Orleans, CA – Following one of the worst fire seasons in recent memory, prescribed fire practitioners are again gathering in Orleans, California to teach and learn how fire in the right place at the right time can be the solution instead of the problem. More than 80 qualified trainers and trainees will participate in this year’s Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (KTREX) – the fifth such annual event. Participants come from as far away as Spain, Missouri, Colorado, Oregon, Fresno, Oakland and Napa, and include dozens of local people, too.
Local returning participant and Karuk Tribal member Vikki Preston has been an entry-level firefighter trainee known as a Firefighter Type 2, and a FEMO trainee during the past two KTREX. In firefighting lingo, FEMO is code for a fire effects monitor. As a FEMO, her job has been to keep tabs on weather and smoke conditions during TREX burns and report them so that burn bosses can adjust their strategies and tactics to achieve burn objectives. This year, she’s in training to be a more advanced Firefighter Type 1.
“I still have a lot to learn. It’s very challenging, but I set a personal goal for myself to do hard things and not get set in just doing easy things. I decided I should go for it if something seemed like a challenge because there was something I needed to learn. A while back, I remember thinking I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do that,” Preston said. In her third year, KTREX has shown that she can.
Preston is one of many TREX participants who comes away from KTREX feeling empowered to become a prescribed fire practitioner. In Preston’s case, she’s motivated to learn about fire so she can begin developing place-based knowledge of how fire behaves on the landscape and manage her family’s property the way her grandparents did for decades, as they learned to do from earlier generations.
Despite dry weather conditions, trust built in previous years between TREX organizers, CALFIRE and air quality managers has garnered permits to implement burns when acceptable burn conditions arise. KTREX plans to treat at least 300 acres in 10 to 20 separate burns on private land around small, rural towns in the Middle Klamath watershed where wildfires routinely threaten homes, water systems and other infrastructure. But the event isn’t just about getting low- to moderate-intensity fire – sometimes called “good fire” – on the ground at the right time of year to reduce the risk from “bad fires.”
KTREX provides a unique opportunity for needed capacity building, a prerequisite for reintroducing fire at larger scales where it can actually shift the current paradigm of mega-fires and heavy-handed fire suppression. Perhaps most significantly, the training exchange supports indigenous peoples and tribal governments to demonstrate the benefits of fire management using traditional ecological knowledge, and empowers other fire management agencies to break the vicious cycle of fire suppression and extreme wildfires that we’ve been caught in for the past century.
“Karuk people have had a role in functional fire processes for thousands of years. Fire has been regulated out of our hands in this past century. The Klamath River TREX is a great example of how indigenous people around the world can help lead community-based solutions that address the social, economic, and ecological issues of our age,” said Bill Tripp, the Karuk Tribe’s Deputy Director of Eco-cultural Revitalization.
The event is supported by the Nature Conservancy’s Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) model, and lights the way for other communities looking for a different approach to their fire problems. Fire management agencies like CALFIRE and the US Forest Service are becoming more involved as mutual trust is established. And the concept is gaining traction with landowners, who’ve shown increasing interest and willingness to both host burns and engage as participants.
Orleans landowner Phil Sanders regularly participates in TREX, allowing burns on his property. “Since 2015, we at the Downs Ranch have been the beneficiaries of controlled burning projects planned and completed by both the Mid Klamath Watershed Council (MKWC) and TREX personnel. We see that large forested portions of the ranch have been made less vulnerable to wildfire. Also, our immediate neighbors appear safer because of the work done on our ranch,” he said.
The KTREX is funded in part by a recent $5 million grant from CALFIRE, which also provides funding for implementing the Somes Bar Integrated Fire Management Project (Somes Bar Project), the first pilot project of the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (WKRP) demonstrating how fire can be returned at the landscape scale in the wildland urban interface (WUI). The Somes Bar Project uses strategic linear manual and mechanical treatments to allow for safe implementation of prescribed fire over 5,500 acres in the next four to seven years.
“Communities play a critical role in restoring fire process in their landscapes,” said MKWC Director Will Harling. “We are building a model to show how diverse partners can bring good fire back, even in very challenging conditions. By engaging all affected parties, we share responsibility, the liability and the cost, but also the success of creating fire resilient communities, and restoring life to our forests and rivers.”