2018 Klamathon Fire Report: Natural Fire Effects, Unauthorized Wilderness Bulldozing, & Violations of the Wilderness Act
|Pilot Rock rises above upper Hutton Creek in the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area. The 2018 Klamathon Fire burned through this area at low to moderate severity, reinforcing a spectacular mosaic of mixed conifer forest, oak woodland, arid grassland, chaparral and basalt outcrops.|
Klamath Forest Alliance’s Klamath-Siskiyou Fire Report Program has recently released the 2018 Klamathon Fire Report exploring the fire effects and unfortunate fire suppression impacts sustained while crews from the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) worked to suppress the Klamathon Fire.
Some time has elapsed since the fire, and during that time Klamath Forest Alliance submitted a detailed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in order to fully inform our investigation. We waited 10 months to receive the FOIA documents which delayed the release of the report. Unfortunately, the BLM did not provide all the documents we requested and many key documents were either omitted or redacted, including basic maps, forms documenting daily fire suppression activities, and other applicable information. Despite spending tens of millions of public dollars on fire suppression activities and damaging important natural resource values, the Medford District BLM has refused to be open and transparent about their activities in the Klamathon Fire. Yet, the information we did acquire demonstrates that significant violations of the Wilderness Act and applicable BLM management plans occurred.
On July 5, 2018 the Klamathon Fire began as an escaped burn pile south of Hornbrook, California and rapidly swept through the small rural community, destroying 31 homes and tragically taking the life of an area resident who was fatally burned.
California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency, and for the first few days the fire burned with intensity through private ranch land and timberland. The fire jumped Interstate-5, forced the highway’s closure and threatened many rural residential homes in the Colestin Valley. In just three days, the fire burned over 30,000 acres and sent large smoke plumes across the region.
|The mosaic of low to moderate severity fire in old-growth forests on upper Slide Creek in the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area.|
The Klamathon Fire then burned into the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area; however, within these areas the fire had a much different character. It crept and smoldered in the backcountry, burning an ecologically beneficial, mixed severity fire mosaic. After reaching the Wilderness boundary, the weather moderated and the wind shifted, pushing the fire back onto itself. The change in weather conditions limited fire intensity and dramatically reduced fire spread.
As the fire spread more slowly into the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area it crossed the Oregon/California border, entering the jurisdiction of the Medford District BLM and the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), who implements fire suppression activities on BLM land.
|Dozerline was built in the Soda Mountain Wilderness and adjacent to the Pacific Crest Trail. This dozerline was built miles from the fire perimeter in old-growth forest and rocky meadow habitat.|
Unfortunately, ODF aggressively attacked the slow moving fire, building an estimated 30 miles of bulldozed fireline and vehicle access roads into the heart of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area. For six days, ODF bulldozed across the wilderness, opening old jeep tracks, destroying wilderness hiking trails and degrading the scenic values of the Pacific Crest Trail, all without proper authorization from the BLM. While conducting these unauthorized wilderness suppression actions, ODF badly damaged the wilderness qualities of the Soda Mountain Wilderness and the biodiversity values the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument was designated to protect.
Although still a wild, beautiful and vibrant landscape, the untrammeled wilderness values were violated by ODF bulldozers and repeated motor vehicle use. The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument remains a stronghold for biodiversity, connectivity and unique or rare plant communities, but some of the most intact, wilderness-quality habitats in the region were damaged during ODF fire suppression activities.
|A mortar and archeological site bulldozed in the wilderness.|
ODF crews bulldozed east to west across the Soda Mountain Wilderness, building extensive vehicle access routes, helipads, hoist sites and safety zones. Wilderness suppression strategies such as Minimum Impact Suppression Techniques (MIST) were never implemented and bulldozers pushed straight through streams, springs, and riparian areas, rare plant populations, and Native American archeological sites. The BLM knowingly allowed these activities to occur without authorization, from July 6 to July 12, 2018, when they retroactively approved all wilderness fire suppression activities implemented by ODF.
|A massive “safety zone” bulldozed in the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area on the Salt Creek/Camp Creek Divide.|
|Populations of the endangered Gentner’s fritillary were bulldozed.|
For at least three months the Medford District BLM operated as if the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area was temporarily rescinded, or did not exist. During this time, the BLM and ODF violated the very idea of wilderness by building roads into the designated Wilderness Area and by allowing extensive non-emergency vehicle access. What occurred in the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area during and after the Klamathon Fire has seriously harmed the area’s wilderness values and leads many to question the ability of both ODF and the BLM to manage public wilderness resources. The fire suppression actions taken were not implemented in accordance with BLM policy and were in clear violation of the Wilderness Act.
These unprecedented impacts associated with BLM/ODF fire suppression activities in the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area demonstrate a need for reform of fire suppression policies on Medford District BLM lands. ODF, in particular, has demonstrated that it is not qualified to manage wildfire in Wilderness Areas, National Monuments, Botanical Areas and other sensitive public lands, and its current fire suppression contract with ODF should not be renewed.
|The Lone Pilot Trail was bulldozed deep inside the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area and turned into a motor vehicle access route utilized by fire crews for three months after full fire containment. This photo shows a bulldozed stream crossing on upper Scotch Creek.|
During the Klamathon Fire, BLM land managers failed to adequately protect public resources and public lands under their jurisdiction. Klamath Forest Alliance has submitted a request for an Inspector General Investigation and changes to BLM fire suppression policy inside Wilderness Areas.
|Vegetative recovery just months after the Klamathon Fire at the Horseshoe Ranch Wildlife Area.|
|Vegetative recovery on Scotch Creek and in the Horseshoe Ranch Wildlife Area the spring after the Klamathon Fire in April of 2019.|