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Year after year, wildfires have swept through Northern California’s wine and dairy country, threatening the region’s famed agricultural businesses. Evacuation orders have become a way of life in places like Sonoma County, and so too have exemptions to those orders. Officials in the county created a special program allowing agricultural employers to bring farmworkers into areas that are under evacuation and keep them working, even as wildfires rage. It’s generally known as the ag pass program. Reporter Teresa Cotsirilos investigates whether the policy puts low-wage farmworkers at risk from smoke and flames. This story is a partnership with the nonprofit newsroom the Food & Environment Reporting Network and the podcast and radio show World Affairs.

Then KQED’s Danielle Venton introduces us to Bill Tripp, a member of the Karuk Tribe. Tripp grew up along the Klamath River, where his great-grandmother taught him how controlled burns could make the land more productive and protect villages from dangerous fires. But in the 1800s, authorities outlawed traditional burning practices. Today, the impact of that policy is clear: The land is overgrown, and there has been a major fire in the region every year for the past decade, including one that destroyed half the homes in the Karuk’s largest town, Happy Camp, and killed two people. Tripp has spent 30 years trying to restore “good fire” to the region but still faces resistance from the U.S. Forest Service and others.

Twelve years ago, the Forest Service officially changed its policy to expand the use of prescribed burns, one of the most effective tools to mitigate massive, deadly wildfires. But Reveal’s Elizabeth Shogren reports that even though the agency committed to doing controlled burns, it hasn’t actually increased how much fire it’s using to fight fire. The Forest Service also has been slow to embrace another kind of good fire that experts say the West desperately needs: managed wildfires, in which fires are allowed to burn in a controlled manner to reduce overgrowth. To protect the future of the land and people – especially with climate change making forests drier and hotter – the Forest Service needs to embrace the idea of good fire. 

Credits

Reporters: Teresa Cotsirilos and Danielle Venton | Editors: Brett Myers, Casey Miner and Jenny Casas | Lead producer: Elizabeth Shogren | Producers: Levi Bridges and Danielle Venton | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda with help from Steven Rascón and Claire Mullen | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode photo: Mike McMillan | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Al Letson 

Special thanks: Sam Fromartz at the Food & Environment Reporting Network, Joanne Elgart Jennings at World Affairs, and Katrin Snow and Ethan Toven-Lindsey at KQED. Reveal Data Editor Soo Oh, Reveal intern Lakshmi Varanasi and Ryan Howzell at World Affairs contributed to the farmworker segment.

Dig Deeper

Listen:  The Karuk used fire to manage forests for centuries. Now they want to do that again. (KQED) 
Read: Indigenous practices may be key to fighting wildfires (National Geographic) 
Read: The U.S. Forest Service’s terrible, shortsighted new wildfire policy (Slate)  
Read: The great hypocrisy of California using indigenous practices to curb wildfires (Vox)

Transcript

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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Bucher Farms is part vineyard, part dairy. It’s in Sonoma County, California, part of Wine Country. With rolling green hillsides, it’s beautiful, but last August, it was in flames. A series of wildfires known as the LNU Lightning Complex fire were ripping through the region. As they did, a farm worker and his wife shot this cellphone video. You can’t hear a lot in their video, but what you can see is terrifying. It’s shot from a hilltop. In the distance, giant bursts of orange flames shoot up above the trees. It looks like a volcano. The worker and his wife who filmed this are from Mexico. They don’t have legal authorization to work here, so we’re not using their real names because they’re afraid of retaliation from their former employer. We’re calling them Saundra and Benjamin. Benjamin says during the fire, the whole sky, the whole ground …
Benjamin:[Spanish language].
Al Letson:… even the trees were covered in nothing but white ash.
Benjamin:[Spanish language].
Al Letson:His first thought …
Benjamin:[Spanish language].
Al Letson:… was to run.
Benjamin:[Spanish language].
Al Letson:Benjamin laughs it off now, but at the time he was scared. He’s a dairy worker who was living on the farm with his wife and kids. He says his boss wanted him to stay and work, even though the fire was within sight. Saundra thought it was a bad idea.
Saundra:I was concerned for how fast it would come to us. Are we going to have enough time to get out of here? I didn’t know what to do.
Al Letson:Then evacuation orders came down for large parts of Sonoma County.
Saundra:It was just like, “Okay, you need to get out now.”
Al Letson:Eventually Saundra packs up and drives out with their kids, but Benjamin stays behind. He says that his boss tells him they’re not in danger and that there are plans to keep everyone safe.
Benjamin:[Spanish language].
Al Letson:Benjamin doubts his boss has the situation under control. He worries that he might not see his family again. Thousands of people evacuate the county, but Benjamin and hundreds of farm workers stay behind. They feed animals, milk cows, and pick wine grapes. Eventually the smoke and flames take their toll on Sonoma’s grape harvest, cutting their value nearly in half. Damage from wildfires has become part of life in the West. Right now, as I record this, fires are burning all over Washington, Oregon, and California. As climate change intensifies, they’re going to get worse. How do we live with fire? We start with a program that puts low-wage farm workers on the front lines. This story is a partnership with the Food and Environment Reporting Network and the podcast and radio show, WorldAffairs. Here’s reporter Teresa Cotsirilos.
Teresa Cotsiril…:The fire that burned around Benjamin grew to almost half the size of Rhode Island. In all it destroyed around 1,500 buildings and killed five people. Evacuating ,running away, that made sense. Staying and working, that was harder to justify.
Benjamin:[Spanish language].
Teresa Cotsiril…:When he’d opened the door to his mobile home, Benjamin says there were these big clouds of dark smoke in the sky.
Benjamin:[Spanish language].
Teresa Cotsiril…:He says inch-long pieces of ash rained down and the air was terrible.
Benjamin:[Spanish language].
Teresa Cotsiril…:It was like breathing pure smoke, says Benjamin. His days were part same old, same old, milking and feeding cows, mixed with other more surreal tasks.
Benjamin:[Spanish language].
Teresa Cotsiril…:He says his boss gave them hoses to spray down the buildings.
Benjamin:[Spanish language].
Teresa Cotsiril…:Morning and night, so none of it would burn.
Benjamin:[Spanish language].
Teresa Cotsiril…:Benjamin could have evacuated with Saundra and the kids, but he didn’t want to use up his vacation days, and says he only made about $34,000 a year plus housing, which meant that taking unpaid time off would have been hard too, so Benjamin stayed. He did it as part of an official county program. As the fire got worse, he got more and more scared. He kept asking himself, what are we even doing here?
Benjamin:[Spanish language].
Teresa Cotsiril…:It’s an evacuation zone.
Benjamin:[Spanish language].
Teresa Cotsiril…:They’re telling people that they have to evacuate because it’s a danger zone.
Benjamin:[Spanish language].
Teresa Cotsiril…:Why are they giving people permission to come and go? I wonder that too. I learned that it all goes back to another massive wildfire. In 2017, a combination of high winds, dry conditions, and downed electrical lines started one of the most destructive fires in California history, the Tubbs fire.
Dispatcher:How big is the fire? Do you know? How big is the fire?
Female:A few acres.
Female:Hundreds of acres.
Male:It’s through the whole (bleeps) winery. I’m talking about I’m watching it right now [inaudible] burning right towards us.
Dispatcher:I need you to leave the area then.
Teresa Cotsiril…:Reveal and KQED got a hold of 911 recordings that allow us to hear how the fire spread through Wine Country.
Dispatcher:Attention, Sonoma County residents. We are recommending that you prepare to evacuate your homes.
Teresa Cotsiril…:First responders urge people to evacuate. An entire neighborhood burns to the ground in downtown Santa Rosa. 22 people die, but while many residents are calling 911 and trying to get out, many farmers want to get back in. They have grapes to pick, missing sheep to wrangle, and cattle to feed, and they want to bring workers in too. There’s no program that allows them to do that, so county officials create one, while the fire is still burning. Most people call it the Ag Pass Program. Ag employers use these passes to bring workers into an evacuated area. Since 2017, the county has approved hundreds of them.

The tape is on and it’s recording.

I sit down with Andrew Smith, Sonoma County’s Ag Commissioner. His office runs the program.

We are partnering with the Center for Investigative Reporting, also known as Reveal.
Andrew Smith:What are you trying to reveal?
Teresa Cotsiril…:Sometimes Andrew seems a little skeptical of my reporting. He says the program is still pretty ad hoc, even though it’s been going on for years, which makes sense, since it was created in the middle of a literal fire.

Just to clarify this, there’s not a law that’s been passed that’s associated with this?
Andrew Smith:No, there’s no current county ordinance that establishes an Ag Pass program. There’s no current state legislation that’s been passed.
Teresa Cotsiril…:The Sonoma County Ag Department helped create this program, along with the Sheriff’s office and other county agencies. Andrew says it’s not perfect and they’re working to make it better, but he says you can’t just stop farming every time a fire burns through.
Andrew Smith:That sends a huge ripple effect through the local and even beyond the local economy. Farming doesn’t stop because Mother Nature deals us a bad hand.
Teresa Cotsiril…:To apply for an Ag Pass, employers fill out a form with some basic information. Then Andrew’s office confirms that they represent a real commercial farmer vineyard. What his office doesn’t do is confirm that workers on the property will be safe. Andrew says that’s not his job. The Sheriff’s office manages checkpoints. Andrew says it’s up to them to make the final calls about whether it’s safe for workers to enter an evacuated area. The Sheriff’s office confirmed this, by the way. They say they carefully check current fire conditions before letting anyone in.
Andrew Smith:It’s not our goal to put people in harm’s way. It’s not our goal to put people in danger. I think people that want to get into an evacuation area make a calculated risk.
Teresa Cotsiril…:When farmers apply to Andrew for a pass, they have to list what workers will be doing, like irrigating fields or picking grapes. The box on the form is labeled critical and essential activities. Since workers’ health is on the line, I asked Andrew how his office decides what’s essential and what isn’t.

Have you ever turned down a commercial ag entity who was like, “This is essential!” and you look at it and you’re like, “That’s not.”
Andrew Smith:Why would we? What reason would we have to do that?
Teresa Cotsiril…:I guess I’m asking you, can you think of any reason to do that?
Andrew Smith:No.
Teresa Cotsiril…:That’s it. You kind of defer to them in terms of what’s essential.
Andrew Smith:We understand that that harvesting crops and keeping animals alive and the life safety of livestock is a critical and essential function of an agricultural business, so we agree with them.
Teresa Cotsiril…:I made public records requests and found that in 2020 Sonoma County issued at least 470 Ag Passes. Many of them were for things like giving medication to a herd of donkeys and watering fruit trees, but passes were also given out for less essential activities like tending the garden at a local elementary school and delivering empty bins to a winery. I tried to find out how many farm workers used these passes in 2020. The form does ask for that information, but employers didn’t include it about half the time, which means that during a fire, county officials and first responders have no way of knowing how many farm workers are inside an evacuated area. Farmers and vineyard owners can be a little reluctant to talk about the Ag Pass program. After weeks of back and forth, one person finally agrees to talk. John Bucher owns the dairy and vineyard where Benjamin used to work.
John Bucher:I was born and raised here. I’ve spent all my life here on this ranch except for four years at UC Davis. I’ve only had three permanent addresses in life, and they’ve all been on West Side Road.
Teresa Cotsiril…:No way.
John Bucher:Yeah.
Teresa Cotsiril…:Wow.
John Bucher:That’s it. I love this area.
Teresa Cotsiril…:John takes me on a tour of his property. Bucher Farms is talked between rolling hills. He’s got rows of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes and around 1,400 dairy cows.
John Bucher:This cow just had a baby. See the baby on the other side?
Teresa Cotsiril…:Then John drives me to the top of a windy hill. It’s the same hill where Benjamin and Saundra shot that video of the fire looking like a volcano.
John Bucher:The smoke was going straight up. It was like a big mushroom cloud towards the west. At night, we could see the orange glow.
Teresa Cotsiril…:John says fire or no fire, he needs workers to keep his farm running. The cows need to be milked every single day. If not, they could get sick or potentially die. Beyond that, his business depends on shipping milk. He says that’s why the Ag Pass program is so important. It protects farms.
John Bucher:I couldn’t run this place by myself. My employees knew if we had damage here and I couldn’t operate this business anymore, they wouldn’t have a job anymore. They were willing to help me because they knew it was a win-win.
Teresa Cotsiril…:John insists he always had worker’s safety in mind during last year’s fire. He installed fire hydrants on his property and says he monitored wind conditions and kept in regular contact with firefighters during the blaze. In the worst case, if the roads got blocked, John says he had a plan. John takes me down to the place where they planned to ride out the fire. We’re in a clearing next to this big well. He says they had food here, lots of beef jerky.
John Bucher:Plus we had water here with a fire hose that we could protect ourselves. Our last resort, if we couldn’t escape, it was here.
Teresa Cotsiril…:I’ve talked to a lot of people about John’s plan of last resort. I’ve interviewed workers, their family members, their friends, and none of them can agree on exactly what this emergency plan was. Benjamin says he decided to work through the fire in part because John told him it was safe. I asked John about that and he says he doesn’t remember explicitly telling any employees that they were not in danger. In fact, John disputes a lot of what workers told me, including this accusation I heard from Benjamin. He says John told workers they may have to help fight the fire. He’s not the only person I heard this from.

Just to be totally clear, did you guys discuss fighting the fire if it got close enough?
John Bucher:No, we didn’t. We also were prepared if that scenario happened.
Teresa Cotsiril…:As I leave Bucher farms, I think a lot about what John said. The main question I still have is how he or any farmer can ensure the safety of their workers in the middle of a wildfire. Historically, irrigated farmland rarely burned.
John Hagee:What we’ve seen over the last, I don’t know, 10 years, is what’s normal is not normal anymore.
Teresa Cotsiril…:John Hagee is a spokesperson for Cal Fire. He says now they’re seeing wildfires jump into places that didn’t use to burn. I ask him about the Ag Pass program and how he feels about letting hundreds of farm workers into places under mandatory evacuation orders.
John Hagee:It’s another challenge. Now I have a workforce that’s inside of a fire area, that is not trained in firefighting and fire behavior. Now that’s an element of opportunity for things to go wrong.
Teresa Cotsiril…:About half of Sonoma county’s Ag Passes in 2020 didn’t say how many people were entering evacuated areas. I ask John about how this missing information affects his job.

How does it change your job to not know how many people are actually there?
John Hagee:It’s very disconcerting. I can’t ensure for people’s safety if I don’t know how many people I have, where they’re at, and what they’re doing.
Teresa Cotsiril…:As best we can tell, there have been no documented deaths connected to Ag Passes, but wildfire smoke is also a serious danger. Three doctors I spoke with tell me they’ve treated farm workers in Sonoma County for chronic coughing, asthma, and shortness of breath. When smoke gets thick enough, California employers have to give their workers N-95 masks to protect them. The doctors also tell me that they regularly see farm workers who say they didn’t get them. Cal OSHA enforces the state mask rules during wildfires. I asked them how they do that for farm workers inside evacuation areas, working on Ag Passes. The spokesperson’s response was essentially, “What’s an Ag Pass?”

A recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that weather conditions in the West will become increasingly prone to fire as the planet warms. As extreme fires spread, we’ll have to decide what sacrifices are we willing to ask of workers in order to keep businesses alive and bring food to our tables.

Ag Passes are still relatively unknown in California, but their popularity is growing. Half the counties in the state either have a program of their own or are developing one right now. Meanwhile, Sonoma County officials are working on reforming their program. In the future employers might have to complete a fire safety training before they get an ag pass, and the county could restrict how many workers an ag pass holder can bring in. State legislators are also working on a bill that would standardize parts of these programs.
Saundra:[Spanish language].
Teresa Cotsiril…:Earlier this summer, I visited Benjamin and Saundra. They left Sonoma last winter and Benjamin works at a different dairy now. At one point, he and Saundra took a break to sprinkle lime juice and chili powder on their kids watermelon slices.
Saundra:[Spanish language].
Teresa Cotsiril…:Later Saundra tells me that she worries about how the fires have affected their children.
Saundra:Kids, their minds are like little sponges. Psychologically, it’s not a good thing for them to go through all this traumatic things.
Teresa Cotsiril…:Saundra says they left Sonoma for a lot of reasons. One of them is that Benjamin wanted a better boss. Instead of sticking around those broad California hillsides covered in rows of grapes, a place Saundra once described to me as paradise, they started over somewhere completely new, in a place where they hope nobody will ask them to work in a wildfire.
Al Letson:Thanks to Teresa Cotsirilos for bringing us that story. It was produced by Levi Bridges in partnership with the Good and Environment Reporting Network and the podcast and radio show WorldAffairs. Indigenous tribes across the West used to use fire to keep catastrophic blazes at bay, but white settlers outmoded.
Bill Tripp:We were forced to stop this at the point of a gun.
Al Letson:Reclaiming knowledge about how to fight fire with fire. That’s next on Reveal.
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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. We hear a lot about the burning that is happening in the West, like the Dixie fire in Northern California, that’s already burned more than 700,000 acres. We don’t hear much about the burning that isn’t happening and that should be. Bill Tripp lives and grew up in far Northwestern California, along one of the tributaries of the Klamath River. Fire has always been a part of his life. Starting when he was just four years old.

The morning was cold.
Bill Tripp:I figured I’d start a fire, so my great-grandma would be warm when she got up. As soon as she heard me start messing around with the fire, she came out there and was like, “You’re going to be playing with fire, you’re going to do something good with it.”
Al Letson:She brought him outside and gave him his first lesson in how to control fire.
Bill Tripp:Took me out under the black oaks and gave me a box of stick matches. She was over a hundred years old at a time and said, “Let me take these matches and want you to burn a fire from right here to right over here.”
Al Letson:Bill’s family is Karuk. Before settlers came, Karuk, like many Native people, used fire as their primary tool to take care of their land. Fire encouraged the growth of useful plants like huckleberries and grass for deer and elk. It played a role in ceremonies and prevented catastrophic wildfires. The knowledge passed through generations, but four-year-old Bill still had a lot to learn.
Bill Tripp:The leaves were dry on the very top layer, but they were wet underneath. I could get one leaf to burn, but I couldn’t get it to carry the next.
Al Letson:He kept at it.
Bill Tripp:I was stacking them and then [inaudible] trying to do all these things. By the time I was eight years old, I was pulling off some pretty complex burns by myself.
Al Letson:Learning how to use fire, to preserve both the forest and his people’s way of life, became Bill’s calling, and so did his fight with federal and state agencies to encourage more of the good fires to prevent the out-of-control ones. Reporter Danielle Venton of KQED in San Francisco has more.
Danielle Venton:Visit the Klamath river today and you’ll find steep canyons crowded with Douglas fir, brush so thick it’s hard to walk through. Dense forests stretch for miles in all directions. Bill Tripp tells me it wasn’t always this way.
Bill Tripp:Historical records shows that the forest looked like a well pruned orchard with a constant haze of smoke in the air.
Danielle Venton:Bill works in the Karuk Department of Natural Resources. He’s built his career around fire, working to bring more controlled burning back to the area and more training for Native people to do them. That haze he mentioned was from fires set by Native people. We’re talking outside, and I can hear the walkie talkie chatter of fire crews in the background.
Bill Tripp:That backside of the ridge used to be a big, huge black oak stand all the way down to the Creek that was burned off every year. That kept all the fires from coming towards town this way.
Danielle Venton:That changed in the 1800s when the state of California spent millions of dollars to exterminate Native people. Federal authorities outlawed traditional burning practices and even advocated shooting Native people who burned. Karuk people still burned where and when they could, but fire agencies have spent decades focused on preventing any kind of fire. Today you can see the impact of that policy. The land is overgrown and constantly under threat from wildfires. Over the past decade, there’s been a major fire almost every year. They’re destructive, and to Bill, incredibly frustrating, because he spent decades writing reports, talking with politicians, and arguing in the media that Karuk people should be allowed to light good fire in the Klamath.
Bill Tripp:We were forced to stop this at the point of a gun. What is right about that? Now look what’s happening. We tried to say it back then. We’re still trying to say it. Now why can’t we just go do it?
Danielle Venton:One of Bill’s closest allies is another local named Will Harling. They’ve known each other since elementary school.
Will Harling:I was born and raised out here. My dad came hunting for Bigfoot back in 1969 and never left.
Danielle Venton:Will isn’t Karuk, but he also remembers a rich, abundant land growing up, things like wrestling 40-pound salmon out of the river and bringing them home for dinner. He wants that connection to the land for his kids, but he worries about the effects of years of repeat out-of-control wildfires.
Will Harling:My 16-year-old has probably smoked the equivalent of 20,000 packs of cigarettes in his life, sucking wildfire smoke.
Danielle Venton:Will runs the nonprofit Mid-Klamath Watershed Council dedicated to restoring the area’s ecosystems. He also used to work for the Forest Service and trained as a firefighter. He and bill have spent decades trying to return the area to a more natural, pre-settlement way of using fire.
Will Harling:Because that’s how we’re going to fix this problem is we’re going to think outside of our Western mentality box, and we’re going to get back to how indigenous people manage fire in California. The sooner we do that, the sooner we’re going to save people and communities and resources and ecosystems. It’s that simple.
Danielle Venton:It’s been an uphill battle. 98% of ancestral Karuk land is controlled by the federal Forest Service, so the agency must approve any burn. That’s even though Bill and two others within the tribe had the U.S. government-approved qualifications to be burn bosses, meaning they’re trained to run prescribed burns.
Bill Tripp:We can’t get past this idea that the agency is the only one that can light a fire out there in the forest. A lot of times indigenous people get overlooked and the sovereignty of tribes gets overlooked in these things.
Danielle Venton:Which isn’t to say they haven’t tried. In the past 20 years, they’ve proposed a half dozen projects for Forest Health and Fire Safety.
Bill Tripp:There’s the [inaudible] Integrated Wild Land Fire Management Project.
Will Harling:The Happy Camp Community Wildfire Protection Plan.
Bill Tripp:The West Side Project.
Danielle Venton:And more. Any large project needs the Forest Service’s cooperation to be effective. Bill says they’ve almost never gotten it. He and Will can more easily treat private or tribal land, so after these rejections, they start focusing on an area in Happy Camp where some of the tribal elders live, right where steep forested hills slope down into the valley. Tribal Forest Service and contractor crews clear a few acres of vegetation near the homes, collecting branches and brush into large piles to be burned later when it’s safe.
Bill Tripp:We managed to get all the piles burnt that were on the tribal trust lands, but the piles that were out there along the highway and on the national forest system side didn’t get burnt.
Danielle Venton:The Forest Service covers them with plastic tarps.
Bill Tripp:I had advised that they don’t cover them with plastic, but everybody seemed to want to use plastic, because they wanted the piles to stay drier longer. Guess what? [inaudible] said you can’t burn plastic.
Danielle Venton:It would be expensive to take the plastic off, so the piles just sit there for six years. During that time, Bill, Will and the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council keep trying to get more burns done. They know a wildfire could ignite any time. Meanwhile, those piles of branches and brush are drying out under the plastic tarps, like kindling waiting for a spark. Then it happens.
Will Harling:I describe it as a river of flame that was just flowing and embers.
Danielle Venton:In September 2020, and Will Harling is one of the first firefighters on the scene.
Will Harling:That was flowing along the contours of the ground. A half mile to a mile ahead of that fire front, everything was just being bathed in embers. It was spontaneously igniting as the flaming front was coming.
Danielle Venton:The fire starts in the Klamath National Forest, near an area called Slater Butte, just north of Happy Camp. It’s an unusually windy day and the fire flies down the ridge toward town. The big brush piles are still there like a catcher’s mitt for the fires embers.
Bill Tripp:They contributed to mass reignition and they created a thousand points of intense heat.
Kathy McCovey:That fire came down off of that Ridge up there. That’s where the power lines are. That’s where the lookout is.
Danielle Venton:The lookout is near the spot where the fire started. Kathy McCovey could see it from her property and had to evacuate the area.
Kathy McCovey:It was intense. It came down through here too. We found melted, I think it was aluminum tire. Just melted to a puddle. It’s just like it nuked miles and miles and miles.
Danielle Venton:Kathy is a Karuk tribal member, medicine woman, basket weaver, and former longtime Forest Service employee. She lost a home in the fire and she’s noticed big changes in the forest.
Kathy McCovey:Nobody thinks about the animals and the birds. I saw a lot of skeletons, but it was so hot. It just, ash. You would look and you would see the ash or you’d see a jaw, but what I didn’t see, no animal tracks for months.
Danielle Venton:That project Will and Bill proposed in 2015 was designed to slow or reduce the intensity of a fire moving through exactly where Kathy’s property lies. There’s no guarantee the work would have saved her home, but if the land had been maintained under a traditional fire regime, the fire would not have burned the way it did. The conditions just wouldn’t have been there.
Kathy McCovey:What carried that fire? Vegetation. You got to have breaks in your vegetation.
Danielle Venton:The fire burned for 10 weeks. Two people died, and the town of Happy Camp lost a staggering 200 homes, many belonging to tribal families. Will told me if it hadn’t been for other wildfires that cleared out parts of the forest in the last few years, the Slater fire could have burned all the way to the ocean, some 40 miles away.
Will Harling:The sad thing is, is that we started 20 years ago preparing for this fire and we knew it was going to come.
Danielle Venton:The devastation will take generations to recover from. I called the Klamath National Forest to ask about what happened. The agency told me that because of staff turnover and all the fires they’re currently fighting, they can’t confirm whether they ever responded to Bill and Will’s project proposals. They also couldn’t tell me about why those brush piles were left for so long. I wanted to know, because federal agencies have said for years that they want more good fires to prevent the devastating ones we’re living with. They’ve even promised to light them. That was part of the plan when the government came up with the National Fire Plan back in 2000. Will Harling thinks it’s mostly talk.
Will Harling:This is where the rubber hits the road, because the federal agencies have had real problems in getting prescribed fire on the ground at scale.
Danielle Venton:At scale would mean at least 50 million acres of controlled burns in the West. What’s actually getting done is a tiny fraction of that. Here in California I’ve watched wildfires get more intense year after year. Last year during fire season, I was pregnant. There were whole weeks I didn’t leave the house because of smoke. This year, I’m worrying my son won’t be able to play outside during the summers growing up, like I did. Everyone I know has fires on their mind all the time. If the Forest Service thinks prescribed burns can help prevent these massive fires, why aren’t we doing more of them? I call up Mike Appling. He’s the forest fire management officer on the Klamath National Forest.

How is the partnership with the Karuk and the efforts to involve them more in the prescribed burns? How’s that going?
Mike Appling:It’s a challenge. We meet with them regularly and have discussions. I think we all agree we need more fire across the landscape.
Danielle Venton:Mike says people working for the Forest Service would like to do more preemptive burns, but the people who control the purse strings, haven’t made it a priority.
Mike Appling:These resources that we have are all funded to be available to suppress fires.
Danielle Venton:In other words, the money goes to putting out fires, not starting them. Prescribed burns aren’t a priority, so they don’t do them. Right now there’s a nationwide ban on them because the Forest Service is using all of its resources to fight wildfires, which are starting earlier and burning longer. That’s due in part to climate change.
Mike Appling:We no longer have a fire season. We’ve got a fire year in the state of California.
Danielle Venton:Late fall is normally a good time for burning, but over the last few years, Mike has seen Forest Service management put holds on intentional burns, because the equipment they’d need to do them was on standby for emergency response. That happened in 2020 while 13 major fires were burning simultaneously across the state.
Mike Appling:We have to have our engines available. By available, that means not committed to a prescribed burn.
Danielle Venton:Another problem, liability. The Forest Service or other fire agencies don’t bear responsibility if a wildfire takes out vast swaths of forest or burns down homes, but if a controlled burn gets out of hand, which is very rare, but still a risk, the agency can be blamed and sued. Will Harling, who used to work for the Forest Service, says there’s another reason there aren’t more prescribed burns.
Will Harling:If you go and try and do a prescribed burn and do fuels projects, you have to scrape and scratch for money. Nobody’s congratulating you at the end of the day. In fact, if you try and implement a prescribed burn, everybody’s complaining about smoke.
Danielle Venton:Will says that’s the bigger issue, a culture that values coming the rescue more than preventing emergencies in the first place.
Will Harling:Every battle we win ensures that we’re going to lose the war.
Danielle Venton:Bill tells me he understands the big problems the Forest Service is facing. What he doesn’t understand is why he and other qualified Karuk people can’t help do the work.
Bill Tripp:The agencies aren’t going to get there on their own, and really they can’t. They need to focus on response. They have to. We’re building a community of practice here, so we can build systems to maybe do this upfront work, in a separate, but supportive way.
Danielle Venton:The potential to rebuild traditional fire knowledge within this community, and to scale it up, is enormous. Kathy McCovey works with the tribe as an advisor and advocate.
Kathy McCovey:I would like to see our Native people put to work. I would like to see them put to work and get the funding and have the ability to be able to have 20-men crews that can either fight fire when they’re needed …
Danielle Venton:Or light them when they’re needed for prevention. Bill and Will think that with enough training and resources, the Karuk could do a lot to protect their own community around the climate.
Will Harling:That’s why I think this place is special is folks like Bill and Kathy carry on that knowledge of how, where, when, and why to put fire back into this landscape. If I was king for a day, I would say, “Bill, all of these resources are yours. Where are we going to put fire today? How are we going to do it?”
Danielle Venton:With Western fires increasing in severity, interest is growing well outside the Klamath. For the first time this year, the state of California is putting a billion dollars towards fire prevention. State lawmakers are proposing changing liability standards to make it easier to do burns. They’ve even asked Bill Tripp to weigh in.
Bill Tripp:I think the aha moment happened in 2020 when you couldn’t see the sun in San Francisco for days on end, to where people actually felt the impacts we feel out here every year. I guess it probably triggered a little bit of empathy in the masses.
Danielle Venton:In June, just a few weeks before the Dixie fire started burning, I meet Bill in a field outside the small town of Orleans, about an hour south of Happy Camp. It’s dusk and we’re watching a controlled burn creep down an embankment. The burn is the culmination of three years planning. It’s on tribal land designed to help protect Orleans from wildfires.
Bill Tripp:I’m really appreciating the way that they’re handling this.
Danielle Venton:Golden light covers the forest and mountains around us. Dozens of young fire practitioners from three different tribes are getting experience in the careful art of managing a burn. They’re building lines of containment, scraping the dirt bare, and wetting down the grass and brush on the non-fire side.
Bill Tripp:You see people taking their time. They’re lighting things. They’re seeing how it reacts. They’re responding accordingly before they get more fire on the ground than they can handle.
Danielle Venton:They’re tracking how far embers travel, what’s catching on fire, and how long the flame lengths are. There’s about three dozen people on this fire. It’s a lot of person power and a lot of collaboration. There’s people here from other tribes in the area, environmental NGOs, local volunteer fire departments, and the Forest Service. These kinds of burns don’t get done without a lot of stakeholders working together. As the fire sweeps the hillside, I’m struck by how beautiful the scene is.
Bill Tripp:The sound is just relaxing too. I grew up with it and it’s kind of always been my comfort zone is just to get out and fulfill my responsibility to everything out there in the world, by getting some burning done. It just puts me at peace. Even after a stressful day I can just [inaudible].
Danielle Venton:It’s peaceful, it’s hopeful, it’s healthy for people and for the land, but for it to work, this scene needs to be repeated again and again, on a scale that’s daunting, all across the country.
Al Letson:That story was produced by Danielle Venton, science reporter at KQED Public Radio. The Forest Service has now approved one of the fire safety projects that Bill Tripp and Will Harling first proposed in 2014. It’s slowly moving forward. Scientists say we have to get used to the idea that fire can make us safer. That also means letting some wildfires burn.
Male:It was very restorative to that area. It needed to have fire move through it. Overall it was low intensity. It was a good fire.
Al Letson:That’s next on Reveal.
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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. We just heard how the U.S. Forest Service has made it difficult for the Karuk tribe to bring good fire back onto their traditional homeland, and that made us wonder how the Forest Service is doing across the rest of the country. Reveal reporter Elizabeth Shogren has been digging into this. Hey, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Hey, Al.
Al Letson:Most experts say to help prevent the kind of mega wildfires we’ve seen in the last bunch of years, we need to step up prescribed burns. Does the Forest Service agree with that?
Elizabeth Shogr…:Yeah. The Forest Service officially shifted its policy a dozen years ago. It called for expanding prescribed burns over a lot of forests, especially in the West.
Al Letson:Are they doing it? Has the Forest Service stepped up efforts to do more prescribed burns?
Elizabeth Shogr…:I wanted to know the same thing. I looked at data going back to the late 1990s. They show that even after committing to doing prescribed burns, the Forest Service just isn’t doing a good job of getting more good fire on the ground.
Al Letson:What does the Forest Service have to say about this?
Elizabeth Shogr…:Christopher French is the deputy chief of the Forest Service. Earlier this summer, he told a Senate committee that tens of millions of acres are so overgrown that if fires do spark, extreme wildfires are likely. Lots of this land is close to communities.
Christopher Fre…:Those are the most critical spaces for us to be in. In order to do that, we have to scale up our work by at least two to four times what we’re doing right now.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Senator Roger Marshall from Kansas grilled French about all this.
Roger Marshall:I’m not a forest person. We don’t grow many trees in Kansas. My frustration is this is not rocket science. No. Why haven’t we been implementing these in the past?
Christopher Fre…:We’ve been excluding fires for 110 years from those places, so that now when we have fires, they’re burning at levels we just haven’t seen before.
Roger Marshall:I guess I go back to the why. I feel like we can’t see the forest for the trees. Really we’re trying to conserve something, but in the end, without using the prescribed fire, it costs more in the long run. Why have we just ignored this obvious solution?
Christopher Fre…:Quite frankly, Senator, we haven’t had the resources to carry out that work at the scale needed.
Elizabeth Shogr…:By resources, Christopher French means everything from helicopters to firefighters.
Al Letson:Danielle’s reporting shows there’s a lot more to it than just resources, right? For too long the culture of the Forest Service has valued putting out fires, not lighting them.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Yeah, and it’s not easy to change that mindset. Climate change is complicating things even more. Hotter and drier conditions are shrinking the seasons when it’s safe to even do these burns.
Al Letson:It seems like we’ve been backed into this corner, like we need to do more prescribed burns, and yet because of climate change, it’s harder to do those safely.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Exactly, Al. It’s tough, but experts think leaving forests as overgrown as they are now is even more dangerous, which brings me to something else I want to tell you about, another kind of good fire that’s even more counter to the Forest Service culture. Experts say that when conditions allow, meaning that it’s cool and damp and not too windy, the Forest Service needs to let a lot more wildfires burn instead of putting them out.
Al Letson:How does that work?
Elizabeth Shogr…:The Forest Service sends in crews with axes and chainsaws to monitor and corral a blaze. They call it managing wildfires. Some national forests are already doing this, like the Sierra National Forest. It’s in central California. Adam Hernandez is a former prescribed burn manager there and he helped manage one of these fires after lightning sparked a blaze in June 2018.
Adam Hernandez:The decision makers looked at it and said, “Hey, this was probably a good candidate. We have the personnel to staff it.” That decision was made to allow that fire to burn across the landscape and utilize the benefits that might come of it.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Adam had spent most of his career fighting fires, but this time he joined his old hotshot crew to help manage the Lions Fire.
Adam Hernandez:We flew out of Mammoth, got dropped off by helicopter, and set up a base camp.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Experts had looked at weather forecasts and conditions, and they predicted that the Lions Fire would burn slowly through the forest.
Adam Hernandez:Our objectives were to corral it, to kind of move it to where we wanted it to go. We were going to monitor it and just make sure that it was doing what we had hoped it would do and just keeping tabs on it.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Fires can be unpredictable, and the Lions Fire was.
Adam Hernandez:That night we had 20 to 30-mile-an-hour winds that kicked up probably about 10:30, 11:00 at night. The fire that was about 20, 30 acres by the morning was about a thousand.
Elizabeth Shogr…:In some patches of forest, the Lions Fire burned hot and killed all the trees, but then it would simmer back down.
Adam Hernandez:It was very restorative to that area. It needed to have fire move through it. Overall it was low intensity and it was a good fire.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Does that mean it burned up some of the overgrowth?
Adam Hernandez:Yeah, absolutely. It removed some of that heavy fuel loading that had had been there for the years that fire hadn’t been through there. It transformed it from kind of an overgrown brushy area to kind of like a park type openness, which is really what those forest ecosystems were of the past.
Elizabeth Shogr…:The Lions Fire also sent smoke pouring into the town of Mammoth Lakes. That chased away tourists and upset local businesses. The Forest Service reminded them that the fire was burning underbrush and small trees, making the forest safer in case a bigger fire came along.
Al Letson:I kind of get it. When the fires were raging outside of the Bay and the air was full of smoke, I’m asthmatic and it was really hard to breathe. I imagine it must’ve been hard for the people of Mammoth Lakes to think about a silver lining when they’re choking down smoke.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Yeah, but that silver lining was obvious just two years later when a much more intense fire was heading towards Mammoth Lakes. It was called the Creek fire. Adam had left the Forest Service by then, but he was following it.
Adam Hernandez:When I heard that the Creek fire was moving towards Mammoth kind of my first thought was, okay, yeah, we had the Lions Fire up there, I guess we’ll see how much we reduce the fuel loading and how useful it will be to help suppress it or corral it. It did well.
Elizabeth Shogr…:If you looked at the map of where the Creek Fire burned, you would see how it went right up to the boot-shaped footprint of the Lions Fire and then stopped. The Creek Fire became California’s biggest fire on record, but Mammoth Lakes was spared. I talked with scientists and Forest Service experts. They agree the Lions Fire two years earlier helped protect Mammoth Lakes from that much bigger blaze.
Adam Hernandez:It was pretty cool to hear that the Lions Fire was helpful in redirecting the spread of the Creek Fire away from Mammoth. Those are kind of case in points that these things are useful.
Elizabeth Shogr…:It’s a lesson Adam’s trying to teach the next generation of firefighters. He’s got a new job expanding the fire program at Reedley College, a community college near Fresno, California. He’s teaching students how to fight fires, but also how to manage prescribed burns and wildfires like the Lions Fire. He hopes his students will help transform the culture of the Forest Service.
Al Letson:Is it happening? Are there signs that the Forest Service is going to change?
Elizabeth Shogr…:There are some bills making their way through Congress that would provide hundreds of millions more dollars per year for prescribed burns. Experts say it’s going to take more than money. The Forest Service needs to embrace the concept of good fire, but politics are getting in the way. This summer, California governor Gavin Newsome and others accused the Forest Service of being slow to put out fires. Just days later the new Forest Service chief, Randy Moore, directed his staff to put out all fires. Managed wildfires, like the one that may have saved Mammoth, those are on hold at least for the moment. With more than 70 large wildfires burning, Moore also made it nearly impossible to set prescribed burns.
Al Letson:Ugh. It sounds like that new culture you were talking about, it just hasn’t caught on yet.
Elizabeth Shogr…:I’m afraid not. Top fire scientists, 40 of them, wrote Chief Moore asking him to reconsider this policy, because forests desperately need good fire.
Al Letson:That’s Reveal’s Elizabeth Shogren. Thanks, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Thanks, Al.
Al Letson:Elizabeth was our lead producer this week. Levi Bridges and Danielle Venton also produced the show. Brett Myers, Casey Miner, and Jenny Casas edited the show. Today’s episode was in partnership with the Food and Environment Reporting Network, the podcast and radio show WorldAffairs, and KQED in San Francisco. Thanks to Sam [Fomarts] at Fern, Joanne Elgart Jennings at WorldAffairs and Katherine Snow and Ethan Toven-Lindsey at KQED. Thanks also to Lakshmi Varanasi and Ryan [Houzel] for their reporting help with our story on ag passes, and to Reveal’s data editor, Soo Oh for her work on that story. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy the great Mostafa. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo Jay breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Steven Rascon and Claire C-Note Mullen. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our interim CEO is Annie Chabel. Sumi Aggarwal is our interim editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camarado, Light. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Inasmuch Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. Remember, there is always more to the story.

Brett Myers is a senior radio editor for Reveal. His work has received more than 20 national honors, including a George Foster Peabody Award, four nationalEdward R. Murrow Awards and multipleThird Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Competition awards. Before joining Reveal, he was a senior producer at Youth Radio, where he collaborated with teenage reporters to file stories for "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and "Marketplace." 

Prior to becoming an audio producer, Myers trained as a documentary photographer and was named one of the 25 best American photographers under the age of 25. He loves bikes, California and his family. Before that, he was an independent radio producer and worked with StoryCorps, Sound Portraits and The Kitchen Sisters. Myers is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Elizabeth Shogren

Elizabeth Shogren is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal, covering science. As part of a new initiative, Shogren tracks the real-life effects of the anti-science mentality that has seeped into many corners of the federal government. Previously, Shogren was an on-air environment correspondent for NPR’s national and science desks. She has also covered the environment and energy for the Los Angeles Times and High Country News. While at NPR, she was a lead reporter for Poisoned Places, a data-driven series about the toxic air pollution that plagues some communities because of the failure of government to implement a decades-old federal law. The series received several honors, including a Science in Society journalism award from the National Association of Science Writers. Her High Country News investigations of the federal coal program and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s failure to adjust to climate change won the Society of Professional Journalists’ Top of the Rockies prizes. Early in her career, as a freelance foreign correspondent, she covered the fall of communism in Eastern Europe before joining the Los Angeles Times’ Moscow bureau. Later, she joined the paper’s Washington bureau, where she covered the White House, Congress, poverty and the environment. Shogren is based in Washington, D.C.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is the sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. A composer and multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the scoring, recording, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He co-founded a film scoring boutique called Manhattan Composers Collective and worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio geared toward media and ad spots. Arruda worked with clients such as Marvel and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck + Company, Buck and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles such as Krychek, Dark Inc., the New York Arabic Orchestra and Art&Sax. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker.” Arruda has scored extensively for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which have premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. Arruda is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Steven Rascón (he/they) is a production assistant for Reveal. He is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with a Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy Fellowship. His focus is investigative reporting and audio documentary. He has written for online, magazines and radio. His reporting on underreported fentanyl overdoses in Los Angeles' LGBTQ community aired on KCRW and KQED. Rascón is passionate about telling diverse stories for radio through community engagement. He holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts and creative writing.

Claire Mullen worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until September 2017. is an associate sound designer and audio engineer for Reveal. Before joining Reveal, she was an assistant producer at Radio Ambulante and worked with KALW, KQED, the Association of Independents in Radio and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She studied humanities and media studies at Scripps College.

Amy Mostafa is the production manager for Reveal. She is pursuing a master's degree in journalism with a focus on audio and data at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is a Dean’s Merit Fellow and an Islamic Scholarship Fund scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on KALW and KALX.  Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office. 

Sarah Mirk (she/her) is a digital engagement producer for Reveal. Since 2017, she has worked as an editor at The Nib, an online daily comics publication focused on political cartoons, graphic journalism, essays and memoirs about current affairs. She works with artists to create nonfiction comics on a variety of complex topics, from personal narratives about queer identities to examinations of overlooked history. Before that, Mirk was the online editor of national feminist media outlet Bitch, a podcast host and a local news reporter. She is also the author of several books, including “Year of Zines,” a collection of 100 handmade zines, and “Guantanamo Voices,” a collection of illustrated oral histories of the world’s most infamous prison. Mirk is based in Portland, Oregon.

Kevin Sullivan is the executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Sullivan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.

Lakshmi Varanasi (she/her) is the Rebele Journalism Intern for Reveal. She recently graduated from Stanford University with a master’s degree in communication, focusing on data journalism. She has previously worked for the Associated Press, Politico Magazine and Slate.