Fighting fire with fire: Native American burning practices spark interest in a year of historic wildfires

For Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, the federally recognized Native American nation located in Oregon and California, this year’s wildfire season has proved devastating.

“[The land burned is] where we hunt, fish, gather, exercise our traditional and spiritual practices,” Gentry told Yahoo News. “Me and others are going through a kind of a grieving process. It’s just devastating to look at.”

This year, wildfires have consumed land that is home to members of the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin tribes, devouring both forests and structures. To be sure, extreme drought and oppressive heat waves born of climate change bear much of the blame for this season’s conflagrations.

But experts also note another reason: the abandonment of Native American practices designed to help manage and protect the forest.

“The fires are much more dangerous than ever before, because we have interrupted that long-standing practice of cultural burning by Native peoples, which kept things in check,” said Kari Norgaard, a sociologist at the University of Oregon who has been working with the Karuk Tribe for the last 15 years. “I think there’s no question that what we’re seeing now has to do with the changing climate, as well as a combination of [the] failed management of fire suppression.”

Fire crews hold the line and perform strategic firing operations on the McCash Fire on Aug. 23. (Alexandra Hootnick for Yahoo News)
Fire crews hold the line and perform strategic firing operations on the McCash Fire on Aug. 23. (Alexandra Hootnick for Yahoo News)

Fire started by lightning has always been a part of the natural life cycle in the Western United States, and for centuries Native Americans also carried out controlled burns, referred to as cultural burns, in order to manage crops and hunting areas, fireproof areas and manage pests.

“Keeping the land healthy and in balance rendered food and fiber and other kinds of materials — everything that we need to live a healthy life here in our homelands,” Margo Robbins, a member of the Yurok Tribe and the co-founder of the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network, said. “And so different areas would require burning at different times of the year and [at] different intervals.”

The Western ecosystem began to shift in 1905, with the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service and the continued conversion of Indigenous homelands into federal lands. Five years later, after 3 million acres in northern Idaho and western Montana were scorched in what was known as the “Big Blowup,” officials doubled down on establishing a total fire-suppression policy. This policy’s overriding goal was to prevent fires, suppressing outbreaks as quickly as possible. In 1935, the U.S. Forest Service enacted the so-called 10 a.m. policy, which mandated that all fires must be put out by 10 a.m. the next day. Nine years later, still sold on the idea that all wildfires were harmful, the Forest Service rolled out the character of Smokey Bear in its unified effort to prevent fires.

Margo Robbins holds a basket she is in the process of making from fire-dependent resources in Weitchpec, Calif., in front of the Klamath River. (Alexandra Hootnick for Yahoo News)
Margo Robbins holds a basket she is making from fire-dependent resources in Weitchpec, Calif., in front of the Klamath River. (Alexandra Hootnick for Yahoo News)

Ironically, however, more than a century of fire-suppression practices has served to prime the landscape for bigger, more destructive wildfires.

“They stopped all fires and got a forest that was chock-full of little 6-inch-diameter trees that very densely populated the forest,” said Jared Dahl Aldern, an environmental historian and fire practitioner. “Instead of a widely spaced set of trees that have thick bark, and are able to resist and be resilient to wildfire that passes under them, you’ve got a whole forest full of these tiny little toothpicks that burst into flames. And suddenly, you’re dealing with a half-million-acre wildfire.”

Thanks to decades of forest mismanagement, the expansion of housing into fire-prone areas, unprecedented extreme drought and weeks’ worth of record-setting high temperatures, this year is poised to become the worst fire season in U.S. history. To date, more than 4.6 million acres have burned in 41,284 fires across the country, with 92 large fires currently active.

The Bootleg and Dixie fires have been the two largest to hit the U.S. this year. The Bootleg Fire, in southern Oregon, burned more than 413,000 acres and destroyed 200 homes, while the Dixie Fire, in Northern California, which is only 41 percent contained, has scorched more than 730,000 acres.

Katie Sauerbrey, who oversees controlled burns at the Nature Conservancy’s Sycan Marsh Preserve, helped battle the Bootleg Fire, bulldozing land to clear areas of fuel and employing other preventive measures in what proved a futile attempt to halt the blaze.

An area previously burned by a high-intensity wildfire in the Klamath National Forest. (Alexandra Hootnick for Yahoo News)
An area previously burned by a high-intensity wildfire in the Klamath National Forest. (Alexandra Hootnick for Yahoo News)

“As somebody with 15 years of fire experience, it was some of the most extreme fire behavior I’ve seen in my career,” Sauerbrey recalled to Yahoo News.

But when the fire hit Sycan Marsh, a 30,000-acre wetland located in south-central Oregon within the Klamath Tribes’ ancestral lands, something extraordinary occurred.

“I watched it go from a fire that was burning intensely through the crowns of the trees and creating its own weather, to a fire that dropped … back onto the forest floor, that was much safer to put firefighters in front of,” Sauerbrey said.

The Nature Conservancy has been working for the past 15 years with the local Klamath Tribes, the original stewards of the land, to co-manage and incorporate their traditional knowledge into the land-management practices at Sycan Marsh. It was on the land that had been treated with these precolonial Indigenous practices — areas that had undergone prescribed burning to thin forests, remove fire-fueling brush and renew soil — that the fire drastically slowed down.

“On the area that I was working on, which was in and adjacent to Sycan Marsh Preserve, we had done somewhere around 6,000 acres of of thinning and prescribed burning, and when the Bootleg Fire hit that area, it definitely slowed down in pace and intensity,” Sauerbrey said.

The lessons of the past century of fire suppression couldn’t be clearer for Bill Tripp, the director of natural resources and environmental policy for the Karuk Tribe, which inhabits roughly 1 million acres in parts of Northern California and southern Oregon.

Bill Tripp in a huckleberry patch in Orleans, Calif., which was burned in order to create a plentiful huckleberry gathering site for Karuk tribal members. Tripp said huckleberries need fire to produce fruit. (Alexandra Hootnick for Yahoo News)
Bill Tripp, the Karuk Tribe’s Director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy, stands in a huckleberry patch in Orleans, Calif., that was burned to create a berry gathering site for Karuk tribal members. Fire is needed to maintain a canopy open enough to produce fruit. (Alexandra Hootnick for Yahoo News)

Tripp said that under tribal stewardship, the places that had more black oak trees would be burned off in February and March, so there wouldn’t be fuel for fires to burn through during the summer months.

“This landscape that would have been more resilient to a fire occurrence became something that was, from a fuels perspective, something that contributed to a perfect storm,” Tripp said of the Karuk land. “Like we ended up seeing with the Slater Fire.”

The Slater Fire, which erupted in September 2020, tore through Karuk’s ancestral land and destroyed approximately half the homes in Happy Camp, Calif., where many members of the tribe live.

Indigenous tribes of the West, which have largely been excluded from conversations about managing their ancestral lands, make up a large percentage of the people who have been affected by the recent wildfires, Norgaard said.

Federal fire-prevention policies have largely put a halt to the controlled burns carried out for centuries by Indigenous tribes. That prohibition is beginning to give way.

In the past decade there has been an awakening among scientists, fire experts and even officials at the Forest Service, who have begun to acknowledge that withholding fire from the landscape has exacerbated the conditions for wildfires.

Vikki Preston, the Karuk tribal government representative on the Cronan Fire, and tribal fire line resource adviser Alex Watts-Tobinlook at a map at the fire camp in Etna, Calif. (Alexandra Hootnick for Yahoo News)
Vikki Preston, the Karuk tribal government representative on the Cronan Fire, and tribal fire adviser Alex Watts-Tobin at the fire camp in Etna, Calif. (Alexandra Hootnick for Yahoo News)

“In the firefighting community, there’s this realization that tribes were doing something that really was beneficial within the landscape. And we’re starting to see, based on research within forested environments, that … Indigenous people really did have a strong influence on what fire effects were, and so we need to start to integrate that more,” Don Hankins, a Plains Miwok fire expert and professor at California State University, Chico, told Yahoo News.

The Cultural Fire Management Council, an Indigenous nonprofit organization dedicated to facilitating the practice of cultural burning on the Yurok Reservation and ancestral lands, currently partners with the Nature Conservancy to conduct two larger-scale landscape burns each year, once in the spring and once in the fall. These burns are done under a model called Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges, which invites people from all over the United States to come to help burn. For about four or five days, attendees learn how to do prescribed burns and increase their qualifications. At this year’s spring burn, about 80 acres were burned, according to Robbins.

A strategic firing operation on the McCash Fire. (Alexandra Hootnick for Yahoo News)
A strategic firing operation on the McCash Fire. (Alexandra Hootnick for Yahoo News)

“We have increased the number of acres, but the most we’ve been able to burn in a year is 167 acres. But our ancestral territory is half a million acres, so we have a lot of growth to somehow figure out how to upscale in a big way,” Robbins said, explaining that the tribe is still far from restoring its traditional fire practices. “At one time, people could just go out and burn when the time was right, in the right place at the right time. Now we have to do a lot of preparation of the land, so that the fires that we purposefully light in a controlled manner do not escape. But we are still burning for those same resources that our ancestors took care of.”

Those resources include hazel, which the Yurok use for baskets for a variety of purposes, and acorn, a staple of their diet. In the past, the tribe was able to burn areas where hazel grew every three to five years. They burned the understories of oak trees every eight to 10 years, to maintain a steady supply of crops. This frequency was curtailed thanks to fire-suppression policies, and abundant harvests are no longer guaranteed. Because tribes are required to submit burn plans, apply for permits ahead of time and work within the timelines of partner organizations, their burns cannot be readily adapted to changing environmental factors.

Baskets woven by Margo Robbins. (Alexandra Hootnick for Yahoo News)
Baskets woven by Margo Robbins. (Alexandra Hootnick for Yahoo News)

“Air quality regulations say you don’t burn at night, because you might affect a human. Well, you can fumigate your tree canopy much better, with a lower-intensity fire, if you’re doing that at night,” Tripp said. “And not only that, you don’t have to deal with your winds that come up every afternoon, and you don’t have to deal with the high insulation value that’s keeping all your fuels dry, making it more dangerous as you go through the day.”

For many tribes, these bureaucratic challenges make it difficult to achieve the burns they would hope for, and even serve counterintuitively to create riskier fires that are harder to control.

Yet Indigenous people have worked with organizations, and continue to do so, to conduct prescribed fires, grabbing the opportunity to safely reintroduce fire into the ecosystem as interest increases among non-Indigenous partners.

“At this point we have the same goal, since [the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and other government agencies] have realized their dire mistake in excluding fire from the forest, and they now realize that the land needs fire in order to be healthy. And in order to reduce wildfire risk, we need to do prescribed burns,” Robbins said.

“Prescribed burning is entirely necessary, because it has been removed from the system for so long. We have to do an effective combination of thinning and fuel reduction and prescribed burning activities to be able to get to the point where conditions are conducive to cultural burning activities,” Tripp said.

Gentry added, “We’re trying to promote conditions that move the land in a way that would really provide for those cultural uses and traditions.”

A black bear forages for blackberries in Forks of Salmon, Calif. (Alexandra Hootnick for Yahoo News)
A black bear forages for blackberries in Forks of Salmon, Calif. (Alexandra Hootnick for Yahoo News)

Prescribed burns, however, will be able to affect the fire regime only if they are performed on a larger scale, the fire experts said.

“Once we get to that critical threshold with the restoration of Indigenous fire practice within the landscape, that’s when you’re going to start to see a big difference with the outcomes of these wildfires,” Hankins said.

Gentry added that the next step is for local tribes, including his own, to assume a larger role in land management. Many, however, still lack the funding and the resources.

“We need to be considered as co-managers of the forest, and we need to have the capacity to be the co-managers,” Gentry, who regularly meets with the Forest Service to discuss the tribes’ role, said. “We actually want to build our capacity to do all the fuels treatments, including burning.”

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