After Lionshead, threat of megafires looms large on Warm Springs reservation
Pinky Beymer’s ranch sits on the edge of the Warm Springs reservation in Central Oregon’s high desert. She pointed to a pile of wood that was once a shed her grandparents built and where they kept horses and chickens.
The old shed was falling down, so Beymer, who raises livestock and helps run a heavy machinery business, set about replacing it with a metal one that’s less likely to burn.
Wildfire has ripped through this part of the Warm Springs reservation before, and Beymer knows it probably will again someday.
“We’re so far out here and we’re so surrounded with flammable things that we’re trying to do what we can to not increase fire danger and lose more buildings,” she said.
Beymer has always taken steps to protect her home from fire in her 60-plus years in Warm Springs, but she’s ramped up her efforts since last year’s Lionshead Fire roared across the reservation. It was one of several wildfires that erupted across Oregon over Labor Day weekend last year.
While fires this year on the Warm Springs have thus far remained relatively small, Beymer is worried about the next big fire to come her way.
“Before, we were looking at a fire season starting in late spring and ending in early fall,” she said. “And now it’s seven, eight months out of the year, and everything is at risk.”
Bodie Shaw grew up on the Warm Springs reservation and is now the acting fire chief for the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the National Interagency Fire Center. He said megafires the likes of Lionshead were once unheard of on the Warm Springs.
“We didn’t have that decades ago,” he said. “Fires just never burned that hot.”
Climate change, driven primarily by the widespread burning of fossil fuels, has led to a slow drying out of the landscape. That, paired with a long legacy of wildfire suppression, has created the conditions for larger, more destructive fires across the American West, including Indian Country.
This summer, the Dixie Fire in Northern California flattened tribal buildings of the Greenville Rancheria. The Bootleg Fire in Southern Oregon burned Klamath tribal hunting, fishing and gathering grounds.
“It’s not only changed the way we look at fighting our fires, but it changes the way that we respond post-fire,” Shaw said.
For most of the past century, federal policy required every fire that started on public lands to be extinguished.
That was a cataclysmic disruption to both the natural rhythm of fire on the landscape and the prescribed fire regimes Indigenous people — including tribes of the Warm Springs — carried out from time immemorial.
Agencies including the BIA have tried to return to more routine controlled burning in recent years, but progress has been slow. Shaw said it will take a “paradigm shift as to how we do business” to correct course. Implementing prescribed fire regimes on reservation lands, in particular, is often hampered by insufficient funding and red tape.
“As much of our public gets used to catastrophic fire, they start to lean towards ‘all fire is bad fire,’” Shaw said. “And we’re trying to reverse that.”
Back on Pinky Beymer’s ranch, she popped the tailgate on her maroon pickup and loaded her border collie Rowdy into the bed. They were headed to Trout Lake, which is right in the belly of the Lionshead Fire scar, for the first time in years.
Lionshead laid waste to the landscape, and it could take decades, even a century, to reforest some parts of the scar. Beymer navigated her truck through the tree skeletons on the way to the lake, reminiscing about the shady ponderosa pine forest she knew before.
“Everything in here was just totally shaded,” she said. “Just makes your gut turn to look at it.”
Trees still shaded most of the campground that abuts the lake’s north shore. Beymer parked, got out and walked around, greeting young beargrass with a gentle tug. A young buck with velvety antlers darted across the road.
These were small, surprising signs of life among the destruction.
Beymer’s father was a firefighter, her mother a lookout on nearby Shitike Butte, so she and her siblings grew up in these woods, learning about good fire and bad fire.
Lionshead was a bad fire — and Beymer said bad fire has become far too frequent on the reservation. Now, any time she sees smoke, she braces for the worst.
“You take a big, deep breath and say, ‘Where is it?’” she said. “You wonder if it’s in the timber or somebody’s home. … It’s really, really scary when you know it’s coming your way.”
Like in many rural areas, residents like Beymer are often the first to meet a fire here in Warm Springs. That’s why she’s replacing wooden buildings and ripping out fence posts on the ranch, so that she’s ready when the next Lionshead hits.
“A lot of people on reservations are firefighters,” she said. “It’s what you do. You go in and you try to save the land that’s home to you.”
Correction: Sept. 1, 2021. An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the duration of federal fire suppression policies. They were in place for most of the last century.
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