Will Harling on Fires in the Klamath

Will Harling and I are sort of like brothers from different mothers. Both of us were raised up by the long-haired wolves, timber fallers, mechanics, railroaders, gold miners, and other outlaws who populate the hillbilly sticks of far Northern California.

First opening day fishing trip with the grown-ups, Mill Creek, California, 1985.

Not surprisingly, as adults, both of us have dove deep into the worlds of forestry, fisheries, fuels, and prescribed fire. When we met in 2000 at a fisheries conference in Chico, at the reception inside a working brewery, Will showed me some blurry photographs of people in flannel shirts and blue jeans burning overgrown brush. There was an underground sort of feeling to the pictures, as if what was happening was not exactly legal. I don’t remember much else of what we talked about, but I do remember I had brought a few of my buddies from Plumas County along to the party, and one of them laid down on the train tracks during our walk home with a goofy grin, pretending he was a soon-to-be-run-over college student. Fu*king country kids…

I didn’t think much more about Will Harling until he called me in 2013 and said he had a bunch of money for my company to do prefire planning work for his non-profit, and that we didn’t need to bid on it. Over the past decade, we’ve worked a lot with the folks on the Klamath River, helping map out their fire hazards, working as members of the overhead team running the Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange, and running into them during wildfire assignments. Last year Will and I met up in Nebraska for a week of prairie burning with the non-profit Pheasants Forever.

The Klamath is an intense place to work. The native Karuk people never signed any treaties, but the US Forest Service took over their ancentral homeland in the early 1900s and banned the use of fire. Heavy timber harvests after WWII decimated the old-growth forests. The Forest Service planted tens of thousands of acres of tree plantations, and sprayed herbicides on the tan oak, bay, and shrubs like huckleberries which are important foods and medicines for the Karuk. The Forest Service abruptly halted logging in the early 1990s, destroying much of whatever trust remained amongst the people who didn’t already hate them for cutting down all the big trees or poisoning everything that wasn’t a Douglas Fir seedling. The quasi-legalization of weed in the 2000s brought new tensions, as a surge of growers flocked to this remote and relatively-lawless corner of Humboldt County drove up prices on the already hard-to-purchase private land.

Orleans, California, 2016.

Dozens of large fires have occurred here in the past 50 years, thousands of acres of the plantations established after old-growth logging have been incinerated, hundreds of homes lost, 7 people have died in wildfires in the past 3 years, and many avoidable adverse outcomes have been realized when out-of-the-area fire managers have tried their hand at corralling the largest fires.

I’ve been reflecting that in my hometown, in Lassen County, many people may have resented the Forest Service, but we loved our neighbors who worked for the ‘Piss Firs’. It never seemed personal. When I worked for the agency in college, I became defensive of it, as if any criticism of my employer was a direct reflection on the quality of the work I was doing for them. Nothing is simple in rural NorCal, but the injustices of Federal land management seem dramatically amplified in a landscape as culturally-intact as the Klamath.

Native people may have kept their traditions of cultural burning alive thru over a century of criminalization, but they have few places to legally practice them – most of the land is still under the control of the US Forest Service. While agency fire managers have been increasingly receptive to involving natives and locals in planning and implementing their firefighting tactics, this has really only begun to happen in the past 20 years. As I write this, native people in the Salmon River with homesteads threatened by the Pearch Fire face jail time if they dare to put fire on the ground to burn the grass or weeds in their yards to protect themselves from the approaching flames. No matter that we are in perfect prescriptions to do this safely, or that their ancestors have burned at this time of the season for thousands of years.

As a descendant of recent settlers in this place of deep cultural divides, Will has been threading a fine needle, and as a leader of local fire resilience work, he has elbowed his way into more than one incident management team planning meeting. In our interview, below, he talks about his feelings of helplessness having to stand by when Federal fire managers unfamiliar with the area refuse to incorporate the deep fire knowledge of the locals into their planning. We’re glad to catch him amidst all of the wildfire action in his ‘hood, and for our association. Here is our interview from 9/24/2023.


Hop here to all of the 2023 Wildfire Videos.

The Lookout is an independent media company reporting on wildfire, forestry, land management, and rural culture. We are driven by a desire to help people understand how wildfires work, the strategies employed by people attempting to manage them, and the intersection of fire and culture. We are based in Chico, in Northern California. We are 100% user-supported. If you enjoy our content, check out the-lookout.org and consider becoming a subscriber.
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Cover photo by Will Harling.