Burn Down Valley

Cooperative land management efforts offer hope in the wake of the 2020 fire season.

In September 2020, an east wind swept over Siskiyou Pass, catching a stray spark a mile from my family’s home. Fire spread through the parched grass and summer brush, feeding on neglected blackberry bushes, and, over the next twenty-four hours, burning through nine miles of the Rogue Valley, decimating two small towns and nearly three thousand homes. All were north of us; my hometown of Ashland was barely touched, and I wondered if being upwind was just my family’s luck of the draw. 

The Almeda Fire, as it became known, was one of three fires to hit the region that week: the South Obenchain and Slater Fires also swept through portions of Southern Oregon and Northern California, burning through spindly conifers and chaparral, supercharged by the same wind throttling the region. The night before the fires, our house creaked like it was leaving the earth, and I imagined townhomes tumbling across farmland while I lay uncovered in the heat. I knew that the east wind event that drove the fire was not unique in the landscape’s history, but the vulnerable, fire-suppressed second-growth forests surrounding the region were, consequences of a century of industrial extraction.

 Back in the ’90s, my parents bought into a brand-new development of single-family units overlooking a small creek in north Ashland. It remains a slice of suburbia in an otherwise rural county, driveways and garages parceled up and layered onto an old ranch. There’s a derelict barn half a mile uphill, a property owned by the same people who used to own the mill. It’s a holdout on the block, soon to be converted into much-needed housing. Out the back window, half a mile downhill, is the creek, lined with big-leaf maple, cottonwood, and white alder, the understory crowded with blackberries and scouring rush. Its water, flowing toward the Rogue River, used to be a reliable passage for steelhead and salmon. 

At the time, my parents’ purchase reflected the rural rebound of that decade. They’d moved to the Rogue Valley to raise children, trading the crowded city for the romance of the western United States. The town wove through manzanita and hills of mixed conifers, and asphalt turned quickly into fire and logging roads, disappearing into government-held forestland. 

We had no roots there, really. My parents had chosen Ashland for the same reason so many people end up there: it’s a stunning setting, a symbolic opposite to distant, clogged cities. When my grandparents eventually moved into a retirement home nearby, the coalescing of my closest family brought a deeper sense of belonging. But when smoke fixed itself to the fabric of summer sometime after I turned fourteen, each year hotter than the last, I began to suspect that the very elements my parents loved most about living in Southern Oregon—the hills and the forest—would also be the source of our greatest anxiety. In the surrounding forestland, the soil was drying out; the summers were getting hotter and longer; wind, once a relief from the heat, now held dangerous potential.

The Siskiyou Mountains, a protected forested area of incredible biodiversity, hold seven out of the top thirty communities in Oregon most at risk from wildfire. This represents a degree of vulnerability to fire unprecedented in modern human history, the result of the growing number of homes being built in these already fire-prone landscapes. Much of the surrounding forestland has been rendered a tinderbox, too, due to a century of aggressive logging operations and a policy of fire suppression in what are historically fire-adapted forests. My home watershed, for instance, once caught fire every decade, either from natural causes or because the Shasta people who lived here applied fire across Ko’hosadi, their ancestral land—a practice eliminated by White settlers. 

Was it luck that my hometown escaped the burn? At the southern end of the valley, Ashland, dubbed Southern Oregon’s “cultural capital,” is tucked into the hills. For generations, the town held itself apart from the more industrialized rural region surrounding it: with its economy always listing toward tourism, Ashland was framed by early boosters as a racially homogenous safe haven. Later, adventure tourism and theater arts toed a similar line, marketing a highly manicured landscape, natural “wellness,” and well-managed forest trails. These attractions resulted in more and more large homes—built for those who could afford the steep price—spreading deeper and deeper into the surrounding hills. 

Down valley you’ll find divergent economies. The gold mines, timber sales, and fruit farms of yesterday have given way to wineries and cannabis farms. Many employers in these industries, along with those in the service, retirement, and hospitality sectors throughout the entire valley, lean heavily on in-migration and special work visas for a largely Latinx population of immigrants living in a shrinking stock of affordable housing. When the fire swept through, its effects mirrored the area’s inequalities, unsurprisingly. 

It was still light out when Talent, the first city to our north, began to burn. As the flames spread down valley, Jackson County was unable to send evacuation notices to residents—due to a disconnect in emergency response communication, a report later showed. I immediately understood that the disaster would be felt disproportionately. 

The fire was mainly burning along the creek and the freeway. This riparian seam along the valley contained some of the only affordable housing in the area, where many of the immigrant families lived in garden apartments and mobile homes, alongside fixed-income seniors. Elsewhere along the creek, in city parks and on public land patchworked through the valley, were the hundreds of people barred from stable housing by skyrocketing prices. Dotting the banks were makeshift camps and tarp shelters, threatened daily by a punitive police force. 

I sat on the back porch and watched flames jump above the horizon as new structures ignited, sending black plumes of smoke billowing in the opposite direction. Over my phone, I streamed the fire department’s frenetic radio signal. No one seemed to have a good idea of where the fire was, exactly, beyond the firsthand accounts of firefighters. 

Eventually, when the fire was fully contained, I would learn that three people had died, 2,700 structures had been incinerated, and thousands of residents had been displaced. In the aftermath, I felt a shift—not only was the climate crisis finally “here,” as local leaders reminded us, but the inequalities that had long preceded the fire were laid bare on charred earth. This was the most concentrated disaster to hit the valley in my lifetime, exposing the degree to which our society is ill-equipped to handle such a shock. I know that it will likely happen again, and that adaptation is desperately needed. But how to do that, I’ve been less sure.

A photo of a burned house and a scorched maple tree

On a hazy July morning ten months later, I had the chance to visit a project managed by Lomakatsi Restoration Project, an Ashland-based organization that has practiced a model of forestry centering forest health—as opposed to profit—since 1995. For decades, they’ve built landscape-scale ecological restoration projects across Oregon and Northern California, collaborating with a range of federal, tribal, municipal, industry, and nonprofit partners. They also conduct vocational training and classes for youth and adults, work with sovereign Tribal Nations to support forest restoration projects on their ancestral lands, and help build restoration-based economies through partnerships with regional industries. Lomakatsi’s goal is to restore ecosystems and promote the sustainability of communities, cultures, and economies. 

I wanted to understand what it might mean to live with fire, so I was heading toward one of their newer projects, a fifty-thousand-acre area held by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, tucked into the jagged folds of the mountains outside the small town of Ruch in the Upper Applegate watershed. Much of this area consists of former tree plantations—land leased to timber companies—and is one of the highest-risk sections included in the organization’s broad effort to remake the region’s forests. Lomakatsi, through their role with Rogue Forest Partners, had recently received funding to begin a slate of ecological restoration projects across the Rogue River watershed, part of a broader collaboration with the Forest Service, the Department of the Interior, and a suite of other nonprofits.

In Ashland, forest restoration has long benefited the tourism-dominated economy, but for communities with limited infrastructure and resources, there has historically been less incentive to prioritize these sorts of efforts. Consequently, to drive through the foothills of the Klamath Mountains is to witness an uneven mosaic, with imprints left behind by more extractive uses: second- and third-growth Douglas fir tightly planted in national reforestation efforts, patches of manzanita and chaparral left in clear-cut quilts. The road through the Applegate Valley weaves through monocropped orchards, recently uprooted pear trees, vineyards, and farms. Occasionally it crosses a railway, outdated infrastructure connecting old logging roads to the rest of the world. 

I parked my car and walked into a gully off a dusty forest road, dodging four-foot-high piles of branches with black tarp layered in the middle. The only trees left standing were madrone, oak, big-leaf maple, and Douglas fir—the latter all greater than eight inches in diameter, their lower branches distinctively sawed off to protect the upper canopy from inevitable fire. I moved easily along the forest floor—a sharp contrast to the tree plantation land I was familiar with, where snags make it impossible to walk in a straight line and dried-out trees form ladders to hop over.

A group of twenty workers had passed through this section of the Applegate Valley earlier in the week, starting around 5:00 a.m., their belts loaded with gasoline and oil, their hands wielding heavy chainsaws. Methodically, they had cut through small-diameter trees and thinned overgrown brush, piling up the wood to dry. Eventually it would be lit with a drip torch. The workers followed a “prescription,” a plan that had been carefully developed by forestry staff in collaboration with Rogue Forest Partners—including input from Aboriginal tribes.

I understand that forest restoration and thinning techniques like these will likely not be enough to deal with the dramatic impacts of climate change. Megafires are here to stay. They will burn hotter and more intensely, and people will continue to build houses in areas that firefighters cannot adequately protect. However, this kind of large-scale restoration effort is more than just wildfire adaptation; it is about remaking the region’s relationship to the land and reengaging people in the ecology of the forests. 

For Lomakatsi, caring for the land is not about preserving it as a separate wilderness, but rather about integrating the rhythms of the landscape and the community. In addition to implementing ecologically based thinning techniques, they apply fire to reduce risk, and they also create good jobs in forest-dependent communities. Their in-house workforce of forty full-time on-the-ground restoration workers, predominantly Latinx and tribal members, augments a cadre of local forestry contractors and timber operators. The operation sends logs to the mill—by-products of ecological forestry work—with profits returning to help pay for additional restoration. The same infrastructure historically used to extract—chainsaws, mills, and logging roads—is now being repurposed to care for the ecosystem, extinguishing the long-standing tension in Oregon between environment and jobs. “It’s a forward-thinking, replicable model that balances ecology and economy, reduces wildfire risks through an ecological approach, and addresses sociological challenges faced by
forest-based communities,” Marko Bey, the organization’s founder and executive director, testified to the US House Committee on Natural Resources in 2019, chaired at the time by Deb Haaland, now secretary of the Department of the Interior. 

Lomakatsi and their partners want to return fire to the landscape, believing that by strategically treating sections of the forest, they can significantly reduce fire severity. However, since so much of the landscape has been so drastically altered over the past century, work is needed to prepare the region for the return of these cycles of fire. By bringing back fire and managing for key species, like old-growth ponderosa pine or Douglas fir—what they call “anchor trees”—Lomakatsi’s leadership hopes to promote an ecosystem that is healthy for wildlife and humans alike, and one that is more resilient to climate impacts.

Fire has always been a fixture in this area, whether caused by lightning strike or expertly applied to the forest by the Aboriginal peoples living here. In Ashland, where low-burning fires cycled every seven to ten years on average, this was the work of the Ikirakutsum Band of the Shasta people, and in the Applegate Valley, the Dakubetede people. Thanks to their efforts, the forest was well adapted to receive fire. However, when the US government and its settlers waged war on the local tribes, taking their land, killing them, and forcibly removing them to reservations, the careful application of fire disappeared. 

After this process of dispossession, war, and genocide, the power to manage most of Oregon’s land and resources was taken by White settlers and their government, resulting in a patchwork of private, state, and federally held land. Today, 64 percent of the 63 million acres of forestland in Oregon is held by federal and state governments, while privately held land makes up 34 percent. Federally recognized tribal governments account for only 2 percent, even though the entire state consists of ancestral tribal lands. As anthropologist Patrick Wolff has argued, “Settler colonizers come to stay: invasion is a structure, not an event.”

Only after being validated by troves of scientific research has the application of fire—in conjunction with ecologically managing forestland—gained a foothold in national discussions of large-scale land management. Recent research confirms what has been known and practiced in Aboriginal communities for thousands of years: landscapes are better off when they are tended to with care and reciprocation, rather than industrial extraction on one end of the spectrum, or complete human exclusion on the other. And today, many tribes are leading the way in continuing to use prescribed fire to tend the landscape.

For two decades, Lomakatsi has partnered with Tribal Nations, at their request, to support them in building tribal capacity to restore ancestral lands. This work includes what’s known as Master Stewardship Agreements: frameworks developed between tribes, the Forest Service, and other partners to support long-term, collaborative restoration activities that are culturally and ecologically centered. For example, in 2011 Lomakatsi entered into an agreement with the Klamath Tribes, Fremont-Winema National Forest, and the Nature Conservancy that has treated fifteen thousand acres of forestland, and they are currently in the process of partnering with the Kosealekte Band of the Ajumawi-Atsuge Nation (also known as the Pit River Tribe) and the Modoc National Forest on a tribal-led ecological restoration initiative targeting twenty thousand acres.

“There is not one other group out there that is including the tribes the way Lomakatsi has included the tribes,” Belinda Brown, the organization’s tribal partnerships director, told me in June. Brown, an enrolled member of the Kosealekte Band of the Ajumawi-Atsuge Nation, explained that these efforts are what makes Lomakatsi unique among Oregon’s ecological restoration movements: “[The tribes are] just now getting a voice, and being able to participate in and comanage these large landscape initiatives that are happening on their ancestral ground.” 

With national focus shifting toward the future of the West’s vulnerable forests, restorative forest management has begun to receive increased attention and funding. It’s an appealing option in a polarized country: partnerships across the state, from Malheur County to the Rogue Basin, have formed among conservation-minded environmentalists, scientists, and the forest products industry. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, for instance, view the approach as a likely path forward through gridlock, and Western governors are lobbying President Biden to increase spending on restorative forest management.

And yet, as I drove back to Ashland, it still felt as if we were far behind where we needed to be. My trip coincided with the start of an exceptionally early fire season. That same day, crews were called to fight the growing Bootleg Fire near Klamath Falls, which quickly turned into the state’s first megafire of 2021. Lomakatsi’s chainsaws were no longer an option due to the fire risk; instead, they worked fire engine and hand crews.

A photo of a green forest

The first time I visited Talent after the Almeda Fire, I ran into H, a friend from high school, outside a mutual aid center for fire victims. It was a week and a half after I’d watched the town burn. While people dropped off donations, we stood in the parking lot and caught up. I learned he’d just returned from fighting fires in California, where, as part of a contract crew, he’d worked nonstop for weeks clearing fire lines as one of the thirty thousand wildland firefighters actively deployed in September 2020. Despite the bleak backdrop of melted washing machines and lone chimneys in Talent, H seemed somewhat unfazed. Having maintained such proximity to fire-exposed landscapes for so long, he was simply grateful for his unburned house and ready for a rest. 

I was struck by the upbeat conversation. For H, fire was a constant presence in his working life and gave a rhythm to it. Fire also brought him intimate and close relationships with the forest and his crew, which was something he had grown to love, he told me, despite the painful and dangerous work. Like so many people working with fire across the western United States, H was already a participant in the forest’s fire ecology, part of the enormous amount of public investment earmarked for suppression. However, recent events have made it clear that focusing exclusively on fire suppression is no longer a viable option: wildland firefighters like H have racked up thousands of overtime hours while facing worsening conditions every year.

I asked H if he would continue working with the forest, given climate change and the rapid increase in the size and frequency of the fires. It’d likely end up being a year-round job, I guessed. He was unsure. If you worked on certain crews the pay was good, he told me, but the job was intense, like war. He’d seen friends almost crushed by snags, and approaching a fire was like being on a battle line.

Standing alongside the burned-down block, the precarity of the situation was apparent. The atmosphere, choked with smoke, drained the color from the landscape. The fire had melted paint off many buildings and cars, leaving only concrete, metal, and rust. Trees, either stripped of foliage or charred completely black, stood as reminders of the leaping flames. 

However much I resisted the metaphor of battle, it felt uncomfortably apropos. We needed to rethink our relationship to fire—it would be with us for the rest of our lives. There will likely never be another summer in my lifetime when fire will not move through these vulnerable landscapes. “The question,” Belinda Brown stated in written testimony to Oregon’s Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery in early 2021, “is who gets to decide where the fire goes, what is burned, why it burns, and who are the stewards of this timeless natural element?” 

I don’t want to sensationalize Lomakatsi’s work nor try and propose a solution. The sheer scale of the challenge is overwhelming, and addressing the encroachment of homes into vulnerable areas is an equally necessary step with its own set of complications. But I see reasons for optimism. Here in the Klamath Mountains, there are efforts to use mills, chainsaws, and logging roads not to extract, but to care for the forest. There is a growing movement to restore damaged tracts of industrial land. The place H and I grew up in has changed, that is a given, but I know that as long as people live here, there will be opportunities to try and reconfigure our relationships—to each other, and to the forest. I feel grief, or loss, over the fact that the valley will never be the same, anxious that my family’s home will burn. I also know that we have no choice but to adapt, and I wonder what will come of it.

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