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Monday, October 5, 2015

The WEST and the Fires That Burn ...... by Gail L. Jenner

Throughout the West, fires have become a dreaded reality. Watching the fires in California, Washington, and Oregon these past few months, one can only imagine the devastation. It’s one thing for fires to spring up in wilderness areas; it is quite another for them to devour homes and structures.

            But fires are not a new phenomenon in our area. The Jacksonville, Oregon, newspaper reported in 1864 that: “during the past few weeks…fires have been raging with increasing fury.” Fire was a tragic reality in the early days as most settlements went up in smoke quite frequently. Locally there were at least three fires that destroyed the small western towns in northern California.

            Historically, fires that erupt in July and August often burn or smolder until October or November rains extinguish them. It’s also important to note that the northern California tribes, such as the Shasta, Karuk, Tolowa, Takelma, Yurok and others, used fires routinely to open up stands of oak, collect insects, fungi, or acorns, or even to clear regions for travel or settlement, and, perhaps most common, to improve habitat for game animals. The fires they lit occurred in the fall and were allowed to burn. Many early settlers, as well as tribes, disagreed with the policy of fighting fires—a policy that continues to be a matter of controversy. 
            Early ranchers, who learned from the tribes, also incorporated fires in their management practices of the land, the forests, the grasslands: one old-timer told me that as his grandfather and other ranchers pushed cows across the hills and through the upper mountain ranges, they would light the grassland here, there, and everywhere, and always in the fall, just before the rains so that the fires never got out of control. In those days, the underbrush was burned off, even in the years of drought. Indeed, the 1920s were considered some of the worst years for drought in the West, as were the '30s.

            Suppression of fires began in 1906 with the creation of the federal forest “reserves” – later to be renamed the U.S. Forest Service. It’s interesting that in our area, many fires are the result of lightning rather than human activity, although fire suppression efforts have been noted to have added to the fire danger. There were a number of large, lightning-caused fires in the early decades of the twentieth century; locals, as well as the limited forest rangers, fought the fire as best they could. In the 1930s, the CCCs were also employed as fire fighters.
           Fire lookouts were established as a means of monitoring the forestlands and these lookouts were important in locating fires before they grew in size. One important early lookout "ranger" was Hallie Daggett, daughter of John Daggett (who was not only a successful miner but became Superintendent of the San Francisco Mint in the early 1900s and Lieutenant-Governor of California). Hallie, hired in 1905, was the first woman lookout in the United States and served every summer for 13 years.

           Two years, 1956 and 1987, were labeled extreme fire years in northern California, and occurred during a long dry period coupled with frequent lightning strikes. More than 100,000 acres were burned during those two fire years. The fire of 1987 did not begin dramatically, but was sparked by dry lightning storms. In southwest Oregon, in 1987, more than 1,600 lightning strikes occurred during a twelve-hour period in August. The result: more than 600 fires were ignited.
            Northern California was literally submerged beneath a wall of darkness. City street lights stayed on day and night. Temperatures began to drop because sunlight could not penetrate the heavy, ash-filled smoke. People with allergies and lung conditions were asked to leave the area. Others wore masks to keep the large particles of ash and debris out of their mouths and lungs.
            Much of the smoke from the towering plumes, because of the height of the Marble Mountains and blustering winds, were swept out of our own Scott Valley, located near the Oregon border. But even with less smoke, the sun, when visible, shone through as a brilliant, deep red-gold. The small, local airport became a mini-city with blazing lights, helicopters, and fire-fighting aircraft coming and going at all hours.
            After more than two months of battling nature and spending millions of dollars, the last of the fires were put out. This, however, was not achieved by man’s efforts, but by the winter rains that arrived mid-November. In all, the fire of 1987 scorched 260,000 acres, making it the largest and costliest fire (at the time) in the history of Northern California and the Klamath National Forest. The fire cost more than 480 million in suppression efforts and employed 10,000 people.         
            The Klamath Complex Fire in 2008 burned over 190,000 acres and was made up of three major fires, the Panther & North Ukonom fires, the Bear Wallow Complex Fire (Anthony Milne, Caribou, & South Ukonom fires) and Siskiyou/Blue 2 Complex fires. Located 20 miles southwest from Happy Camp, the Siskiyou Complex didn’t immediately threaten structures or private land.

Of course the last few years have continued to rank as some of the most dangerous years for fire. The results: the loss of thousands and thousands of timberland as well as homes, buildings, and even lives...
            Research reveals that when fires are more frequent, they are less disastrous and relatively small and “patchy,” while less frequent fires are often larger and more devastating. Sadly, according to a 1984 study of fire history, “In spite of [all the] dozers, tank trucks, helicopters and air tankers, fires continue to become larger and larger, doing great damage to the natural resources.”  
            Interestingly, the Forest Service has once more adjusted its fire repression and fire prevention policies; the old ways are once more being recognized as a good way of dealing with the increased fuel loads found in the forests and grasslands. Like the tribes who lived for centuries throughout the area, small ground fires provide one important deterrent to the raging infernos that are otherwise created by the overgrowth of dry matter.
            The devastation that this year’s fires have again produced makes one realize the frightening results of fire. No doubt all of us will continue to feel the consequences these fires have reaped. 
Gail Jenner, author of ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS, JULY'S BRIDE, JUST IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS, and THE PRETTIEST HORSE THIEF, lives on the family's five generation cattle ranch in a rural valley in the Northern California mountains where fire is a constant summer threat.


  1. Gail, having been through three major 'fires' here in Colorado, I relate and understand. History bears out the devastation and fury of fire. As we move closer and closer into forested areas, along with practices of fire mitigation, I believe we may see more human destruction as time goes by. It isn't easy to find the right answer, but find it we must. Doris

    1. I absolutely agree, Doris! We live in a valley surrounded by national forests and wilderness areas, and the fires have become a constant source of frustration. The air for much of the last two summers was horrible; ironically, the amount of pollution created by these fires and the amount of destruction ripping through the forests, leaves us all to wonder at the policies that have allowed the debacle to continue. The loss of life--ie: the firefighters who have died--makes it even more abhorrent.

  2. These fires have been devastating. We have the Hume fire east of us that has been burning for weeks with the smoke occasionally getting blown down to the Valley. When most of the nation had their bad weather last winter and spring I felt bad for them but knew with our drought our time was coming in the summer when we would burn up. The light rain that came through last week was a blessing.
    Robyn Echols w/a Zina Abbott

    1. As my husband says, rain is always a blessing--and most of all, after a season of fire like we've all suffered in the West! The fires most often do burn themselves out as winter approaches....sad to say, the back-burning that is done to "halt" the spread of wildfire often becomes the greater issue. We lost over 87,000 acres of prime forest and timberlands last year and no doubt, again this year. That small towns have burned and people have died makes this an urgent issue for the West to solve -- and soon! Hopefully the powers that be will begin to manage the forests and grasslands so that we can prevent fire....and prevent such terrible losses.

  3. Periodically, we get grass fires out here on the dry buffalo grass prairie lands. It's been a couple of years since the last one, but it's pretty darn scary to get the emergency call in the middle of the night to prepare to evacuate the town because the wind changed and the fire is coming toward us. Fire is such a fickle, unpredictable beast.

    1. Wow --- I imagine the grass burns quickly! That would be very scary.... hopefully the future will see a downturn in the number of wildfires.