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Confronting the Crisis

Reducing Wildfire Risk in the Klamath River Basin

Andrew Avitt
Pacific Southwest Region
March 29, 2024

Image shows a ridgeline at night with the McKinney Fire blazing along the ridgeline surrounded by the black of night.
This burning slope in the Klamath River area reminds the community of their commitment to reducing wildfire risk in the area. (USDA Forest Service photo by Anna Wright)

Large, destructive wildfires are often the big story. Firefighters and firefighting aircraft come from across the country. The images, the action, the fast-moving flames threatening Small Town USA, appear on your screens. 

Estimates point to more than 70,000 communities across the country that are at high wildfire risk each year. It’s not a surprising statistic for those living in these wildland urban areas, as they’ve watched wildfires approach places, and people they love year after year.

Janet Jones has lived in the canyons of northern California's Siskiyou County for 27 years in Horse Creek, 19 miles west of Yreka. Even though her community has faced the persistent threat of damage and loss, she remains an optimist.

“We love living here,” said Jones. “It's been a real gift, one of God’s true wonders. We're very fortunate.”

Image shows a ridgeline during the day after the McKinney Fire was extinguished, with burned trees and a denuded landscape as far as the eye can see.
Rebuilding from the McKinney Fire starts with landscapes like this in Klamath County. (USDA Forest Service photo by Kendra Fallon)

Jones is your typical, exceptional community member. She is involved with the school, the church and the Klamath River Fire Department as a volunteer fire chief. She sees how wildfire has a way of affecting entire communities.

The 2022 McKinney Fire is just one recent example.

“It's the first time we've had fatalities with our wildland fire, and we lost so many homes — 118 in total,” said Jones. “We're still in the recovery process from that.”

As she talks about the losses of her community, even though she did not experience each and every loss, you can hear the pain and the empathy in her voice. Going through a wildfire is very much a communal experience.

American flag flies in the foreground, with charred building behind.
 The aftermath of the McKinney Fire on Aug. 26, 2022: Destructive wildfires drove thousands from their homes this year. Shown here is the charred community hall in Klamath River, California, near KIamath National Forest. Four residents were killed and only a handful of homes in this small community withstood the fire. (Photo courtesy of Robert Hyatt, NOAA’s National Weather Service)

A Common Loss

Beyond the loss of life, burned homes and ruined local post office, there was a more communal loss during the McKinney Fire — the Klamath River Community Hall. Since 1948, the one-story building stood at the center of this wildland community, serving as a hub, a kind of social institution.

The community hall was loved almost as much as it was used, said Jones. And it was used a lot. Weddings, birthdays, pageants, turkey shoots, the Blackberry festivals, 4th of July events, Thanksgivings and celebrations of life. Even Taco Tuesday brought people together there over the years.

For Jones and her community, rebuilding the community hall is just a place to start, to heal and to honor those who died in the fire. 

“Having the community center rebuilt will bring people back together again. It would be a rebirth, that first step for people to really recover from this.”
Though the damage caused by the McKinney fire was widespread, it’s not to say they haven’t experienced loss like that before. 

Image shows a ridgeline during the day after the McKinney Fire was extinguished, with burned trees and a denuded landscape as far as the eye can see.
Image shows a ridgeline during the day after the McKinney Fire was extinguished, with burned trees and a denuded landscape as far as the eye can see.

“You know, we've seen the Boles fire, the Lava Fire, the Antelope Fire, the Gap Fire and the Happy Camp complex a few years back,” said Jones. “We know people who have lost their house in a wildfire more than once. A woman around the corner from us who lost her house in the Camp Fire, bought a house here, and a couple of years later, loses it to the McKinney Fire.”

“There are a few people that have moved and won't come back, because they are afraid of the threat. I just can't imagine what those people are going through.” 

Rebuilding is only part of the way forward. Without an increased emphasis on prevention and wildfire risk reduction, history may be on track to repeat itself.

“We've seen a lot of changes over the last 20 years. We've seen a lot of devastation. It's just been a lot for homeowners, and it’s time to work together.”

Image shows Janet Jones and Chris Schlosser standing arm in arm in front of a fire truck.
Ever the optimist, volunteer Fire Chief Janet Jones stands ready with Chris Schlosser Prukop, a fuels technician on the Klamath National Forest, to protect and rebuild a beloved community. (Photo courtesy of Janet Jones)

Confronting the Wildfire Crisis

The USDA Forest Service and land managers across the country have drawn a similar conclusion. Places like Horse Creek exemplify the need to reduce wildfire risk to communities in the wildland urban interface, the need to work together across all public and private lands. 

Horse Creek just so happens to be in the middle of a 10-million-acre area of the Klamath River Basin identified by the Forest Service to reduce wildfire risk to residents like Jones. The Klamath River Basin spans Klamath, Modoc, Siskiyou, Trinity and Humboldt counties with land ownerships across tribal, state, private and national forests.  

The Klamath is also one of 21 high-risk firesheds in which the Forest Service is implementing a strategy known as “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests.”

Now in its third year, the strategy aims to bring communities and stakeholders together to address the risk of wildfire. Watch this five-part video series as we explore what that strategy looks like for people like Jones. We spoke with foresters, scientists, residents and our partners about what it means to reduce wildfire risk to communities across these landscapes and the people who live there.  

Confronting the Wildfire Crisis Video Series

Image shows a line of wildland forest firefighters walking above a fire-charred landscape. A red vertical banner is on the left side of the image with the US Forest Service logo at the top of the banner.

Episode 1: An Unprecedented Threat

07:39

In January 2022, the Forest Service launched a 10-year initiative, “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis Strategy – A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests.”

Image shows a wildfire scene with a red vertical banner on the left side of the image with the US Forest Service logo at the top of the banner.

Episode 2: The Factors

09:56

The current crisis is due in part to how past practices, coupled with drought and a changing climate have resulted in unhealthy forests. It’s a dangerous mix of factors that are increasing the risk of catastrophic wildfire in these areas. This video takes a look at some of these factors and how land management can reduce the risk.

Image shows a small community surrounded by a forest with a mountain in the background. A red vertical banner is on the left side of the image with the US Forest Service logo at the top of the banner.

Episode 3: Fire Resilient Communities

09:41

The current crisis is due in part to how past practices, coupled with drought and a changing climate have resulted in unhealthy forests. It’s a dangerous mix of factors that are increasing the risk of catastrophic wildfire in these areas. This video takes a look at some of these factors and how land management can reduce the risk.

Image shows dozens of tiny fish in brown water. A red vertical banner is on the left side of the image with the US Forest Service logo at the top of the banner.

Episode 4: Protecting Water Quality

00:09:27

Over 20% of the nation's drinking water comes from watersheds supplied by national forests. In more heavily forested states, like California, that number could be as high as 60%. Watershed protection is an important consideration when it comes to reducing wildfire risk. These areas are essential to retain and filter water.

Image shows a small road winding through the remains of a forest that had burned awhile ago. A red vertical banner is on the left side of the image with the US Forest Service logo at the top of the banner.

Episode 5: Partnering to Meet the Scale

00:09:59

The scale of the Klamath River Basin, like other high risk fire sheds across the country, requires partnership. Tribes, state and local governments, and private landowners are coming together to lower wildfire risk across the landscape. 

 

The scale of the Klamath River Basin, like other high-risk firesheds across the country, requires partnership. Episode 5 shares how Tribes, state and local governments, and private landowners are coming together to lower wildfire risk in the Klamath River Basin.

Message board on side of building listing turkey shoot, Taco Tuesday, and bingo.
Klamath River Community Hall rises from the ashes to once again be the center of the community and bring people together. Don’t underestimate the power of a Taco Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of Janet Jones)

Rebuilding the Klamath River Community Hall

All this work — rebuilding after a wildfire and reducing risk of future wildfires — can’t be done alone.

Back in Horse Creek, they know that well. Following the McKinney Fire and the loss of the community hall, the Republican Women hosted fundraisers and dinners to raise money to rebuild the hall. The nearby community of Scott Bar held a bingo event with a chili cook off and raffled off a golden nugget. The

Forest Service donated burnt logs from the McKinney Fire, and a small mobile mill donated their time and equipment to process the logs.

“And that same cooperation is how we’ll prepare for the next fire,” said Jones. “We need to make sure that people are doing what they can to harden their properties — whether it's their house, the church, or the school.

“It’s great to see the Forest Service invest in Siskiyou County, to support our Fire Safe Councils, to help us keep our county and our community as it is,” she said. “I'm still an optimist.”

Learn more about what the agency is doing to reduce wildfire risk to communities at Confronting the Wildfire Crisis 
 

https://www.fs.usda.gov/features/confronting-crisis