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Fighting fire with fire in Orleans

ORLEANS, Calif. - An American Indian cultural practice dating back thousands of years is now being used to prevent catastrophic wildfires.

The Mid Klamath Watershed Council in collaboration with the Nature Conservancy hosted a Prescribed Fire Training Exchange last month. Chris Root, a fire and fuels project manager with the council said the aim of the training was to have firefighters start fires rather than put them out.

"It's a purposeful fire," Root said. 'Mostly it's to burn off all the dead material in the forest, to prevent a catastrophic fire."

Crews use torches to light debris in the forest. One burn can consume tens of thousands of acres. Aside from lighting the fire, crews have to be prepared to put them out if they get out of hand.

Firefighters arrive on location to partake in training, like one crew lef by Capt. Stephine Cardwell out of Del Norte county.

"Hiking up steep terrain, you're constantly sweating and using muscles you never knew," Cardwell said.

Trainings can consist of 16-hour days for up to two weeks.

"One day you're out working, the next day you're out working and progressively you're just exhausted," Cardwell said.

However, Root believes from experience that the hard work is worth it. The Orleans Fire, the last big fire in the area, killed a large number of trees. Plus, according to Cal Fire, over 8,000 fires burned over one million acres of land in 2017.

"That's why we do this," Root said. "To prepare the forest for a wildfire."

Burns are only done when conditions are ideal. The humidity, temperature and moisture levels in the forest are all take into consideration.

However, prescribed burning is what Root calls "misunderstood and unaccepted."

"This place is still populated by Native Americans who practice thousand year old indigenous cultures," he said. "The level of acceptance is much more broad here than other places in California."

Orleans is home to the Karuk Tribe. For assistant fire management planner David Medford, the trainings not only heal the land, they bring culture back into the area.

"Years ago, before European settlement, we lit fire around our villages, to protect our homes, protect our people, to protect habitat for wildlife for hunting purposes and for gathering of acorns and other food," Medford said.

He said in his lifetime he has seen the use of fire as a tool become more accepted. However, he said there is still a ways to go.

"All they know is fire being destructive," Medford said. "They don't understand the good aspects of fire and how fire is actually great for the landscape and great for the ecology. "

Since its beginning in 2008, the training exchange has exponentially grown in participation. Medford hopes to continue to see the practice flourish. "Fire has been around forever, so we've learned to live with fire and we consider ourselves related to fire," Medford said. "So fire is our friend. It's our family."

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