August 18, 2021

An Unbreakable Bond

In the aftermath of the Bootleg Fire, Klamath tribal leaders vow to persevere on the land where they have lived for millennia.

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After burning for more than a month, the Bootleg Fire, Oregon’s largest of the year, is finally 100% contained. It  leaves behind a charred landscape larger than Los Angeles and nearly five times the size of Portland. Now, the hard work of assessing the damage and planning for recovery begins. Perhaps no one has a greater stake in, and a stronger connection to, this land than the members of the Klamath Tribes. Underscore.news accompanied tribal leaders as they surveyed the damage, many of them for the first time since the blaze erupted in early July.

The Bootleg Fire, which has burned more than 413,000 acres, erupted about 25 miles from the Klamath tribal headquarters in Chiloquin, Ore. The flames spread rapidly, generating firestorms that sparked lightning and ignited new blazes. Huge fires like this will likely become more common with climate change.
Don Gentry, Klamath tribal chairman (right) and tribal council member Clayton DuMont visited burned sites earlier this month along with other tribal members and the U.S. Forest Service. The Bootleg Fire destroyed much of the ancestral homelands of the Klamath Tribes, which is made up of the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin People. Tribal members say they were heartbroken to see their land burn.
The Tribes’ connection to this land is deeply spiritual. The Klamath tribal chairman, Don Gentry, leads a prayer at the Bootleg Fire for the land, forest, animals, and people. According to the Tribes’ oral history and tradition, their People have been a part of this landscape “since the beginning of time.”
Klamath tribal members are mourning the ecological and cultural damage the huge blaze has left behind. In many places, the fire burned so hot that the ash-colored ground was devoid of signs of life. What were old village sites and places where tribal ancestors would pray and fast, are now charred and ashen.
“The Tribes lost about a quarter of their natural resources,” said Steve Rondeau, director of the Tribes’ natural resources department. “There are areas that are going to take decades to recover.” 
No one knows the toll on wildlife that died in the fire, but the Klamath People, who rely on subsistence hunting and fishing, will feel this loss acutely. 
A sign saying “Thank You” in the Klamath language is displayed along the road in Beatty, Ore. In what is a first for the Klamath Nation, the Tribes have had a seat at the table with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies during fire meetings. Tribal leaders say it is crucial for the Tribe to remain involved as forest restoration work begins, to make sure activities such as salvage logging don’t further damage important cultural and subsistence sites.
Even among the ashes, there are signs of hope. Ponderosa pines that survived the fire were located in an area where thinning and prescribed burns were done in the years before the fire. According to the Tribes, such examples provide valuable information for a way forward in fire management.
A deer bounds through the blackened landscape, a reminder that life will return to the Tribes’ ancestral lands. Said one tribal member who was part of the tour of the fire site, “It was a shining moment in a very sad day.”

Photos by Leah Nash/Underscore.news

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Display photo: Taylor R. Tupper, the Klamath Tribes’ public information manager, takes photos of the Bootleg Fire near Spodue Mountain. This was the first time many of the Tribes’ leaders had seen the devastation firsthand. “I grew up in that area. I have memories of hunting with friends, spending time there with my dad and my brother — who have both now passed,” Gentry said. “I’m grieving.”

About the author

Leah Nash

Leah is an editorial and commercial photographer based in Portland, Oregon specializing in travel, portrait, lifestyle, and documentary photography with an authentic and atmospheric bent. For Leah, photography has always been about the stories; the lives she gets to inhabit, document, and share.  Clients include National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.  Her work can be viewed at: www.LeahNash.com