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Klamath River, Iron Gate Dam

The Klamath River below Iron Gate Dam.

Following California and Oregon’s worst wildfire season in decades, residents near four dams on the Klamath River slated for removal voiced concerns about wildland firefighting efforts in the rural, mountainous watershed when its reservoirs disappear.

Crews battling wildfires have been taking water from the reservoirs since the now-aging dams were built. The Klamath River Renewal Corporation, which is tasked with removing the dams, announced Friday that state fire agencies from Oregon and California have reviewed and expressed support for its plan to mitigate fire danger in the area, during and after its demolition and restoration project.

KRRC developed its draft fire management plan in concert with CAL FIRE’s Siskiyou Unit and the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Klamath-Lake and Southwest Oregon Districts. It plans to submit the FMP, along with letters from the agencies supporting it, in February.

“CAL FIRE believes the system of actions proposed in the fire plan are adequate to manage construction-related fire risks, comply with all applicable laws, and will not adversely affect CAL FIRE’s ability to provide an adequate and effective firefighting capability in Siskiyou County and beyond,” wrote CAL FIRE Chief Thomas Porter.

ODF representatives — Randall Baley, Klamath Protection Unit Forester, and Lee Winslow, Medford Protection Unit Forester — also called KRRC’s planned measures “adequate” in their letter.

The fire management plan focuses on the “aerial suppression extent,” or the approximate area surrounding the reservoirs that would require its water during firefighting efforts. Currently, four fire lookouts on nearby peaks watch for smoke during fire season, ground crews draw water through six gravity-fed hydrants at Copco Lake and 12 boat launches, and helicopters dip snorkels or buckets into the reservoirs’ open waters to attack flames from the sky.

Background on the area’s fire behavior contained in the plan says CAL FIRE categorizes the fire threat in the area as “high to very high.” Lightning is listed as the primary cause of most fires, as the area contains relatively few roads, powerlines and structures. The California Public Utilities Commission designates a rectangular area surrounding Copco Lake a “Tier 2 elevated” fire threat, along with most of the Klamath Basin between Iron Gate Dam and I-5, excluding the area around Iron Gate Reservoir.

“To compensate for the loss of these reservoirs, KRRC’s fire plan lays out new capabilities for early fire monitoring and firefighting that are not currently available in the Basin,” a news release from KRRC read.

During the active construction/deconstruction period, wherein Iron Gate, Copco 1, Copco 2 and J.C. Boyle Dams will be removed, the FMP lays out protocols its contractors will take to comply with CAL FIRE and ODF regulations during fire season. Kiewit, which will carry out the removal of the dams, and Resource Environmental Solutions, which will do riparian restoration work, will each designate a safety officer who will oversee fire mitigation. The FMP praised Kiewit’s track record in the fire-prone West, saying they have “never caused a wildfire as a result of one of their construction projects.”

Once the project’s most intensive work is complete, the FMP lists a variety of long-term efforts intended to improve fire detection and response in the ASE. KRRC plans to purchase and install four fire detection cameras—two on existing fire lookout towers at Paradise Craggy and Parker Mountain, and two on Mt. Ashland and Eagle Rock in Klamath National Forest.

The cameras are expected to increase the amount of viewable area within the ASE by between 20 and 30 percent, depending on camera height. Another prevention measure will be a wood chipper, provided by KRRC, that will be used by the Fire Safe Council of Siskiyou County for fuel reduction campaigns on private land in the area.

KRRC also plans to construct six permanent dry hydrants located at or near road crossings of large tributaries to the Klamath River, intended to allow ground crews to quickly draw water while attacking a blaze. According to the FMP, the existing six hydrants at Copco Lake, whose water storage tank is fed by a well, aren’t expected to be impacted by reservoir drawdowns. KRRC will also construct new boat launches within the reservoir footprint to allow ground crews to access the river.

Aerial efforts will see the biggest change to the firefighting landscape in the area surrounding the dams. Without wide expanses of slow-moving reservoir water to draw from, helicopter pilots will have to extract water from the Klamath River itself.

KRRC identified 96 aerial river access points (ARAPs), at which hydraulic conditions and vegetation clearings allow helicopters to safely make contact with river water deep enough for dipping a snorkel or bucket, between Keno Dam and I-5 on the Klamath. Some of those spots only meet standards for bucket helicopters, as snorkel helicopters need a wider river stretch to be able to draw water. Of those ARAPs, 41 were identified within the reservoir footprints based on bathymetry and topography.

During restoration, at two ARAPs per reservoir footprint, KRRC and its contractors will plant vegetation in a way that allows a wide enough berth to fit a helicopter. They’ll also construct a permanent dip tank near Copco Lake and up to five portable dip tanks to aid aerial efforts.

Based on the FMP, an independent analysis by Reax Engineering quantified the change in fire risk that could result following dam removal. It found that dewatering the reservoirs caused an insignificant increase (less than 1%) in the likelihood of burns. Chief Porter’s letter also confirmed the report’s findings.

Historically, the ASE has been spared most large fires, save for the Oregon Gulch Fire, which took out 35,111 acres in 2014, and the Klamathon Fire in 2018, which scorched 38,008 acres. Analyzing these incidents, the Reax analysis concluded that fuel conditions and weather during the two fires “makes it unlikely that either fire could have been contained in the initial attack phase, regardless of the number of resources dedicated to the effort.”

Given the improved detection efforts and additional water availability measures, Reax found KRRC’s plan satisfactory. But it advised that, while the total amount of water available to firefighters won’t change after dam removal, aerial attack won’t be as easy as scooping up water from a calm lake.

“The ability to use water from the Klamath River for fire suppression will not be impacted, although the convenience and technical skill required to access that water will be,” the analysis read. Though how much harder that will be on firefighters remains a debate.

In a 2019 Herald and News op-ed, the Siskiyou County Natural Resources Department expressed concern with how the reservoir drawdowns will impact helicopter pilot safety, especially as CAL FIRE begins to replace its helicopter fleet with Type 1 snorkel aircraft, which must stay closer to the water and require a wider berth.

“With the reservoirs gone, risk to firefighters’ lives will skyrocket,” the op-ed read. “Much of the Klamath winds through narrow canyon walls and thick vegetation, making helicopter extraction extremely dangerous.”

The op-ed also said most of the planned sites for the dry hydrants “are not viable for actual water extraction,” given that the area’s steep terrain may put them out of fire trucks’ reach.

KRRC maintains that its plans to mitigate fire risk surrounding the dams and reservoirs are robust, and points especially to the additional detection measures as crucial prevention methods that will lessen the need for water to fight fires outright. They see the letters from CAL FIRE and ODF as reputable endorsements of their FMP.

“KRRC shares the community’s concerns about the danger posed by wildfire. We know the reservoirs slated for removal have been used by firefighters in the past, and we understand the public safety implications of dam removal,” said KRRC CEO Mark Bransom. “We have worked closely with firefighting agencies to develop a plan and provide resources that will leave local communities in a strong position to deal with the wildfire threats that are an ongoing part of life in the rural West.”