Editor’s note: Lenya Quinn-Davidson is the Fire Network Director for the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, and a long-time contributor to the FAC Net blog. She lives on the North Coast of California and loves all things related to fire, fish, and people. In this blog, Lenya reflects on this relationship between fire, fish, and people – exploring how we might bring balance to ecosystems and the populations they support. Blog cover photo: A block print of a Klamath small-scale sucker, which Lenya carved in 2022 in tribute to all the suckers that died in the Klamath fish kill.
Last year I stood on the bridge over the mouth of the Scott River, right above where it joins the Klamath, and I watched the salmon—huge and dark—circling the deep pool below, waiting for the rains to open up the last of their journey home. There is such a magic to seeing fish like that, in pools like that, and for a moment, the world stood still. Cold, clear water; small eddies swirling; the warm breeze rustling the willows; a hint of fall in the air, so nostalgic for this northern California kid…
When I shook off that momentary magic, reality hit. The world is so big and messy around those fish, and they were circling that pool as if they were circling a drain—survivors of so many layers of history and politics: land, water, fire, culture.
A couple months before that, the McKinney Fire had burned 60,000 acres just upstream of that spot. The McKinney Fire wasn’t too big—at least not by today’s standards—but it burned fast and hot, destroying 185 structures in and around the rural community of Klamath River, and killing four of the town’s 190 people. And then, just a few days later, torrential rain fell across the east side of the fire footprint, unleashing debris flows in several of the Klamath’s tributaries. The river went dark, thick with mud. Toz Soto, the fish biologist for the Karuk Tribe, described the eerie silence of the river during those few days, the rapids gurgling in suffocation as the river’s dissolved oxygen dropped to zero.
The debris flows resulted in a fish kill along a 30-40 mile stretch of the Klamath River. Photos showed the river layered with dead fish—suckers, lamprey, salmon, steelhead, and everything else—belly up and floating in the brown water. What a painful scene, especially for the tribes and communities whose lives center on that river, on those fish.
And the pain of the McKinney Fire extends so far beyond the river itself: deep into the past, generations into the future, across the heartbreaking paradox of fire on this landscape. Fire—as natural and necessary as rain, snow, and sunlight—has suffered such corruption in our hands. And for that, we suffer too.
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The relationship between fish, water, and fire hasn’t always been so fraught. As core components of landscape and culture, these things are inextricably and beautifully connected. Some might see fire in opposition to water—competing elements that cancel each other out—but in reality, they’re two sides of the same coin. For example, check out the research that UCLA’s Park Williams published last year, which looked at patterns of streamflow in burned versus unburned watersheds in the West. They showed that streamflow in burned watersheds increased by an average of 30%, and that effect lasted an average of six years post-fire. Thirty percent, for six years! There are plenty of localized examples of this pattern, too (ask Toz, who monitors stream flow in Karuk country, or Josh Smith, who has examples from nearby Trinity County, where I grew up). Fire begets water.
And this all makes complete sense: in the West, where forests are overly dense and the evaporative demand of vegetation is higher than ever, fire could be a key process for restoring flows. Maybe it’s not just that fire begets water—it may be that water (and fish) actually need fire.
There’s a similar connection between water and smoke. Even in the hottest inland parts of northern California, summer smoke can block the sun and have a significant cooling effect on streams. This effect is most pronounced in areas with strong topography and inversions, where the pattern has even been likened to the effect of nuclear winter. I actually wrote a blog about this back in 2017, when California’s redwood coast (where I live) was almost 20 degrees hotter than inland on the river—a pattern that’s almost unheard of in the summer, except when we have big fires and strong inversions. The fish connection is hard to ignore, given that the most impactful fires tend to occur in late summer when flows are lowest and water temperatures are highest. Could it be that fire has a role in providing some refuge, especially during the driest and hottest years when fish are most stressed and fuels are most available to burn? Nothing like a blanket of smoke and some increased stream flows to take the edge off.
Of course, local tribes know these patterns best. I’ve heard stories from the Klamath River tribes about river villages using fire and smoke to bring the fish upstream in the fall. The smoke tells the fish that temperatures are cooling, flows are increasing, and it’s time to swim up—time to come home. Fire is calling.
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For a long time, I conflated fire exclusion with fire suppression. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but recent fire seasons have exposed that fire exclusion is indeed different from fire suppression. Fire suppression is an act; fire exclusion is a philosophy. I think it’s become increasingly difficult for fire excluders to suppress fire. Or maybe it’s become more difficult for fire suppressors to exclude fire? Or maybe no one really wants to exclude fire anymore, but we’re all too invested in the suppression model to change course in a meaningful way. The West is in a bit of a fire identity crisis, I think.
I do know that for fish, fire suppression poses some real-time threats. Dozer lines through creeks. Retardant drops in streams. In-stream restoration projects or sensitive habitats and species that aren’t identified on operational fire maps. Post-fire rehabilitation that never happens.
Last year, an environmental group in Montana brought a lawsuit against the USDA Forest Service for wrongful retardant drops in streams. In May, the judge ruled that the Forest Service was indeed making illegal drops in waterways, but he said that they could continue to use retardant because of its importance in fire suppression. Apparently the Forest Service has dropped 100 million gallons of retardant in the last decade, and there were ~200 instances of accidental drops in streams (by the USFS—this doesn’t include CAL FIRE numbers. According to a recent LA Times article, CAL FIRE has dropped 13 million more gallons of retardant than water in the last three years, so there’s plenty to discuss there, too…). In short, we know we’re doing bad things, but we’re too bought in at this point. Cold turkey appears to be off the table.
Fire exclusion poses more complicated and existential threats. Cultures and traditions lost. Meadows and woodlands swallowed by brush and trees. Streams and rivers dewatered by excessive vegetation and evapotranspiration. Unprecedented burn severities that result in post-fire debris flows and fish kills. Change at a pace just slightly too slow and subtle for our simple minds to catch on.
Then the big fires happen and we’re surprised—wtf fire?! Someone should have suppressed you better!
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So where do we go from here? Can we incorporate fish into how we manage fire? And are there ways to incorporate fire into how we manage fish?
I see opportunities for better communication and mapping in fire suppression efforts. Better understanding and consideration of sensitive habitats, species, and restoration investments. More informed use of retardant. More commitment to post-fire rehabilitation efforts. The fire people are in a constant (and increasing) state of triage, and that can’t feel good. I guess I’m saying we should help them suppress better, at least until we get our larger identity issues sorted out.
I also see opportunities to integrate upland management and prescribed fire into watershed restoration projects. To use prescribed fire, managed wildfire, and forest thinning as streamflow enhancement tools. To explore opportunities for shared advocacy and policy work that enables landscape-scale fire (and thereby fish) resilience. To collectively build social license for smoke and beneficial fire. The fish people can keep their heads in the water, but let’s face it—the fate of the fish is up in the hills.
In April, some colleagues and I hosted a fish and fire workshop at the annual conference of the Salmonid Restoration Federation. The goal of the workshop was to bring the two disciplines together and explore the myriad connections—good and bad—between fish and fire. The audience was mostly from the fish side, but there was a palpable appetite for interdisciplinary work. I see so much opportunity there—such a powerful confluence, if you will.
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As I write this, northern California is on fire again, sparked by widespread lightning storms. Heavy rains in the last few days have spurred more debris flows, and the Klamath and other rivers are again thick with mud.
Looking at the fire map, it’s hard not to see the fires through the lens of the rivers: Oregon’s Flat Fire at the confluence of the Rogue and the Illinois; the Del Norte fires burning along the Smith; the Pearch Fire dropping down into the Klamath and the Salmon; the 3-9 Fire burning toward the South Fork of the Trinity and the Deep Fire in the Stuart Fork. The list goes on…
And then there’s the Head Fire, burning at the mouth of the Scott River right where it joins the Klamath. In its first 24 hours, it grew to more than 2,000 acres, threatening the rural communities of Scott Bar and Hamburg and burning over the pool where the salmon circled the drain last year.
I texted my friend Lyndsey the other night to see how she was doing. They have a house upstream on the Klamath, and she said they were in a good spot, thanks to the McKinney Fire footprint between their house and the new fire. The irony was not lost on either of us.
We may have corrupted fire, but hey—we still need it. For the water, for the fish, for the people.