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Winter snow, forest health, fire suppression, and the economic impacts

The craggy peaks of Sheridan Mountain and Amhurst loom over the Vallecito Valley to the north, blanketed by winter’s snowpack.
The craggy peaks of Sheridan Mountain and Amhurst loom over the Vallecito Valley to the north, blanketed by winter’s snowpack.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Wade Shockley | The Southern Ute Drum


Russell “Buster” Attebery is Chairman of the Karuk Tribe located in Northern California. The reservation is near the town of Happy Camp, right on the California and Oregon border. This is a mountainous town with lots of trees sitting at high elevation. During the Native American Finance Officers Association meeting in 2023, Chairman Attebery had the opportunity to talk about a great disaster that occurred on his reservation and his tribe’s response to it. The reason I bring this up in an issue of the Drum is to expand the message and impact. It’s one thing to not know tragedies before they happen, but it’s quite another to have the knowledge and be wiser to the situation. 

Wiitus … A long time ago … there was an understanding between the Karuk Tribe and mother nature. Lightning strikes would burn and thin the upper elevations of the mountains and they would be monitored, but no action would be necessary until there was a threat to communities and structures that were in the lower areas. The wildfires had a way of eliminating the underbrush and crowded trees. Entire areas would be cleaned and washed by the rains. The ash would serve as nutrients for new growth and the cycle would continue.  

In the lower areas, the Tribe had cultural and prescribed burns that would do the same. Thinning the forest was natural. Over time, government intervention discouraged and prevented productive wildfire and red tape and bureaucracy complicated efforts to maintain forests on the reservation. 

The Slater Fire occurred on Sept. 8, 2020. It consumed 157,000 acres; and 440 buildings were destroyed. The entire town of Happy Camp, Calif. was obliterated, and two people lost their lives. In the months and years leading up to the event, there was always concern about the increasing amount of over-crowded trees, underbrush, and ground cover. Chairman Attebery said, “We had never seen a fire move so fast.” A mix of dry wood, cluttered brush, natural rummage of leaves, needles, and sticks littered the forest floor. This created a recipe for a wildfire to flourish, and so it did. The fire worked quickly and could not be contained. It ran through trees, houses, structures, and vehicles. In the blink of an eye, the landscape was changed, and we are reminded of our humbleness compared to the rage of nature. 

With so many people displaced and homeless, eyes were turned to leadership. Belongings and housing were decimated in a matter of days. The Kurok Tribe did what they could with what they had. They looked out for the people. Happy Camp was evacuated, and the Tribe focused on food and shelter. This was also during the peak of COVID-19, so the Tribe used hotel rooms to get people situated until the Red Cross arrived. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked in the short term and helped avoid people being in large groups.  

The fire also took place late in the year, and it was just a matter of time until the snow would arrive. Using money that was right in front of them, the Karuk Tribe directed $2.9 million in CARES Act money to buy almost 100 travel trailers as a means of temporary housing. This was not what CARES Act money was allocated for, but the immediate need put before them put them into a position to “do what’s right” and explain the process and situation later. A laundry trailer was purchased, and supplies were provided so that people could wash their clothes. A food bank was established which provided free food, hot meals, and sack lunches. The Karuk Tribe also set up donation centers to provide clothes, hygiene products, bedding, and such. Both new and used items were welcomed because there was so much need. These were the efforts that helped in the short term. For the long term, ARPA funds were used to rebuild homes for both employees and tribal members. The efforts of rebuilding and recovering has been a slow road for the Karuk Tribe. 

An important element of having restricted and unattended forest mitigation is that it affects the snow’s ability to reach the ground…to touch the dirt. When too many trees, bushes, shrubs, dead leaves, and ground cover are present, the snow will collect on those branches and leaves. As soon as temperatures warm or when rain comes, it will immediately melt that snow. Snow that is on the ground will help to freeze the ground and insulate the natural vegetation. That snow creates snowpack and that snowpack, in turn, is what takes time to melt and fill the ditches and streams. This is good snow. This is the snow that covers mountains well into June and July. Snow that collects on trees and bushes will melt immediately and you will have instant flooding, erosion, and all the hydration from the winter will be gone in a matter of days. 

There are many lessons learned from this example that impact economic decisions and some that were created on the spot as a reaction to situations no one could have prepared for. Had there not been CARES Act funding and ARPA funding at the time, none of the short term or long-term purchases would have been possible. Neither of these funding sources were intended for fire recovery and disaster relief, but the leadership chose to make the decision in the moment and figure out the logistics later.  

Regardless of where you live, if you have mountains, forests, snow, and experience water issues, this story will apply to you. The idea that snow needs to reach the ground and create snowpack is essential to keep streams, rivers, and reservoirs replenished steadily over months and not through flash flooding which overwhelms dams, triggers landslides, and escalates erosion. We need to look around our reservation and ask ourselves if we are in a similar situation. Can we help mitigate wildfires through more aggressive thinning and forest management practices?          

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has had a hard time filling forestry positions over the years, this affects not just the fire season, but the ability to clear, plant, transplant, and thin the forests here on our reservation. What are the options to do these jobs and what are the costs associated with those options? Could an option be brought forward to thin the forest with the idea that trees go to lumber use, commercial timber contracts, or local entrepreneurs who can benefit from firewood and lumber product sales? When contractors (BIA or Tribe) thin, harvest, and plant, this would be a good time to partner those efforts with road repair and culvert analysis. It takes more than what we are doing now; it requires vision from people who specialize in this or a new way of looking at this from our Tribe.  

In the case of the Karuk Tribe, a silver lining from all this tragedy was that they are now venturing into wood pellet production and the funding from that enterprise is helping to recover unexpected costs to the Tribe. The impact of the story told by Chairman Attebery extends far beyond the boundaries of his own reservation. He tells his tale so that others can look inward and self-evaluate their own situation. Message received. 

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