Pine Ridge. The impacts to the region’s wilderness character have been great, but the
ecological consequences, such as soil compaction, extreme sedimentation
and surface soil erosion, increased stream turbidity, noxious weed
spread, and the harassment of wildlife are also very concerning and perhaps just as long lasting.
|A bulldozer line on the eastern wilderness boundary near Agate Flat|
The fire suppression tactics used within the Soda Mountain Wilderness during the Klamathon Fire are unprecedented in the Klamath-Siskiyou region. The implementation of Minimum Impact Suppression Tactics (MIST) during wilderness fires is typical in this region and is mandated in many Wilderness Management Plans. MIST includes the use of mule teams, foot paths, helicopters, and spike camps for access. These MIST tactics are routine in Wilderness Areas and most other National Monuments and National Parks.
The option of MIST was available to the Medford District BLM. They simply chose to ignore their mandates to preserve wilderness character and instead bulldozed extensively across the wilderness area. The aggressive fire suppression tactics implemented within the Soda Mountain Wilderness by the Medford District BLM are not only unprecedented, but they have also likely been implemented in direct violation of the Wilderness Act.
|A large helipad bulldozed in the Soda Mountain Wilderness south of Pilot Rock.|
These suppression actions demonstrate a complete disregard for wilderness values by the Medford District BLM and ODF. They also demonstrate a need for corrective actions within the agencies. Specifically, land managers need to know that responsibly managing the Soda Mountain Wilderness is a requirement of their job. It is not an optional, discretionary decision, but rather a mandate handed down by congress. Wilderness designation is the dominant land use allocation and overriding management objective for the Soda Mountain Wilderness — it cannot be ignored.
The designation of Wilderness is also a promise made to the American public, to protect our most intact, wild heritage. This promise was blatantly violated by the BLM during the Klamathon Fire.
|Crews bulldozed across the Soda Mountain Wilderness, including directly through many streams such as this stream crossing in upper Scotch Creek on the Lone Pilot Trail.|
The devastation and long-lasting ecological impacts of the Klamathon Fire within the Soda Mountain Wilderness are all associated with the suppression actions approved by the Medford District BLM. The approval to use bulldozers was highly inappropriate and rests squarely on the shoulders of local BLM land managers. This decision is particularly troublesome given the proven effectiveness of handlines that actually contained and controlled the Klamathon Fire. The fact that hotshot crews utilizing handline actually contained this fire, demonstrates that the damaging suppression actions approved by local BLM line officers were not only an irresponsible violation the Wilderness Act, but they were also completely unnecessary.
A Natural Fire Mosaic
|Klamathon low-severity fire in upper Slide Creek in the Soda Mountain Wilderness.|
Despite the human tragedy in Hornbrook and the ecological devastation of BLM’s fire suppression response in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, the Klamathon Fire burned in a highly productive and beneficial mixed-severity fire mosaic. For the forests, woodlands, grasslands and chaparral habitats of the region, the Klamathon Fire was a dynamic natural event with positive ecological implications.
The fire burned into the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and southern margin of the Soda Mountain Wilderness on steep south-facing slopes below the massive volcanic plug known as Pilot Rock. These slopes are naturally quite diverse and jumbled, with a wide variety of habitat types and fire regimes.
Dry mixed conifer habitats dominated by ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and white fir grow in the upper elevations, mixed with beautiful oak woodlands, mixed hardwood habitats, grasslands, and dense chaparral. The lower elevation areas are extremely arid and desert-like, containing arid grasslands and juniper steppe reminiscent of the Great Basin.
While the Klamathon Fire was an accidental, unnatural ignition, its fire effects were characteristic and ecologically beneficial. The fire was fueled by wind and weather events, maintaining a natural, diverse fire mosaic on the dry ridges extending north from the Klamath River. Although fire severity mapping has not yet been released, it is evident that much of the fire burned at low to moderate severity, with small isolated patches of high-severity fire.
|Brewer’s oak sprouting back after high-severity fire in the Hutton Creek drainage.|
The high-severity fire effects often occurred in dense stands of Brewer’s oak (Quercus garryana var. breweri). Brewer’s oak is a variety of white oak genetically predisposed to low, short statured growth patterns. Brewer’s oak thrives on natural disturbance such as high-severity fire and quickly responds with vigorous resprouting. Other locations that burned at high severity include chaparral patches and scattered conifer stands.
|Low-severity fire effects in oak woodland in lower Scotch Creek.|
Many of the oak woodlands, conifer habitats and riparian areas burned in a beautiful mixed-severity pattern with predominantly low-severity fire effects.
Throughout the fire area conifer habitats are widely scattered, growing in isolated groves surrounded by oak woodland, juniper habitat, grassland, or rock outcrops. Many of these conifer stands contain massive old-growth trees and late-successional characteristics. They are found on more productive sites and mostly at higher elevations on north- and east-facing slopes. Nearly all these stands burned at low severity, burning off young regenerating conifers, shrubby understory species and ground fuels such as duff, downed wood and herbaceous fuels, while maintaining largely intact canopy conditions.
Habitat for western juniper is also scattered throughout the fire area. The species is largely found on rocky sites or in arid grasslands on south- and west-facing slopes.
Much of the juniper in the area is widely dispersed with broad, open grown trees dotting the ridges and steep grassy slopes. Although they often grow in locations that are relatively fuel limited, western juniper is also notoriously flammable and many of these sites are extremely dry, exposed and windy locations. Many fire ecologists would have predicted significant juniper mortality, yet throughout the Klamathon Fire, western juniper burned at very low severity and the fire largely maintaining the ancient, open canopied stands scattered across Slide Ridge, Lone Pine Ridge and the headwaters of Hutton Creek. In many locations the low grassy fuels burned at extremely low severity with very minimal juniper mortality.
|The majority of western juniper habitat in the Soda Mountain Wilderness, Horseshoe Ranch Wildlife Area, and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument burned at low-severity in the Klamathon Fire. The fire burned in grass beneath open stands of western juniper.|
Although the area had no recorded fire history and likely had not burned in over 100 years, the Klamathon Fire burned in a healthy mixed-severity fire mosaic. The fire maintained the complex patterns of chaparral, grassland, woodland and conifer forest found in this diverse and spectacular region. Although a tragedy in Hornbrook, California, the backcountry of the Soda Mountain Wilderness and the biodiversity of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument were enhanced by the regenerative flames of the Klamathon Fire. The fire provided the natural fuel reduction needed in an area that has experienced fire suppression for decades.
The Klamathon Fire will have numerous long-lasting effects. In the communities along the Klamath River and the Colestin Valley it will be remembered as a wind-driven fire with tragic human impacts. In the Soda Mountain Wilderness it will be remembered for the suppression impacts memorialized by bulldozer treads and bulldozed habitats.
It is my hope that the the Klamathon Fire will be most remembered for how little it changed this landscape. The Soda Mountain Wilderness and its wild, diverse mosaic of habitats has been enhanced and maintained by the Klamathon Fire. Over these next few years, the Klamathon Fire will bring vibrancy and renewal to a landscape long starved of fire. It will also remain the same wild, beautiful landscape so many have fought for, but so few have fully explored.
|The low-elevation portions of the
Klamathon Fire in the Horseshoe Ranch Wildlife Area burned at largely
low severity, maintaining the open-form juniper and patchy oak woodlands
on the arid slopes of Lone Pine Ridge.