“Fire is Cure”: How Indigenous Practices Could Help Reduce Forest Fires


In the face of massive fires, record devastation, and seemingly endless wildfire seasons, some local firefighting agencies and communities in Western states are turning to the methods Native North Americans have used for millennia. .

“Government agencies have realized their big mistake in trying to rule out wildfire and unfortunately it has taken these year after year raging wildfires to realize the terrible mistake,” said Margo Robbins, a member of the staff. from the Yurok tribe who heads the Cultural Fire Management Council, a collective of tribes in northern California who carry out prescribed burns on their lands. “They are looking for answers and looking for aboriginal people on what to do and how to go about it.

By lighting relatively small and contained fires, indigenous tribes like the Yurok traditionally created breaks in the forests and sprawling meadows that wildfires could not pass through, as the fuel – vegetation – had already burned. These techniques are resurfacing in local fire management collaborations between tribes, the US Forest Service, and non-governmental organizations to help prevent the now common calamities.

Forest scientist Frank Lake is a descendant of the Karuk tribe and a “holder” of traditional knowledge.

“I’m trying to spread the idea that fire is medicine,” said Lake, a researcher with the US Forest Service, a federal agency that manages the 154 US national forests, as well as the prairies.

2020 was a banner year for forest fires in america, when nearly 9 million acres burned – double the number the year before. Researchers like Lake find that the risk only increases for more devastating wildfires, as climate change worsens conditions on the ground and development extends deeper into the wilderness. The fires directly killed dozens of people, with maybe thousands of others die due to smoke inhalation, as well as causing hundreds of billions of dollars in economic damage. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the area where unmanaged wilderness meets human development grows about 2 million acres per year, with California leading the number of homes on these lands.

Lake and the Cultural Fire Management Council attempt to revive the intrinsic knowledge that has long guided Indigenous life in a natural area of ​​fire.

“It’s important to recognize that there was a fire system in place that was influenced by culture,” said Lake, referring to the Indigenous fire management he studied and participated in. over the past decades. “We have to question the narrative of the history that demonized fire, from a colonial perspective,” he added.

Frank Lake is a scientist with the US Forest Service.

Lake spoke of a deliberate intention decision taken in 1911 by the first director of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, to defend the idea that all fires started in the landscape were bad and should be put out as soon as possible. This idea came about as a result of a series of wildfires called “Big Blowup” that burned 3 million acres and killed around 85 people the previous year. Several key things led to this massive wildfire: a very dry year leaving fuel in the forests, small fires started by lightning and locomotives, and extreme hurricane-force winds that stoked these small ones. flames over millions of scorching acres.

Pinchot deliberately discredited and nullified other perspectives that fire was a natural part of American habitat and had to burn somehow. This led to decades of federal policy that mandated putting out the majority of fires and allowing forest landscapes to become increasingly denser across the United States until, in many places, they did not look like more to their pre-colonial environments.

“We coexist with fire, we need fire and fire needs us. It’s a different way of seeing the forest, ”said Amy Cardinal Christianson, an Indigenous fire expert in Canada.

Now, driven in part by prolonged droughts and extreme weather conditions, the dense, dry undergrowth can ignite quickly, spreading fire through the tops of tall trees close enough for the flames to leap. It doesn’t have to be that way, according to Lake. To counter the long-standing federal fire suppression policy, “we need to change history, show there is a good fire and scale it up into a larger strategy,” he said. .

The story begins to change. CALFIRE, the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, has a plan with the US Forest Service to each burn 500,000 acres by 2025 for a total of 1 million acres burned in California, in hope for fewer devastating fires, like the 2018 campfire. In this example, it was not just vegetation, but houses, cars and commercial buildings that caught fire and produced toxic smoke that spread for miles.

“I don’t think there was a single person in California who was not affected by the smoke from the wildfires last year, and it woke people up to the damage smoke can cause.” , said Christine McMorrow, director of communications at CALFIRE. “Over the past year people have really come to realize the gravity of things and the need to prevent this type of catastrophic wildfire.”

Lake, like Robbins, grew up in forests with rivers flowing into the Pacific Ocean, where he learned to hunt and use elements of the earth for the traditional basket weaving of his culture. He has followed these passions in his career, consumed every day by work like convincing a federal agency that more funding is needed for prescribed burns, or group dinners to discuss the reaction of certain trees to these burns. Lake said “fire-dependent” cultures like the Karuk and Yurok need more resources to start prescribed fires. These resources could, in part, come from a more inclusive engagement between tribes, their cultural practices, and the science that helps shape policy.

“I feel like indigenous peoples have the inherent right and responsibility to manage the forest for our cultural needs, but the agencies feel they have that right,” Christianson said.

This push and pull is what led Lake and Christianson to work to educate others on how diverse fire management, including Indigenous methods, can be a larger part of the forest management conversation. Christianson is a member of the Métis Nation of Western Canada.

When fire suppression was codified into law, much of the knowledge and wisdom of Indigenous fire management was lost for a century and still not fully recovered. “We are bringing together what we can with the knowledge of our elderly members and other tribes,” said Robbins, a member of Yurok.

Robbins, his council, and his tribe prescribe burns for fire management like doctors prescribe medicine. Each individual fire is tailored and exploits – the specific landscape and weather. This could mean using a road as a natural firebreak or feeling the winds that reliably move up the river every day at 2 p.m. Robbins called it a mosaic of fires, and Lake said research has proven this type of fire management works.

LOOK: Americans who lost their homes to devastating wildfires are bracing for an even worse season

Robbins, who has written a children’s book on how fire can be “good,” is working with state agencies like CALFIRE to raise awareness that cultural methods can be used to help contain wildfires.

“CALFIRE is a firefighting agency, so they teach their employees how to put out fires, that’s their main focus. For many firefighters, this is the first time they have experienced setting the land on purpose to restore the land, ”said Robbins. “It’s a whole different mindset to light a fire on purpose rather than fighting a fire. They learn to control the fire on the ground so that it does not escape.

Robbins said it’s time for state and state forestry agencies to listen to what his ancestors learned over thousands of years while inhabiting the land that is now Northern California. She says the council is having some success.


A tribal burn south of Sacramento. Photo by Don Hankins.

Considering how to best use ecological knowledge and experience to fight forest fires “has become more common practice,” said McMorrow of CALFIRE. “It’s an opportunity to educate ourselves, to show us that things can be done in a different way than we’re used to.”

Robbins said the interest of government agencies in these methods is not “just to say they asked and then to maintain the status quo.” In fact, they are bringing about changes within organizations. A California bill passed by the state Senate would eliminate financial liability if, in certain circumstances, a prescribed burn would cause unexpected damage.

McMorrow said the agency’s goals for fiscal 2020 were to burn 30,000 acres in controlled burns. But because CALFIRE has been stretched so thin to tackle other record-breaking wildfires, the first projected numbers are likely to be insufficient.

But she said CALFIRE is working to increase the use of prescribed burns and wants to do more training, as well as remove other barriers that prevent private landowners – who own most of the forests managed by CALFIRE – carry out their own prescribed burn.

Prescribed burns are used in several states, such as Arizona, where wildfires threaten growing development near wildfire-prone habitats. Tribes like the Apaches in Arizona have their own agencies for fire management, as well as forest restoration. These tribal agencies work in tandem with available state and federal resources.

Christianson said the collaborations between state, federal and Indigenous organizations are an important step towards a sustainable, national fire management solution.

“I hope this is the future of fire,” Christianson said. “The best thing about the indigenous approach to fire is that it really takes a holistic look at the local environment and it really varies according to cultural values. This will have an impact on the way fires are managed and on the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. “

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