Photo by: Bootleg Fire Incident Command

Wildfires have become an almost predictable feature of life for Klamath River Basin communities. It seems that each summer, fires begin earlier and are bigger and more destructive than previous years. The Bootleg Fire, currently burning to the east of Upper Klamath Lake in Southern Oregon, has burned through several Basin communities. While it is currently 82% contained, it continues to worry communities in the Upper Basin. According to a recent New York Times report, “the fire has destroyed at least 67 homes and 117 smaller structures like sheds and garages. Two firefighters have been injured. No civilian injuries or deaths have been reported, but the fire threatens thousands of residences.”

Several days ago, lightning strikes ignited more than a dozen fires in the Klamath Basin. Most of these are burning in the remote backcountry of the Salmon River subbasin with others burning along the Trinity River where they threaten homes and have closed highway 299. All of this comes on the heels of the destructive Slater Fire of 2020 that burned over two-hundred homes in Happy Camp, California creating climate refuges out of many of our friends and neighbors.

Bootleg fire- Lake Oswego Fire Department

Bootleg fire- Lake Oswego Fire Department

As the Basin and really the entire West is experiencing wildfires of ever greater magnitude and destruction, folks are beginning to ask why it has to be this way. Many experts cite outdated land and resource management practices, rising temperatures, and drought which together have transformed our forests into brushy filled tinderboxes primed to explode into extreme wildfires that threaten wildlands, agriculture, rural and urban communities, and human lives.

Klamath River Basin communities are beginning to advocate for new policies that may allow a more nuanced approach to land and resource management that would improve the stability and productivity of wildlands. We now know that low-impact seasonal burning helps reduce the risk and impact of wildfires by consuming fuels and contributing to the health and resiliency of forests and grasslands. By proactively tending the land we can reduce the threat of extreme wildfires.

Land management entities are starting to embrace cultural burning techniques long used by the Klamath Basin’s Native communities to lessen the impacts of wildfires. Cultural burning uses “good fire,” to enrich the productivity of plants and animals and to reduce the potential risk of extreme wildfires. These prescribed burns are lit when conditions are ripe – cooler temperatures, higher humidity, and calm winds. Using low-impact fire to manage the landscape is more efficient and effective than spending massive amounts of resources and manhours attempting to control the uncontrollable.

Indeed, the Bootleg Fire underscored this point. The fire burned into the Sycan Marsh Preserve, a 30,000-acre parcel owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy. The Conservancy has been using prescribed fire to manage the property for about 10 years. Once it hit the managed area of the Preserve, the fire slowed and became less intense, consuming ground cover. Outside the Preserve flames climbed into the canopy and burned intensely.

Fire is an inescapable reality in a world increasingly impacted by rising temperatures and extreme drought conditions. Changing our relationship with fire will be an important step towards ensuring the safety and continuity of communities throughout the Klamath River Basin and neighboring regions.  How we do that will be discussed in the next article in this series.