Klamath River Club: A story of fire resilience through native plant restoration and native plant gardening
As winter weather draws us indoors this time of year, it gives us time to reflect on some important experiences and learning opportunities in 2022, including this summer’s McKinney Fire, which tested the fire resiliency of our native planting and seeding projects at Klamath River Club on the Klamath River in northern California.
This summer one of Klamath-Siskiyou Native Seeds’ long-term native seeding and planting projects interacted with the McKinney Fire on the Klamath River in northern California, and it made it out pretty good, showing that growing native plants for the benefit of pollinators, wildlife, birds and native plant conservation can be an integral part of hardening your home and creating a fire resilient landscape on your property.
Wildfire is an elemental part of the ecological landscape of the Klamath-Siskiyou region, and it interacts with and impacts human communities in many different ways. The lives of most everyone who lives in the Klamath-Siskiyou region are touched in some way by wildfire, and will continue to be.
In many ways, the work we do at Klamath-Siskiyou Native Seeds is dependent on wildfire, as many of the species that we collect seed of and supply seed for are invigorated and nourished by wildfire, and some are truly dependent on wildfire for their survival and regeneration. We also do a lot of our seed collection in the post-fire environment, usually 2-3 years after it burns, as that is when herbaceous plants have put on extraordinary growth and flowers in the post-fire environment, making the access to an abundance of seed much easier to locate.
Where we live and work at the base of the Siskiyou Crest near the Red Buttes Wilderness, has experienced many wildfires in the last 20 years, including the 38,000-acre Abney Fire that burned in 2017 in our canyon for two months, creeping around mainly in the understory and replenishing the forests, woodlands and meadows with a long suppressed natural process.
Our family is lucky enough to have experienced low-intensity, understory wildfire next to our home with little threat to our structures or safety; however, our family has also experienced the devastating loss of a home to wildfire when Luke’s Mom’s home burned in the fast-moving, wind-driven Almeda Fire in Talent, Oregon in 2020. This fire destroyed 2,300 homes and killed three people. Luke’s mom will always live with the trauma and grief of losing so much so quickly, including sentimental and historic items that meant so much to her.
Yet, after many years of working on habitat restoration and native seeding and planting projects, for the first time, one of our project areas was tested by wildfire this past summer on the Klamath River. Our lives and work were again touched by wildfire, but in a different way this time. One of our long-term native seeding and planting projects at the private fishing retreat, Klamath River Club (KRC) on the Klamath River was partially burned in the 66,000-acre McKinney Fire.
The McKinney Fire was a dramatic semi-natural event, ignited by downed powerlines, burning through significant private industrial timber lands and fueled by explosive fire behavior, strong winds, collapsing pyrocumulus plumes and sudden, extreme rain events. The McKinney Fire tragically killed four people and destroyed at least 185 structures, including most of the town of Klamath River, California.
Started by sparking Pacific Power power lines, the fire quickly roared to life during an unprecedented heat wave and wind event. According to temperature gauges at KRC, the area experienced a record temperature of 116 the day the fire started, and in less than 24 hours the fire roared through the small settlement of Klamath River, burning many homes, trailer parks, the Klamath River Community Hall, a building that housed archives for the Karuk Tribe and the post office. When it reached KRC no one was there, not even fire crews, as they were busy with emergency evacuations, trying to save lives and get people out of the fire area. Crews were also focused on implementing structural protection along Hwy 96 with limited resources and under dangerous conditions, attempting to protect homes at the heart of the small hamlet of Klamath River. The McKinney Fire moved through the KRC property for an estimated 12 hours with no one there, and burned without the influence of fire suppression activities, showing how the fire naturally interacted with the human infrastructure, native plant gardens and habitat restoration projects.
Thankfully KRC was developed with wildfire in mind, as owners Tom and Annette had previously lost a home to wildfire during the Oakland Firestorm of 1991 in Oakland, California, a deadly and devastating fire that killed 25 people and burned 2,843 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units. Because of this past experience, Tom and Annette helped residents impacted by the Almeda Fire by gathering donated items from people in Oakland, California to help those who lost their homes during the Almeda Fire in the Rogue Valley years later. These experiences also helped inform the management choices they made at KRC while developing the human infrastructure, landscaping and defensible space around the property.
As part of the habitat restoration work at KRC, the first project was blackberry removal, followed by riparian tree and shrub planting along the river. This took place in between the river and structures, starting in 2017. This early decision to implement invasive blackberry removal along the river corridor adjacent to the developed portions of the property, and the emphasis on native riparian plants, was probably the most important factor that contributed to KRC surviving the McKinney Fire with only some losses. Blackberry removal and maintenance has continued at KRC near the homes and structures every year since 2017, keeping blackberry growth to a minimum and reducing fuels less than 100′ from structures and human infrastructure on the property.
As you can see in these photos, areas along the river that were still colonized with dense thickets of blackberries burned completely to the ground. Yet, where blackberry had been removed, the native riparian vegetation was largely unscathed and the reduction in fire intensity likely led to a decrease in residual heat and ember shower effecting the adjacent structures. The gray willow that dominates the Klamath River corridor, and native willow in general, is very fire resilient and is stimulated by wildfire, so it burning in and of itself is not problematic; however, it burning near structures and sending up embers that can help ignite nearby infrastructure does make a difference. So, in this scenario, removing the invasive blackberry and encouraging native trees and shrubs made the structures at KRC more fire resilient, reduced fire activity on the property and reduced the severity of the fire. It also essentially stopped the fire and may have saved much of the human infrastructure at KRC.
In all, the main structure, the bathhouse, a large outdoor kitchen/pavilion area, multiple large canvas wall tents on platforms, the pump house, the outdoor shower, and the garage structure all made it out just fine as the fire moved through the property. Some losses included two metal containers used for tool storage where the entire contents burned. The metal structures concentrated heat and baked the contents from the inside out. Although the metal containers did not burn, their contents were incinerated. Additionally, two canvas wall tents on platforms, and a woodshed with four cords of wood were burned. Compared to many who lost everything in the McKinney Fire, KRC made it out pretty good, with much to be thankful for.
The day the fire started Tom and Annette watched the fire burn remotely from their security cameras. The images were devastating that night as the dark images showed fire moving through the property and flames burning in different areas. As they went to bed that night, they thought KRC was going to be a total loss, but the morning daylight revealed that much of KRC made it through the fire, and some of the impressive flames and images from the night before was the firewood shed on fire, making it appear much worse than it actually was.
When Tom was finally able to return to KRC and visit the property with CALFIRE staff, they told him that the work he had done to create defensible space using native plants and removing blackberries had helped save the structures at KRC. Klamath-Siskiyou Native Seeds had done a lot of this work, and we are proud to have helped KRC be more fire resilient during the McKinney Fire.
As the McKinney Fire moved through the property it partially burned some of the native plantings, but most of the areas that we had planted and seeded remained completely unburned. As mentioned earlier, areas along the river treated to remove invasive blackberries stayed lush and green with primarily native gray willow (Salix exigua), but also some Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia), white alder (Alnus rhombifolia), incense-cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), white oak (Quercus garryana) and black oak (Quercus kelloggii) survived the fire. In the understory of these larger, established plants grow smaller native plantings, including a mixture of native trees and shrubs, that were also unscathed during the McKinney Fire.
There are a lot of factors that determine the intensity of a wildfire, and whether or not structures or vegetation will burn, but one of the major factors near homes is wind and ember shower. Thankfully all the structures at KRC have metal roofs which help prevent ember ignition. Embers did ignite a few places in the native plantings at KRC during the McKinney Fire, but they mostly just smoldered around in the bark mulch and burned up some of the plantings in a few areas. Probably less than 5% of the areas planted and seeded with native plants burned, and only a small fraction of that was negatively impacted. Well established plants sprouted back really quickly after the fire; whereas, some shrubs and perennials that were not well established, and were only planted a year or two ago, didn’t come back after being burned.
Being resilient to the fire allowed the native gardens and habitat at KRC to act as an oasis in an area which burned pretty hot overall in the McKinney Fire, providing valuable pollen and nectar for endangered monarch butterflies and other pollinators and wildlife within the fire footprint. Monarch butterflies used the milkweed in the native plant gardens at KRC throughout the summer and early fall at KRC, nectaring on the flowers, laying eggs on the plants, caterpillars munching on the leaves, caterpillars eclosing from chrysalises on the plants, and producing more monarchs and that will help the imperiled western monarch butterfly population.
Additionally, naturally occurring showy milkweed on the property that burned in the fire was growing back and pushing new growth within weeks of the fire.
Overall, the impacts to human infrastructure and native plantings at KRC were minimal, showing that native plantings, the removal on non-native species and the maintenance of defensible space had a positive effect on the overall impact of the McKinney Fire at KRC. .
The plants that didn’t make it through the fire were replanted this fall and efforts at KRC will continue focusing on native plant restoration, native plant gardening, defensible space and home hardening that will beautify the property, provide valuable pollinator and wildlife habitat, and help KRC weather the next fire storm. Living with wildfire takes preparation and thoughtful management of your surroundings, it also requires a little luck. KRC was both lucky and prepared, allowing the property to continue thriving with wildfire on the Klamath River. Fire is an inevitable part of life, but losing homes, structures and infrastructure is not inevitable if we work to adequately prepare homes and communities with defensible space and home hardening.
For more information please check out the following:
A More Effective Approach for Preventing Wildland-Urban Fire Disasters
Jack Cohen, PhD; Research Physical Scientist; US Forest Service, retired
A documentary inviting us to reimagine our relationship with wildfire