Photo by: Lenya Quinn-Davidson

It may surprise some readers that some wildfire smoke is beneficial to fish in the Klamath and other rivers in Northern California. Specific wildfire and climate conditions can generate something called an inversion layer that insulates river water from the heat of the summer sun. In recent years July, August, and September have seen the Klamath River’s water temperatures reach temperatures where anadromous fish struggle to survive and spawn. Combined with other detrimental river conditions, this has driven some species of Klamath River fish to the brink of extinction and has decimated a once prolific series of fisheries.

Recent elevated river water temperatures are a biproduct of low water levels in the reservoirs formed by hydroelectric dams and resulting limited flow rates. Unpredictable summer temperatures related to global warming also contribute to dangerously warm river water. Over the last few years most Klamath River Basin residents have been exhausted by the smoke that has plagued them during fire season but salmon struggling to navigate hot rivers have found some respite when smoke creates an inversion layer that insulates river waters from the baking summer heat.

Historically, the Karuk people and their neighboring tribes would start “good fires” after certain ceremonies. These fires would generate inversion layers that contributed to salmon’s ability to navigate the river system and return to their spawning grounds. Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) has informed these Cultural Burning practices that support the management of the landscape and various forms of flora and fauna that Klamath River tribes utilize for cultural purposes.

Cultural Burning benefits the fish that tribes depend on for sustenance and ceremony in addition to other species of flora and fauna that benefit from reduced temperatures related to inversion layers during the hottest times of the year. Inversion layers were traditionally utilized to alleviate stressors experienced by salmon to improve their ability to migrate and spawn. Aiding the fish in this way helped to ensure their productivity in the future and to make more fish available for other Tribes upriver.

The Weeks Act of 1911 effectively criminalized Cultural Burning but contemporary efforts to change land management policies are making progress towards enabling Cultural Burning Practitioners to put more “good fire” on the ground to both reduce dangerous fuel loads that have built up in forests and to help ensure the health and productivity of plants and animals. It is important for Klamath River communities to have a more nuanced and involved relationship with fire: doing so can help ensure the safety and longevity of both human and wildlife populations and the landscapes they call home.