Bootleg Fire tore through Klamath Tribes historical and cultural sites

KLAMATH CO., Ore.- As the Bootleg Fire tears through Klamath and Lake counties, thousands of acres and dozens of homes are being lost. For the Klamath Tribes, the fire is also devastating to their cultural roots.

“Cultural resources are a non-renewable resource; you can never get them back.”

The Klamath Tribes are feeling the acute loss of cultural and heritage sites to the Bootleg Fire, not to mention the land itself.

“We love being out there because they feel so connected. Some people pray, they fast, they do more traditional ceremonies out on the land….[It] feels like a big place in our people’s hearts have been burnt up,” Tribal Council chairman Don Gentry said. He says the fire started in their treaty land before spreading and growing into the nearly 400,000 acre beast it is now.

He says tribal members have been fighting the fire since the beginning.

“They’re working for either forest service crews or independent contractors, or are contractors themselves,” Gentry explained. When not on the fire lines, they are assisting both local and out-of-state officials, and helping aid initial evacuation efforts.

“They were able to assist with that with some more knowledgeable of landmarks and roads. They were able to identify where these evacuees were and give them some crucial information on what levels they were in there evacuation status,” said Klamath Tribes’ Emergency Manager Zak Johnson.

Where the fire is no longer a risk, some tribal members are still trying to enjoy the land.

“We’re having communication with forest service to remind them that our people are out there exercising their treaty rights in the area that was identified as a closure area,” Gentry said, explaining many tribal members are camping and fishing in those areas. But even as it spreads northeast, it still puts important heritage sites at risk, like a cave in Paisley.

“The Paisley Cave is the cave where there is archaeological evidence of man exceeded 15,000 years,” explained Perry Chocktoot. He is the Cultural and Heritage Director for the tribes. According to him, the fire could have burned through sites that have even older evidence and significance.

Chocktoot says typically with wildfires, they work with forest officials and use cultural site maps to move ahead of a fire and protect important areas. But the Bootleg Fire is complicating the work.

“This particular fire has been so large and so erratic that there have been times, for the safety of fire fighters, they have been unable to do that,” he said.

With something like an out of control wildfire, the tribes can only focus on post-fire efforts now, like restoring damaged cultural sites and land management.

“Post-fire activities should include a reconnaissance of the burned area and the re-recording of cultural sites and recording of new-found cultural sites,” Chocktoot added.

“Actively doing what is necessary to manage the forests in a way that this will never ever happen again on the remaining lands, not only here but around the region,” Don Gentry said, explaining much of their remaining land is in the same state as the parts that rapidly burned. But for a people so connected to their land, the damage is more than physical.

“The trees, the earth in general, means so much to us. There will be psychological impacts to our people,” Chocktoot said.

The Klamath Tribes tell us there is also going to be a long reaching impact on their ability to fish and hunt effectively in the area. Fortunately, they tell us no tribal members have lost their homes as of now.

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