Wildfire History Project 1936 - 2005
Long before the inception of the national wildlife refuges of the Klamath Basin, wildfires burned across the landscape, naturally managing its marsh, upland and forest habitats. As human influences changed the local landscape through land use patterns and needs, so to the natural role of wildfire and its effects were altered. What once burned unnoticed and carefree now is regarded as a priority concern for the preservation of life and property.
The first of Klamath Basin's refuges, Lower Klamath, was established in April, 1908, followed by Clear Lake in 1911 and Tule Lake and Upper Klamath in 1928. It was nearly 30 years before Klamath Marsh (then called Klamath Forest) refuge joined the complex, followed another 20 years later by Bear Valley. Throughout all of this time, wildfires struck various areas by a host of causes in all of the refuges. Today, these refuges, along with Modoc NWR and Humboldt Bay NWR, are the component lands of the Klamath Basin Fire Management Zone.
Historical recordings from early settlers and explorers to the area, coupled with Native American accounts, confirm the presence of wildfire in the Klamath Basin prior to its founding as an agricultural hinterland. Science confirmed fires existence through studies examining wildfire scars in tree rings. Formal wildfire recordskeeping started at different times with various land management agencies. The U.S. Forest Service, established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, has some of the most extensive wildfire records available, given their protection of harvestable timber. Nonetheless, the type, amount, quality and accuracy of wildfire reports and records are sporadic for many land management agencies. Simply put, different policies and needs determined the extent to which an incident was recorded.
At Klamath Basin NWRC, the first recorded wildfire occurred in 1936 at Clear Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the result of a wildfire on the Modoc National Forest that spread to the refuge. Since then, 173 known wildfires have been reported on the lands of the Klamath Basin Fire Management Zone through the end of calendar year 2005. It is likely more wildfires occurred, especially in the years prior to 1936 and the use of fire reports starting in 1962 for this area. Reported wildfires have ignited by all nine of the Department of the Interior cause classes (natural, camp fire, smoking, fire use, incendiary, equipment use, railroads, juveniles and miscellaneous) as well as a number of unknown cause starts.
Through the wildfire history project, we've aimed to build a database answering the where, when, how and why of the wildfires striking our refuges. This data paints a historical picture of how humans and our impact have affected the occurrence of wildfire, and how through regulation, safety measures and new policy we've altered wildfire patterns. This information is also used for strategic planning models, fire resource staffing decisions and other planning efforts (such as habitat management goals or hazardous fuels reduction treatments). Information and data came from multiple sources, including annual narrative reports of the refuges, wildfire reports, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service online databases, the Modoc National Forest and personal accounts. The amount of data available has a direct correlation to the amount of management and on-site inspection of lands over the 98 years the refuges have been formally managed as federal properties. During the first four decades, only a few people managed all of the lands and were limited by available modes of transportation as well as an infrastructure that did not facilitate easy traveling of a rather harsh landscape. Sometimes it was years between individual visits to remote refuges like Clear Lake. Alternatively, today we are able to travel between our headquarters and our most distant refuges in a matter or hours or less.
Other factors affected the ability to collect and maintain what data we have today. Many of the refuges were managed by the Bureau of Reclamation for decades before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service setup and staffed a headquarters at Tule Lake refuge in the 1930s. During this time, the Civilian Conservation Corp was heavily involved with the management and infrastructure construction of the refuges at their Camps Tulelake and Clear Lake. Many records have been lost to time or activities simply were not recorded in a fashion we commonly ascribe to today. During World War II, refuge staffing was at absolute minimum, with no records for many years and references to the War as the only formal recordings. An official fire management program did not come to Klamath Basin until the late 1980s and early 1990s, meaning the suppression of wildfires was the collateral duty of various refuge personnel or adjoining forces such as the U.S. Forest Service, California and Oregon Department's of Forestry or local volunteer fire departments.
What we were able to gather is a basic history of wildfire and the refuges since formal management began in the mid 1930s. Over the years, the amount and quality of wildfire data has improved and increased and now affords us the ability to make prudent and sound decisions in a safety-conscious manner. Below are links to maps of each refuge with a location history of all known wildfires from 1936 - 2005, summaries of wildfire facts and data and comparative charts of occurrence records. The reported wildfires for each refuge represent known wildfires from 1936 - 2005, or for refuges established after 1936, known wildfires from the refuge date of establishment through 2005.
Wildfire History Statistics:
Total zone wildfires: 173
Refuge with most wildfires: Tule Lake (58)
Refuge with fewest wildfires: Upper Klamath (1), Humboldt Bay (1)
Largest wildfire (refuge acreage burned): Clear Fire, 2001, Clear Lake NWR, 4317 acres
Smallest wildfire (refuge acreage burned): At least 30 fires on multiple refuges less than 0.1 acre
Largest refuge caused wildfire: Refuge Fire, 1998, Lower Klamath NWR, final size 9000 acres (1500 on refuge)
Most used fire name: Peninsula, 4 times, Tule Lake NWR (2), Clear Lake NWR (1), Klamath Marsh NWR (1)
Most common igniton cause (excluding miscellaneous): Natural (35)
Least common ignition cause (excluding miscellaneous): Juveniles (1)