After weeks of canceled shows due to COVID-19, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival had to pivot once again to move shows indoors due to smoke from the McKinney fire. Nataki Garrett, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, tells us about how they’re handling the challenges they face. Meanwhile, the McKinney fire blazed north of Karuk tribal homelands in Northern California and destroyed a building in Oak Knoll that housed the tribe’s archives. Josh Saxon, Executive Director of the Karuk Tribe, reflects on the fire’s impact on the land and people who live there.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. We start today with California’s largest wildfire of 2022. The McKinney fire has burned more than 60,000 acres near the Oregon border, including more than 90 homes. It’s killed five people, including a longtime fire lookout on Friday. It’s also led to a major fish kill on the Klamath River. We’re going to get two perspectives on the broader effects of the fire today. In a few minutes we’ll talk to the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
First, I’m joined by Josh Saxon. He is the executive director of the Karuk Tribe. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Josh Saxon: Hello.
Miller: Hello. This fire has been really dynamic and unpredictable, with high winds and thunderstorms and fires restarting in various places. What’s the latest that you’ve heard?
Saxon: So we have two fires in our area that we are monitoring. The McKinney fire as you mentioned, it’s about 40% contained as of this morning. It destroyed approximately 90 homes, including one of our buildings that we have as an archive And it’s still under investigation. It started on July 29th, and it’s definitely affecting our aboriginal territory. The biggest impact of the McKinney fire has been a storm sediment impact that happened on August 3rd. We’re still assessing the damage from that, and we can talk more about that later.
And then the Yeti Complex is much closer to us in terms of Happy Camp, that’s where I work and that’s where our administrative complex is. That’s about 8,000 acres, and it’s about 50% contained as of this morning. And so far that one has not destroyed any structures or impacted lives too much. But there is definitely impacts to evacuations and those kinds of things that we’re seeing. So we’re really working with our county and regional partners on making sure that we can lessen the impacts of both of these fires to our communities. In Yreka in particular, when the evacuation order came out, we had to close down our clinic, and that is a community clinic that serves all people in Yreka. And so that impact was definitely felt throughout our community.
And obviously, with the nervousness of our communities from the impacts of previous fires as well, it’s been fortunate that the Yeti Complex hasn’t grown. but obviously with the impacts of the McKinney fire, we’re still reeling from those. That’s the update.
Miller: Have tribal members gotten to level three evacuation orders in any of those areas?
Saxon: Currently, the Yeti Complex, they’ve lifted evacuation orders and warnings in terms of that fire. The McKinney Fire, I believe there are still some evacuation orders in very, very low populated or no population areas. And there’s still warnings impacting some of our communities up in the Yreka area from the McKinney Fire.
Miller: Can you give us an understanding of the structure that you said did burn on ancestral land as a result of the larger fire?
Saxon: It was a large building that we received in a deal with the Forest Service. It was pretty far before my time, but basically we received an old work center. It’s about 4,000 square feet, and we were utilizing it as an archive building. And unfortunately, we’re still assessing what all we lost. But we’re working on making sure that we can recover from that.
Miller: What are the smoke levels like where you are in Happy Camp?
Saxon: The smoke levels are okay right now. I think they’re less than 100, so we have a good day today. But obviously those were very high at certain points during the fire. We had clean air centers open for the community at various times when the smoke levels got too high.
Miller: Can you remind us what happened a couple of years ago when the Slater Fire tore through very similar areas?
Saxon: The Slater Fire began in the morning. And so luckily for the community of Happy Camp, we did have time to observe the fire and get the orders and evacuations out. And luckily, most everyone was able to get out. We did have a loss of life in that fire as well, unfortunately, which is hard to recover from. There was also over 200 homes lost in that fire, and we’re just now rebuilding. The tribe purchased almost 100 travel trailers for the entire community so that people had a place to land after they lost their homes. And we still have a large number of our community members in those travel trailers as they’re rebuilding. And that was to maintain our community and our workforce so that we can continue to do what we do.
Miller: And that’s not the first time that we’ve heard that kind of story, where people were in hopefully temporary housing from one fire when another fire comes through.
Saxon: It was very impactful. I was receiving calls about evacuations from Seiad Valley, and some of the Klamath River areas as well. We were able to secure some trailers for those folks as they were temporarily relocated from that area. I think most of the Yeti Complex folks are making their way back to their homes, which is great.
Miller: I want to turn to something you touched on very briefly so we can hear more details about this. Heavy rains followed the fire a couple of days ago, leading to, from what I understand, a flood of burned debris and dirt and rocks and trees that had fallen down all entering the Klamath River. And then there have been reports that as a result of that there was a major fish kill. Can you give us a sense for what happened?
Saxon: On the night of August 3rd and 4th, there was a very large storm cell over the fire. And while it certainly helped with the fire suppression, that storm cell ended up, in some reports, dropping close to three inches in less than an hour. And you have previously disturbed ground, where this storm cell was at was over previously heavily logged private timber, The majority of the land that provided this sediment input into the river. And what happened was it basically dropped the oxygen levels of the river down to zero as it made its way through 50 miles of river from Humbug Creek all the way down to Indian Creek in Happy Camp.
And so we started to observe large numbers of fish kills, predominantly from sucker fish that would float to the top and were easily observed. But then when we got our fish biologists to be able to ground truth, which was difficult because of the fire, we found a lot of juvenile fish had perished as well. So salmon from coho, chinook, there’s also lamprey, crayfish. Basically it just created this entire dead zone in the river. And currently, the river is recovering. We just are finding that as this sediment bloom moved down the river, it got more and more diluted. But there is definitely a large zone that we are still going to have to assess just how bad this was. But the cause was definitely the storm and the sediment.
In terms of how we view things, upslope management is just as important to preventing these fish kills as anything else. If this happened three weeks from now when the large fall migration of chinook salmon were coming into the river and were in the river, then this would have been a much larger scale issue.
Miller: But your assumption or guess is that, in three weeks time, the river will have sort of cleaned itself, pushed this debris through, and the returning chinook should be able to find passage?
Saxon: We’re gonna find out. It’s one of those things that we’re monitoring, other tribes are monitoring, agencies are monitoring, making sure that if there’s any sign that this is affecting fish populations moving forward, we can have some science on hand to help us make sure that that’s not going to happen.
Miller: Before we say goodbye, I’m curious about the bigger picture here in terms of the fires. For more than 100 years, the Karuk tribe and other Northwest tribes were prevented from doing the kinds of controlled burns that have been practiced for thousands of years that, among other things, reduced fuel loads in forest, also provided habitat for animals, provided all kinds of better habitat for plants that native peoples have relied on. Those burns have been happening again in recent years, but the scale of what needs to happen is mind boggling at this point. I’m just curious what goes through your mind when you think about that long prohibition on burns?
Saxon: It’s hard. It’s one of the things that obviously, our Department of Natural Resources staff has prioritized over the years, and under the tribe’s leadership, we have moved the needle quite a bit. However, it’s not enough. We’re going to need buy-in from federal and state agencies. We’re gonna need budget considerations in terms of how much it’s going to cost. The amount of money that we put into fire suppression is just absolutely insane. If we put just a percentage of that into fire prevention in terms of prescribed and cultural burning, I think we would see a much much larger bang for buck in terms of the lessened impacts.
These things are going to continue to happen. Lightning fires are gonna continue to happen. It’s what we do in the fall and winter, when these windows open for us to get in there and put good fire on the ground, that’s really going to determine our level of prevention, and how resilient we can be. This kind of partnership needs to happen, and then the scale needs to be scaled up, there’s no doubt about it.
Miller: Nataki Garrett joins us now. She is the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Welcome back to the show.
Nataki Garrett: Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.
Miller: Thanks for joining us once again. If we sort of zoom out and look at the last 2.5 years, after being dark for more than a year, you reopened last July for an outdoor show. That had to be canceled because of wildfire smoke. Then last month, you had to shut down for a while because of a COVID outbreak among theater members and staff. And then earlier this month, you had to shut down again because of smoke from these two fires we’ve just been talking about. How are you doing today?
Garrett: We’re doing fine. Mondays are dark days, so we have no nothing to see on our stages on Mondays. But tomorrow we’re planning on going in, God willing and the creek don’t rise, having our shows back on our stages.
Because smoke has been a part of planning for the last several years at OSF, we actually are quite prepared for smoke and COVID cancellations in a way that I don’t think we had been in the past. When I started at OSF, I was told that smoke was a part of planning at OSF, I had to think about smoke when I was thinking about season planning. I asked my team to consider COVID closures, cascading COVID events. So we prepared in as many ways as possible for the necessity of cancellations for safety, both for smoke and for COVID or any other kind of outbreak.
Miller: Is it more complicated than just knowing it could happen and being ready in the morning to put a team together to look at the weather, look at the winds, and make that decision? What else is there in terms of preparing for smoke?
Garrett: We have a full scale operation around safety. Everybody’s tested twice a week. At the top of that cascading COVID crisis that we experienced a couple of weeks ago, we went right right back from just doing the antigen test to doing the other test right away. We have alliances with our local hospital, so we got our testing done fairly quickly and actually learned a very valuable lesson; the testing for the pathogen test is better if there’s a higher volume of tests to come through. So actually we were able to get back our test results fairly quickly, and then move very quickly into how many people do we have, how many understudies do we have?
We have several layers of understudies, both for crew assignments, for acting assignments, for stage management assignments, just in case we can have the possibility of having the show, because we’re a destination theater. People travel from out of the area to come see the work on our stages. And so just to try to make sure that we honor the fact that people have gone out of their way to come to OSF, we just have a series of scenarios that we’ve practiced and put in place so that we’re prepared for it.
And then for smoke. I think the largest smoke year was in 2016, that’s when OSF was not prepared for the smoke, because in previous seasons that had not been that bad for as long. And ever since then, we’ve been refining and refining and refining our measures. So yes in the morning, somebody texts me and says the AQI is at this number, if it gets to this number we will let you know. At that point, we make a decision as to whether or not it’s safe enough for our crews to go to work that day. Because we’re a repertory theater, we have to actually change the room for the next performance. And so if it’s not safe for them to go, we look to see if we can move it back. We actually had to move back a couple of performances due to heat, not just because it was not going to be safe for our patrons and our actors, but most importantly, it was not going to be safe for our crews to work in that kind of heat or smoke. And so we’re really conscious, because theater is still a kind of manual art. It requires people’s bodies to make it happen. And we want to make sure that everybody that works for OSF is working under the safest possible conditions that we can manifest for them.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for the range of responses you get from ticket holders when they find out that their show they were going to be going to has been canceled?
Garrett: It’s interesting because when I first got to OSF, there was a lot of anger around cancellations. And I think what COVID taught most of our patrons is that we are amongst the lucky ones to still be here. And so people are very understanding around COVID cancellation and smoke cancellation.
We’re doing everything we can to make sure that people know as far in advance as possible and getting the word out as quickly as we possibly can. We have a couple of agreements with our unions that say that the people who are actually doing the work actually have to know first, and then we can let everybody else know what our plans are for the day. But our patrons have been really generous in their response to what is happening.
If you look on our online threads when we post that we have to cancel due to COVID or smoke, most of the time the response is “thank you for letting know, I hope everybody’s okay,” “I pray for a steady recovery,” “thank you for letting us know and for being conscious of our safety.” I think we’ve all evolved through these last three years in our thinking and in our response to crisis.
Miller: In a recent statement you wrote this, “we’ve proven these past two and half years that OSF is resilient,” and that absolutely seems true. But I’m wondering how far resilience can go, how long you can do this for with closure after closure?
Garrett: You know what? Theater has been a practice amongst humans since time immemorial. And so I actually am not nervous that, in 100 years, the people who are loving on this institution will not have a way forward.
We did look for other ways to offer during the pandemic. Right before the pandemic, I started to research and start to work towards digital offerings. And that was actually in response to conversations I was having with some of our older patrons who weren’t able to make it back up to the festival as regularly as they would like. I wanted to offer a way for people to have a way to connect to OSF regardless of whether or not they could travel. And so our digital stage is serving as a public agora for ongoing commissioning projects and strategic partnerships, where our curators and artist-led projects are available for all of our patrons to connect with. This is a way of providing access. And at the base of your question is this question about access, how do we make sure that people have a way to connect to OSF?
We’re doing this new initiative this year called Theatre on Film, where we have these online watch parties. We got the notice that people did not want to watch Theatre on Film by themselves as often as they wanted to be able to share in an experience. So through our partnership with this organization called Stellar, we created these fantastic events where several people can watch one of our plays online at once. And we’re doing it for a few of our shows, The Tempest, Revenge Song, and King John, and we already had two watch parties for A Play Unseen, which just closed. So it’s really about offering both live and other ways of connecting.
The sort of beautiful thing about theater is that, like the guy said in the movie Shakespeare In Love, it’s all a mystery. How does it all come together? And I think one of the reasons why most of us endeavor to do this art form is because there is this possibility through this act of making sure that people have a live experience, that something might happen. And so we’re all actually very well prepared for the potential that maybe we are not here in 100 years in the form that we’re in right now. But I’m gonna work like hell to make sure that we are in this form in 100 years, to make sure that we’ve practiced our art in a way that allows for it to be sustainable over time, and audiences can continue to come to visit.
I’m also very conscious of our carbon footprint. You have to get in a car or fly in a plane to come to OSF. And so we have a partnership with Lithia Motors, and their organization, I think it’s called Driveway, donated several electric cars for our artists to drive while they’re here in town. And we have a partnership with a solar panel company. So we’re looking for ways to help support the Earth while we take up our space and time on this particular part of the planet. And we’re just going to continue to work in that way, being conscious of our impact.
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