Monday, June 6, 2016

Wildfire & Redrock: The Buckskin Fire Report

Far from catastrophic, the Buckskin Fire burned at predominately low severity in the Baldface Creek watershed, a wild tributary of the North Fork Smith River in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area. 
        Each summer fires burn in the wildlands of the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains and across the west. Each summer long-term impacts to old-growth forests, native plant communities, roadless areas, wilderness areas, endangered species habitat and salmon bearing streams are sustained. Often fire suppression activities leave more lasting impacts then the fires themselves. These activities take place with no environmental oversight, analysis, or public input. Fire suppression actions are the least regulated federal land management activity and include very little opportunity for public oversight, analysis or input.  Fire suppression is also big business; hundreds of millions of public dollars are spent every summer fighting forest fires, yet government transparency and accountability surrounding fire suppression activities is the exception not the norm. Fire managers routinely spend vast sums of public money and implement damaging fire suppression actions with little to no analysis of the appropriateness or effectiveness of such actions.

        The Klamath Forest Alliance has been tracking these impacts since 2012 in the Klamath-Siskiyou Fire Reports. The fire reports document fire suppression impacts, make policy and fire management recommendations, and analyze the patterns of fire severity on the landscape. Our newest project, the Buckskin Fire Report: Wildfire and Redrock: An Analysis of Fire Effects, Fire Suppression Impacts, and Management Implications, was published this week and will be used to encourage important policy debate about the current state of fire suppression and its impacts.

Low severity fire in the Baldface Creek Canyon.
A year ago this month, on June 11, 2015, the Buckskin Fire was lit by lightening in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area. The fire burned in remote and inaccessible terrain near Baldface Creek, one of the most pristine streams in southern Oregon. Baldface Creek is a key salmon stronghold in the Smith River watershed, it has wilderness quality habitat and is one of the most botanically diverse watersheds in the state. The fire was ignited six to eight miles from the nearest home in an area burned by the 2002 Biscuit Fire. Many of the areas burned by the Biscuit Fire had simply not built sufficient fuel since the blaze to burn with intensity. The effects of natural fuel reduction associated with the Biscuit Fire were evident throughout the Buckskin Fire, reducing fire severity and rate of fire spread. Despite widespread concern in land management circles that fires in the vast fire footprint of the Biscuit Fire would burn at high severity, the fire burned at mostly low severity due to a cool, coastal inversion layer and a lack of fire available fuel.

            The Siskiyou National Forest Forest Plan mandated Minimum Impact Suppression Tactics (MIST) within the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area; unfortunately, MIST was not initially implemented and great damage was done to important natural resource values. The Buckskin Fire burned slow and cool through the forests of Baldface Creek, naturally maintaining fuel loads and plant communities. The fire was doing great work far from any nearby community. The fire was surrounded by “natural barriers” of serpentine rock, sparse vegetation and fuel-starved slopes, still nearly unburnable due to the effects of the Biscuit Fire over a decade earlier.

Large diameter snags were felled in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless
Area. Fireline built to fight the Buckskin Fire can be seen in the
The Buckskin Fire burned actively for only four days and natural fire spread had reached a near complete halt by June 17, 2015. With the fire smoldering itself out in a remote wilderness canyon, fire suppression crews set about building bulldozed fireline, impacting numerous rare plant species, cutting hundreds of old-growth snags and intentionally igniting large backburns that accounted for half the total acres burned by the Buckskin Fire. These impacts were sustained within the largest unprotected wildland in the state of Oregon: the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area. The impact of discretionary fire suppression activities to the area’s wilderness character was severe, especially along trail #1124, a hiking trail that leads into the heart of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Significant portions of fire line were bulldozed into the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area on trail #1124, turning a popular wilderness trail into a freshly bulldozed fireline surrounded by a series of stump fields, large helicopter pads, and “safety zones” cleared of trees and snags and scraped of all vegetation with the blade of heavy machinery. A rare population of Tracy’s lupine (Lupinus tracyii) was potentially eliminated due to fireline creation.

A large "safety zone" built in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area adjacent to trail #1124 near Buckskin Peak. The safety zone was created by felling many trees and snags and clearing the site of all vegetation with a bulldozer. The photograph depicts the site following "fire suppression rehabilitation."
With fire season looming and the inevitable wildfires primed by summer drought all throughout the west, the question remains: What has been learned from the past? Will we send bulldozers and fire suppression crews into our last remaining wildlands, doing great harm to important natural resource values? Will discretionary fire suppression impacts continue leaving long-lasting impacts as we fight to “protect” our forests from important natural processes that have shaped their structure and composition for millennia? Wildfire, by and large, is not catastrophic, yet the impact of fighting wildfire can be.

            Many in the fire management community and environmental movement are advocating for a more responsible approach to protecting communities and managing wildland fire. The current militaristic approach to fire suppression is creating significant collateral damage. Innovative fire suppression strategies should be required in order to minimize long-term impacts, sustain important natural resource values, and maximize the number of acres safely burned at characteristic fire severities. In remote places like the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area, a fire management strategy relying on Wildland Fire Use (i.e. monitoring and managing wildfire for resource benefit if conditions allow) is necessary and realistic given the rugged and inaccessible nature of the landscape and its distance from homes and other infrastructure.

A section of fireline built along trail #1124 in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area.  Numerous miles of hiking trail across the summit of Buckskin Peak were subjected to extensive tree and snag felling, dozerline creation, and intentionally lit backburns. 
Mixed severity fire in old-growth sugar pine stands near the Frantz Meadow Trail.

For more information check out the Buckskin Fire Report & Executive Summary: 

Buckskin Fire Report