Klamath National Forest's unique biodiverse landscapes under threat from wildfire
Featuring alpine lakes, dry ridgelines, age-old forests and deep river valleys, the Klamath National Forest boasts one of the most unique and diverse regions from corner to corner in the Pacific Northwest. Stretching the length of northern California and just brushing into southwest Oregon, the ancient forest is home to multiple rare organisms, all of which face a serious threat: wildfire season.
As the McKinney Fire and several other smaller burns are battled in separate corners of the Klamath National Forest, the sensitive ecosystems are thrown into chaos. First reported on July 29, the McKinney Fire has burned upwards of 58,000 acres of the Klamath National Forest as of Thursday morning, according to InciWeb.
“The Klamath Forest has the most diverse, temperate conifer forest of any region here, some would argue of the world,” said Michael Kauffman, author and ecologist from Humboldt County.
Some of the rare organisms calling the area home include two small amphibians, the Scott Bar and Siskiyou salamanders, who are endemic to the area, meaning they don’t live anywhere else in the world. The Klamath forests are also home to a particularly rare tree, known as the Brewer Spruce, which today also grows exclusively in the Klamath Mountains.
The McKinney Fire is in the northwest corner of the national forest, north of the Scott Bar mountains. Further to the west, portions of several small blazes now being called the Yeti Complex fire between Happy Camp and Seiad Valley, as well as along Scott River road inside the national forest.
While the salamanders have a unique advantage of burrowing far underground during dry spells, when wildfires typically start, the Brewer Spruce has no such escape plan, according to Kauffman.
“If this habitat is charred to a crisp, that further dries out these areas now and into the future,” Kauffman said. “It’s just getting more and more difficult for these species to persist in these areas.”
While fire can play an integral role in the natural ecosystem of a forest, such as breaking down organic debris and releasing nutrients into the soil, both the size and impact of wildfire have increased dramatically over the last 40 years, according to California Fish and Wildlife. Because of the increase in size, frequency and intensity of modern wildfires, the biodiversity and composition of forests are changing rapidly, said the report.
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Much of the Klamath National Forest covers an area that was and is today inhabited by indigenous populations, such as the Karuk Tribe, who previously utilized eco practices such as cultural burning to renew the land. Such practices helped provide nutrients and revitalization not only for the land, but also for the surrounding organisms, such as fish and fire-dependent plants, Kauffman said.
"As far as a natural place to really rejuvenate and reconnect with the land, the Klamath National Forest is an important place for a lot of people," said Kauffman.
Stage 1 fire restrictions are in place in Klamath National Forest from July 30 through Nov. 1, which prohibits recreational fires outside of designated sites.
Visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/klamath for current updates on fire restrictions.
Skyla Patton is an outdoor reporter and multimedia storyteller. She can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @ganjajournalist.