Wildfire season is upon us once again in the Klamath Basin.
When homes and lives are at stake in a wildfire, nothing is more important than having firebreaks and a readily available water source. That’s exactly what’s provided by the reservoirs created by dams on the Klamath River.
The fact that the dams and those reservoirs are being targeted for removal by the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC) is a great source of worry for residents, firefighters, and the County of Siskiyou. Citizen safety is a primary responsibility of the county.
The reservoirs of Copco and Iron Gate have proven critical to saving local communities from wildfire for many years.
Water from the reservoirs
“I’ve lived here 18 years, and every single year I’ve seen firefighting aircraft come here for water,” said Copco Fire Department Chief Francis Gill about Copco Lake.
He added that water from the reservoirs is often used to put out small fires, which has prevented countless wildfires.
“We’re in a wildland interface area,” he said. “I’ve witnessed many times where helicopters use water from the lake immediately so a small house fire doesn’t burn the whole mountainside.”
When fires do get out of control, the lakes are just as crucial. Last year, the infamous Klamathon fire, which burned over 38,000 acres over 16 days, was finally stopped by firefighters — thanks to the use of Iron Gate reservoir.
Firefighting aircraft drafted 225,000 gallons of water per day. Most of it came from Iron Gate reservoir. At the peak of the fight, seventeen helicopters were engaged nonstop, sometimes dropping water as quickly as every six minutes.
In the end, the reservoir also helped by acting as a giant fire break. The blaze was contained, and the communities of Hornbrook, Hilt, and Colestin were saved.
Similarly, Copco reservoir was used as a firebreak and water source to help stop the 2014 Oregon Gulch fire, a 35,300-acre fire, of which 10,000 acres were on the California side.
“For weeks, helicopters used [Copco] lake, making really nice short circuits to pick up 600 gallons of water at a time, and dumping it one minute away,” recalled Gill. “That was literally right outside my back door.”
Firefighters’ lives at stake, too
In its fire management plan, KRRC proposes to generate a map of pools in the river and nearby “small cattle watering ponds” that could be used by aircraft to draft water once the reservoirs are gone.
But with the reservoirs gone, risk to firefighters’ lives will skyrocket. Not only will fires take longer to put out — which means fires will burn hotter and longer — but aircraft pilots will be forced to attempt to draw water from the river itself.
This is problematic. As recently as 2006, two firefighters lost their lives attempting to extract water from the river. Much of the Klamath winds through narrow canyon walls and thick vegetation, making helicopter extraction extremely dangerous.
The reservoirs, on the other hand, allow multiple helicopters and even large water bombers to extract water at once, while still remaining safe distances from one another.
Plenty of space and deep pools will be of the essence over the next few years: CAL FIRE is replacing all its small helicopters with large, “Type 1” helicopters, which use snorkels to suction water.
With a snorkel system, firefighters can safely and easily extract out of the reservoirs. But it will be almost impossible with all the hazards of a river-corridor canyon.
Without the dams, few pools in the river (or nearby livestock ponds) will be large enough to extract thousands of gallons of water at once. Not only that, the bed of the river will change dramatically when the roughly 13 million cubic yards of sediment are released from behind the dams.
To make matters worse, flammable vegetation is going to replace what is now water in the reservoirs, increasing the fire risk even more.
Dry hydrants inadequate
Another primary facet of KRRC’s fire management plan is the proposed use of dry hydrants by ground crews. Under this method, fire engines would theoretically draft water from hydrants channeling water from the river. KRRC has proposed numerous sites for these hydrants.
Unfortunately, most of the proposed sites are not viable for actual water extraction. Hydrants must be no lower than 14 feet below a fire truck, or else water can’t be drafted to the engine. Due to the steep and often hard-to-navigate terrain along the Klamath River, many of the proposed hydrants would be out of that range.
Klamath Basin residents and firefighters will be less safe without the reservoirs — one more reason why dam decommissioning is so strongly opposed in Siskiyou County.
— Read more about Siskiyou County’s concerns with dam removal—and its efforts to hold KRRC and the state accountable—at www.co.siskiyou.ca.us/naturalresources, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sisqnaturalresources/.