Think Out Loud

Klamath Basin drought: fire and drought

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
July 13, 2021 6:28 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, July 13

Orange, smoky skies above a treelined ridgeline where wildfire is burning.

The Bootleg Fire northeast of Klamath Falls, sending smoke into the sky from above a ridgeline. Image dated July 8, 2021.

Ray Dandeneau / Courtesy U.S. Forest Service


This week, Think Out Loud has traveled to the Klamath Basin to have conversations with people affected by the severe drought in the region. The Bootleg fire is currently the largest burning in the U.S. Rancher Becky Hyde is a mile and a half from the fire. She says, “If you take the drought, and then you add the fire on top of it ... you have ranchers in this area who are in a horrible situation.”

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller:  We came to the Klamath Basin [the week of July11, 2021] to talk about water, given the historic drought that hit the region. But now fire is inescapable. The Bootleg fire is burning about 20 miles northeast of Klamath Falls. It doubled and then doubled again over the weekend. It’s now more than 200,000 acres. It’s the largest wildfire in the country. About two hours ago we reached Becky Hyde on the phone to talk about the fire. Her family ranches in various parts of the upper Klamath Basin and she is on the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission. I asked her how close she was to the fire.

Becky Hyde:  We are on the headwaters of the Upper Williamson River. The fire is just on the other side of Taylor Butte, which is about a mile and a half away. The reason I think we haven’t burned everything up headed in this direction yet is because the wind has been in our favor for several days and burned east. But this fire has had a tremendous impact on my nephews and other people who are ranching in the watershed in terms of what’s happening to livestock.

Miller:  What have you heard from your nephews or your neighbors? Just to the east

Hyde:  Part of this ranch is [United States] Forest Service allotment for our family.  But other families in this region have Forest Service allotment. So there are many cows out that did not survive the fire. My nephews and my sons have been out riding the last couple of days having to put down cows that are not quite dead but burned up and finding burned up mountain lions. It’s horrific and awful for them because everybody who has cattle loves their animals and we love the wildlife here. So it’s been a pretty emotional time around here.

Miller:  What level of evacuation orders are you under right now?

Hyde:  We are under level three. But here at the ranch we’re kind of a staging area.  A lot of the Green Diamond equipment is here. Because Green Diamond Timber Company owns a lot of the forest land above us and they are staging. As my sister-in-law says, there’s more equipment up here at the headquarters between fire personnel and private contractors than this entire ranch is probably worth.

Miller:  As a reminder, level three is “go now”. But it seems like you’re saying that you’re a de facto fire camp. And so no one is telling you to leave your ranch because there are a bunch of private landowners and fire managers who are with you?

Hyde:  We’re kind of a base camp right now for a lot of fire personnel. So, for example, yesterday, four helicopters were flying all day long in a constant circulation, dipping water out of the Upper Williamson to douse this fire directly to the south of us - these big helicopters from morning until almost dark. In a way we’re in as safe a position as you can be just because we have so many fire resources with us.

Miller:  You are safe unless winds change and the fire that’s burning a mile and a half away, just all of a sudden roars in your direction.  Are you not scared right now?

Hyde:  For one thing, we’re right on the Upper Williamson so if the worst thing happened, you could run and just jump in the river.  We’re not right in the midst of this forest here at the ranch. We’re on the edge of it and certainly it could easily burn. [But] we have sprinklers on every house, have been running sprinklers for days and have done a lot of trimming of trees and brush beating. We continue to hack away at that. But as far as personal fear, like ‘am I going to burn up right now’? No. The deep sadness I’m feeling right now is not only for my nephews who  have lost cattle, but for all these ranches between us and what will be [inaudible]. There are [Forest Service] permits with people with cattle.  It is really a serious situation for all of those people out there riding in the forest trying to save cattle right now. It is devastating. I can’t even explain it.

Miller:  I wanted to turn to water.  The initial reason that we had contacted you [was to] meet up in person. That obviously is impossible now. How are you doing for water? How have you been doing for water this year?


Hyde:  We’re not doing well with water this year anywhere in the Basin as you know. We also ranch on the lower Sycan near Beatty. So there’s a family ranch up here on the Williamson where I am now as well as on a small piece on the Sycan. The water on that ranch was called before the irrigation season even started this year because of the drought. It was appropriate because there is no water.  All you have to do is look at a hydrograph of the Upper Basin to understand what a tight situation we’re in with this extreme drought. On that ranch we [currently] only have a third of the number of animals we normally would have.  Of the third left, we probably have 2.5 weeks of grass left.

So when you look at this fire and compound the cattle up here on the main body of the ranch, not on the Forest Service permit that are going to be displaced from the forest and needing to come back to the main ranch and you add the drought and then the fire on top of it, you have ranchers in this area in a horrible situation. Their grasses either burned up or they didn’t grow it earlier in the year because of the drought.

Miller:  In the bigger picture, given that this year and potentially in future years as climate change accelerates, there’s not enough water for all the farmers, the ranchers, the fish, the wildlife in the Basin. What do you see as a sustainable path forward?

Hyde:  The first thing I see, in terms of resiliency for this region, is that everybody needs to get to the table and wake up. The reason this forest is burning right now is because we are in a wasteland here where there has been very limited management of our U.S. Forest Service lands for decades. So nobody should be surprised that this entire forest is burning. In the past we had models in this basin where agriculture, both above Klamath Lake and the tributaries and the farming community, all of the tribes in this Basin sat down together and talked about the serious situation we have around water. And that should be the priority of everyone in this basin and all the time from now on.  Because [for the last 5 years] we [have had] little squabbles with one another, we are seeing the result of that today. It doesn’t make more water for us to meet but it makes us make smart decisions about water when we have it. We’re not doing that today.

Miller:  What’s one example of a smart decision that you’d be advocating now?

Hyde:  We’re in an extreme drought right now. I am absolutely not a climate change denier. But I am also a climate change adapter.  We need to be adapting on all fronts. Three years ago we had a whole bunch of water. It had been a really wet year.  So it’s very important in the wet years that we hold the water in smart ways and send water where it needs to be so that we’re more resilient in years like this. For example, our refuges in the Klamath Basin right now that are part of the magnificent, unbelievable national treasure called the Pacific Flyway, could have water right now had we made better decisions in those years that were wetter.

A couple years ago there was 30,000 acre feet of water that was accidentally spilled out of the dams on the Klamath River that could have provided water for those refuges for an entire season. So I cannot emphasize enough that this isn’t a farmer versus fish problem. This is a problem of communities coming together, really waking up, working on resiliency, working on healing this ecosystem together and then sending a strong message to state and federal partners to begin addressing the weak links here so that we don’t go year after year after year with some sort of drought emergency aid. We need systemic change here now.  We’ve needed it for 20 years.

Miller:  Would you be willing to sell or lease your own water rights to other people or so that fish or birds would have more water?

Hyde:  I think that’s a surface way of addressing the problem here. What I’ve been an advocate of for years is something called a ‘specified in-stream flow’ in the river. That means that you never let the river go below a certain level, depending on your year-type. So it’s a way of managing water and ending up with the same end [but] doing it in a different way.

Miller:  So you’re saying it’s too narrowly focused to think about one farmer’s use of water. We should be thinking more holistically about the whole Basin?

Hyde:  That is the way we thought when we put together a settlement called the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement that failed in Congress.  Frankly, in Congress, they need to realize that problems like ours in the Klamath Basin are bipartisan and you’ve got to work together. There’s no way out of it. Just like in this space. And if you’re a sovereign nation, you’ve got to work with irrigated agriculture. There are just no other alternatives. So what I’ll say is that in this space we spent 20 years of time developing a way of allocating water and managing water that is both respectful to communities and to how communities change. We did a lot of work toward the restoration of the river so that we deal with endangered suckers in Klamath Lake and refuges. So just saying, ‘would you sell your water’? We don’t have any water to sell. There is no water.  Oversimplifying what goes on here I’m tired of. Not that I’m attacking you.

Miller:  I appreciate it. I understand.

Hyde:  I actually might be a little tense this morning. I’m on my second cup of coffee and I’ve been looking at photos of burned up mountain lions and I’m probably right on my edge.

Miller:  Well let me let you go after this. But I’m curious what your plan is for today?

Hyde:  Today my plan is to just continue yesterday. I’m right here at the house. So different family members are doing different things on this ranch right now. We’ve got my sons, my nephews and my sister-in-law moving some yearling cattle around, preparing for the case that fire makes them run to the north toward Klamath Marsh. We have a lot more cattle that would need to get out of the way if that was the case. I’m here at the home. This house has been here since 1911 and is part of what we’d like to not lose.  So I’ve got a sprinkler going and a fire hose ready [because] yesterday it popped up for a while. So I’m just holding down the fort here at home and right now a water truck from one of the contractors is driving by watering roads. Helicopters are not going again today. I think they made a break in the fire. I’m just hanging in there.

Miller:  Thank you Hyde. Best of luck to you and everybody around you and thanks very much for giving us so much of your time at a terrible time. Thank you.

Hyde:  Thank you. You guys take care. I’m glad you’re down in the Basin, reporting on this.

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