Public Safety or Protecting Timber Assets? Locals Question Fire Response in Trinity

By Caroline Griffith 

Trinity County residents have called for an investigation into the use of bulldozers for
 re suppression in roadless and wilderness areas, like the Pattison roadless area.
Photo by Jotham Barragar.

As wildfires raged in Trinity and Humboldt County in the late summer of 2021 and thousands of residents were under mandatory evacuation orders, it came to light that crews in the Trinity Alps area were resorting to heavy-handed tactics in the name of fire suppression, specifically bulldozing extensive firelines in roadless and proposed wilderness areas, and proposing to use napalm ping-pong balls to start backburns. In response, locals are calling on the federal government to launch an investigation and hold supervisors accountable in an effort to stop these practices from being used on future fires. 

In early September, when a whistleblower started sharing photos of wanton cutting and bulldozing in the Pattison Roadless area, the Monument and River Complex fires were both largely uncontained. Though residents were understandably concerned about the safety of their homes and their families, these tactics were seen by many as heavy handed and desperate, and have led to calls for more accountability and transparency in firefighting, calls which appear to be being heard, but there is much more that needs to be done.

As wildfire season becomes longer and more intense due to climate change and centuries of logging and bad forest management, the public has heard story after story of fire crews stretched thin and the difficulties of getting bodies on the ground to fight fires, especially during the pandemic. Oftentimes, the general public has little knowledge of what firefighting looks like and how agencies decide what tactics to use; they are just grateful for the heroes who come to save them from the fires. Trinity County, which is rugged and heavily forested with 70 percent of its land administered by the federal government (primarily the U.S. Forest Service), is no stranger to wildfire. Many residents have either worked on fire crews or experienced fire enough to be watchful of the tactics used to fight fires. As photos of bulldozer lines reported to be forty-blades wide (bulldozer blades can be up to 92 inches wide, making these lines an estimated 306 feet across or roughly the size of a football field) started circulating, a movement began building to hold someone accountable and change the tactics being used. 

Eight miles of trail within Parker Meadow were heavily logged with hundreds of old
growth trees cut to backburn within the wilderness boundary; Jotham Barragar.

One of the areas in question, the Pattison Roadless area, has been included in numerous proposed wilderness bills, including Congressman Huffman’s Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation and Working Forests Act, making the use of destructive firefighting practices even more objectionable to locals. Trinity County resident Amanda Barragar says the Pattison area has incredible value to locals as a wilderness area specifically because its topography and lack of access have kept it off-limits to logging, making it a largely-intact ecosystem. Other areas that have been heavily impacted by fire suppression and bulldozing to “protect timber assets” within the Trinity Alps Wilderness are the Parker Meadow and Boulder Lakes areas. Though no bulldozers were used there, eight miles of trail within Parker Meadow were heavily logged with hundreds of old growth trees cut to backburn within the wilderness boundary, despite it being far from homes. As one Trinity County activist said, “SPI (Sierra Pacific Industries) has been lobbying hard to put dozers in the wilderness to “protect their timber assets” and Incident Command are telling their personnel to stop the fire in the Trinity Alps “at all costs to protect timber assets” even though there aren’t any immediate homes threatened.”

Though firelines and backburns are typical (though not uncontroversial) practices in firefighting, the location and severity of these practices on the River Complex and Monument fires have caused locals to question who was authorizing them and why, and how much it will cost for the the miles of bulldozer lines to be remediated. Even though local activists were hearing Incident Command claim they would stop using these practices in roadless areas far from homes, they were still seeing it happen on the ground. As Barragar said, “Unfortunately with firefighting, there is no accountability and no review process, unless there is enough public and agency outcry to spark an investigation and set policy going forward.” Which is exactly what locals are asking for.

During the fires, concerned locals went so far as to contact Rep. Huffman’s office to ask them to intercede and communicate with the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service. The Secretary of Agriculture directed firefighting teams to take a lighter touch in wilderness areas, which they did, until their two-week cycle ended. Once another team took over, they went right back to the same practices, pointing to a larger systemic problem within the Forest Service. 

Fire hazard or profit? Comic by Joel Mielke of Carson Park Designs

The River Complex fire response was co-managed by the Klamath and Shasta-Trinity National Forests and one issue appears to be a lack of communication between the two entities. Huffman’s Wilderness Bill includes provisions to improve communications between forests during fire events, which could help prevent situations like this in future situations. However, it will still be important for those who live and work in these forests to keep watch on firefighting practices and work to hold our National Forests accountable for their actions.

In the meantime, Trinity County activists have gotten Forest Service officials to agree to look into these incidents, which the officials call “extremely concerning.” EcoNews readers who share this concern can contact the following National Forest personnel to express their concerns about accountability and to request an investigation. 

  • Rachel Birkey, Forest Supervisor for Shasta-Trinity National Forest: rachel.birkey@usda.gov
  • Jennifer Eberlien, Regional Forester for Pacific Southwest Region: jennifer.eberlien@usda.gov
  • Rachel Smith, Forest Supervisor, Klamath National Forest:
    Rachel.c.smith@usda.gov