Three other GrizzlyCorps fellows and I found ourselves at the art center in Happy Camp, California on a chilly, wet November morning. It was the start of our weeklong TREX prescribed fire training in the Klamath region of Northern California. Though grateful to be at the final training of the season, at that moment, all I could think about was my relative cluelessness. TREX is composed of a multitude of organizations, including the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, the Karuk Tribe, The Salmon River Restoration Council, and this year, the Klamath National Forest Service. These Northern California organizations are bound by their common goal of “learning together and burning together” in order to better protect and serve their communities.
After the morning briefing, we were swept away to the site of our pack and shelter deployment tests. The pack test involved walking three miles with a 45 lb weighted vest in under 45 minutes. Cold and sweaty, we piled our sore bodies back into the truck to meet up with the rest of our burn team and see what they had been up to. Typically, the Klamath TREX program involves broadcast cultural burning with the Karuk Tribe, but the Klamath region had already received a substantial amount of rainfall so our week consisted of burning soggy, four-year old piles of dead and downed materials. These had been of lower priority until the recent McCash fire of 2021 threatened the area. Burn piles that are left untreated can lead to dangerous changes in fire behavior if a wildland fire were to pass through the area. While not as glamorous as broadcast burning, this work was critical to protecting the residents of Happy Camp.
Two groups were hard at work- the “chunkers” and the “lighters''. Chunking involved using tools and our hands to shovel fuels from the outside of the pile to the inside where the fire was burning to prevent the piles from “donutting”. Leaving a pile with less than 80% of its fuel consumed would not be adequate to meet our objectives. The “lighters” were the ignition crew who walked ahead of the chunkers and lit the piles with drip and propane torches. As someone who was afraid to light a match not more than a few years ago, I felt like chunking would be a good role for me on my first day. Our leaders had a different plan, and after our morning briefing the following day I was told to grab a drip torch and head up the steep, slick slopes as a lighter.
Initially, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders lighting burn piles in California. I was terrified that my flame lengths would get too high, and I would catch the whole forest on fire. After all, my only experiences with fire historically have been negative ones- nearby evacuations and poor air quality were common facets of my childhood summers in Colorado. I was surprised to realize how difficult igniting a soggy, four-year old burn pile actually was. I had to put a great deal of thought and effort into getting the fuels to ignite and quickly learned the nuances of pile burning best practices. We took a break to eat lunch, and for the rest of the afternoon I swapped my dainty drip torch for a bulky makeshift propane torch backpack. While the drip torch feels almost elegant- gracefully dripping fire on the piles- the propane torch was a roaring monster that propelled flames forward. I stumbled around from pile to pile, unaccustomed to the uncomfortable weight pressing into my back and struggling to find balance on the steep slopes characteristic of the Klamath forest.
We tripped and fell- often. And every time I fell I seemed to uncover a new variety of mushroom right in front of my eyes.
The minute details of the forest, from the soil to the canopy, captivated me. I had never been anywhere like this forest before, and at one point I commented on the striking plants and mushrooms I found, the giant trees cloaked in mist and smoke, and the pop and crackle of the many fires around me.
In response, one of the leaders of the program told me that I absolutely should be pausing to experience the forest: the sounds and smells, the fern-shrouded fungi, the expansion of space from trunk to trunk and canopy to understory. Ultimately the work of prescribed burning is deeply intertwined with being fully present on the land and garnering a greater understanding of the ecosystem firsthand. I remembered one of my favorite Ed Abbey quotes as I walked through the forest - “It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it.” I recognize that Ed Abbey was a white naturalist who failed to support people of color and their knowledge of the natural world. This quote captures my experience with prescribed fire but is in no way a representation of all that fire can be to indigenous people. I have found a certain understandable type of despair in environmentally conscious circles at times. The more we see and learn, the more hopeless we feel, and the harder it is to keep fighting that despair. Holding on to the hope and enjoyment in the good work that we are doing is vital to build resilience in the face of a changing world.
Prescribed burning is a powerful tool for rebuilding resiliency in forests and in the surrounding communities. Historically, trees in the Klamath National Forest were spread further apart and the density of smaller trees and shrubs was much lower. Due to fire suppression policies in our national forests, the landscape has changed drastically, decreasing the forest’s resilience to fire. All burning during the training occurred on the unceded lands of the Karuk tribe under their guidance and with their involvement. I recognize that for many years this group of people was punished, often severely, for being responsible stewards of the land under harmful fire exclusion policies.
Prescribed burning continues to hold ecological and cultural significance to the Karuk Tribe. I was struck by the resilience of a group of people whose culture and livelihood was threatened by fire suppression and is now threatened by the dramatic consequences of those exclusionary practices.
The buildup of fuels in the forests results in high intensity, uncontrollable crown fires as opposed to the low intensity surface fires of the past. Fire has devastated communities in the Klamath region, yet it is a necessary tool to prevent further devastation. Experiencing good fire and seeing so many different people come together with the common goal to restore the forest to its former health gave me real hope for the future of the land. Despite all that we have unlearned, humans are still capable of reciprocity to the land. The rampant wildfires in the western United States will not decrease in intensity without a great deal of attention and fuels reduction work on the ground. The changes we need to make on the landscape in order to restore the historical fire regime are overwhelming, but we can combat our despair by appreciating the inherent beauty in that good work. I’m grateful for my experience of burning and learning among wonderful teachers and peers.