Indian tribes from the Klamath River canyon are worried that the U.S. Forest Service is violating some of their sacred lands by fighting a remote wilderness wildfire rather than letting it burn naturally.
The area is home to many prayer seats or vision quest sites shared by three tribes, where tribal members have fasted, prayed and sought spiritual guidance for thousands of years. The area is also used to gather grasses for baskets and Port Orford cedar for ceremonial buildings, such as sweat lodges.
"Talking with Forest Service firefighters, I have been saying this is the Sistine Chapel, the Mount Sinai, the Vatican," for the Yurok, Karuk and Tolowa tribes, Chris Peters, the Yurok tribe's liaison with the Forest Service, said from Arcata, Calif.
The tribes especially object to the practice of deliberately setting smaller fires with drip torches to try to contain the larger blazes.
'Drip torch' not welcome
"If fire should move in naturally, we're comfortable with that," Peters said. "But if you bring a drip torch into the Vatican and intend to ignite it, you are going to have some opposition."
Two fires have been burning for weeks through uninhabited forests and steep canyons in the Siskiyou Wilderness on the Six Rivers National Forest between the Klamath River and the Oregon border.
With so many fires in the area, it took weeks for the Forest Service to send its first crew, and they adopted a strategy of burning out a perimeter around the fires to prevent them from spreading as the weather gets hotter, drier and windier.
Under protocols established years ago, the tribes have been meeting with the Forest Service over the management of the fires, and Six Rivers National Forest Supervisor Tyrone Kelley said they are being sensitive to the tribes' concerns.
"We realize the significance of this area," Kelley said. "We're working with them."
Logging resources in area
But though the fires are far from any homes, leaving them to burn without a strong perimeter around them is not an option, given the nearby timber resources and expectations that the fire conditions will get worse, he said. He added that because the fires are in a wilderness area, fire lines are built by hand, not with bulldozers.
While native people have for centuries set fires to manage natural resources, such as the oaks that produce acorns, the tribes are worried that the fires set by the Forest Service burn at higher intensity, destroying fisheries habitat and other resources, said Bill Tripp, eco-cultural restoration specialist for the Karuk tribe.
One fire has thus far burned 97.4 square miles and the other 15.2 square miles. The fires were sparked by lightning strikes in June and are now 69 percent contained. The two fires were about one mile apart on Wednesday.