To Combat Raging Wildfires, California Turns to Native American Knowledge

To Combat Raging Wildfires, California Turns to Native American Knowledge

Decades of fire suppression have contributed to increasingly destructive infernos. Now, the U.S. Forest Service is learning from Indigenous fire science to restore balance to the land.

As of early September, over two million acres have burned in California this year—a number that has been described as the worst in state history. Up and down the state, from mountainous forests to coastal shrublands, fires are burning with a frequency and severity never before seen. A glance at the CAL FIRE map shows that the entire state appears to be ablaze, with historic fires in Oregon and Washington State occurring in tandem. What was once an occasional event has now become an annual, often deadly "fire season" that devastates human lives and property, biodiversity, and air and water quality while stretching the state’s resources thin.

A hot shot crew fights the Happy Camp Complex Fire in California’s Klamath National Forest in 2014.

And yet, history shows fire as an integral part of the California landscape. Ethnographic studies and tree-ring data reveal that before 1800, about 4 to 12 million acres burned annually. That’s 5 to 12% of the state every year. With variations between bioregions, California’s ecosystems evolved with and for fire. In fact, most of the state’s ecosystems are either fire-dependent or fire-adapted. Fires are essential to biodiversity, as they can enrich the soil with nutrients, stimulate new plant growth, and create habitats for animals.

This doesn’t mean recent conflagrations are comparable to the fires that came before, however. While the present-day fires are often large and severe, prehistoric fires occurred frequently but with a low to moderate intensity. What changed? From colonialism to development and climate change, it could be summed up as a shift in humans’ relationship with fire and with land.

Indigenous Fire Science

From Spanish colonialists to environmentalists like John Muir, many Euro-Americans arrived in California to "discover" a pristine, untouched "wilderness" that had coevolved with Indigenous peoples who developed relationships with the land and used management techniques to encourage the growth of plants for food, medicine, fiber, basketry, and other cultural practices. 

Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson

Ethno-ecologist M. Kat Anderson has studied these complex resource management techniques. In Tending the Wild, Anderson writes that "fire was the most significant, effective, efficient, and widely employed vegetation management tools of California Indian tribes." Deliberate burning practices increased the abundance of plants for food and tools, enhanced wildlife grazing areas, and controlled insects and diseases. Burning also removed dead vegetation and promoted plant growth.

In contrast to the out-of-control infernos today, cultural burning is a form of Indigenous science and is intentional about when, where, and how fires are burned. Traditional knowledge has accounted for the effects of fire on plants, animals, and fungi; timing related to plant cycles, seasons, and moisture; and control of fire behavior and spread. By managing landscapes and preventing the buildup of dead biomass, cultural burning can also mitigate the spread and severity of natural lightning fires.

"Fire takes care of us and we take care of fire," says Leaf Hillman, director of natural resources and environmental policy for the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources. In the Karuk ancestral territory of the Klamath River Basin, cultural burning practices encouraged an abundance of natural resources like salmon, deer, elk, acorns, huckleberry, hazel, and willow, creating "pyrodiversity," a coupling of biodiversity with fire regimes and food webs.

Colonial Fire Suppression

Just as fire is intimately connected to Indigenous science and the landscape, the history of modern wildfires corresponds with the timeline of land settlement, from Spanish colonization to post–World War II urban sprawl and current-day practices. Besides forcibly displacing Native American tribes from the lands they had tended, Euro-Americans brought a very different relationship to fire.

Spanish mission colonization and ranchos arrived in California in the mid-18th century, and with this came the perspective of fire as the enemy. "The Spaniards wanted to suppress fire because they saw it as dangerous and did not necessarily understand what purposes people were putting the fire to. They saw it as careless application of fire by what many of them referred to as ‘primitive people,’" says historical ecologist Jared Dahl Aldern. "So fire suppression is very much tied up with social and political oppression of Native American people."

"Fire suppression is very much tied up with social and political oppression of Native American people."

—Jared Dahl Aldern, historical ecologist

By the late 19th century, the United States Congress established forest reserves, and in 1905 the U.S. Forest Service was created to manage them. Soon after, a major wildfire in the Northern Rockies (aka The Big Blowup of 1910)—along with concerns about "understocked" timber reserves—drove policies of fire suppression. Although many Indigenous peoples and the ranchers who learned from them continued to practice controlled burning, this was effectively outlawed in 1924 when the Clark-McNary Act withheld funding from state forestry agencies if they allowed burning.

In 1944, Smokey Bear first appears on a forest fire prevention poster. 

By World War II, fears of potential Japanese attacks on California put a military spin on forest fire prevention. This anti-fire stance would come to be symbolized by Smokey Bear in 1944. The postwar boom saw more homes built adjacent to wildlands, escalating the danger and fear of fires. Today, as housing continues to expand into the state’s wildland-urban interface (WUI) areas, the hazards of wildfire grow.

Fire suppression policies continue to this day as Indigenous groups are banned from, or required to obtain permits to, practice cultural burning. "Liability is a huge issue when it comes to using fire, especially a fire that is lit by a person," says Bill Tripp, deputy director of eco-cultural revitalization for the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources. "In a perfect world, we’d be exempt from that because we didn’t create this problem as tribal people; we actually had a pretty solid system of living with fire developed and that ended up getting regulated out of our hands."

A Changing Climate

Without the practice of this traditional ecological knowledge, wildfires have become more severe. Fire suppression has caused landscapes to accumulate dense vegetation. Coupled with a hot, dry climate and powerful winds, this potent fuel load feeds the megafires we are seeing today. 

The U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit’s Climate Explorer data visualization tool charts the average daily max temperature in Fahrenheit in Los Angeles, California, from 1950 to 2099. The red shading represents higher emissions while the blue represents lower emissions.

Climate change exacerbates these conditions. By 2025, temperatures in California are predicted to increase by an average of 0.5 to 1 degree Celsius (32.9 to 33.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels in coastal regions, and up to 2 degrees (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit) inland. Shifting precipitation patterns will intensify summer drought and heatwaves, parching the soils and plants and making the land more vulnerable to sparks of fire from lightning storms, wind-downed electrical lines, and human activity.  

Prescribed fires may help mitigate these risks by thinning out overgrown vegetation. "With cultural burns, you not only are removing those fuel loads that create those super fires, but you’re healing the earth," says Abran Lopez of the Amah Mutsun Native Stewardship Corps. "When you wait for those big super fires, those wildfires, they destroy the soil, they bake the soil, they sterilize it, kill a lot of the fire-dependent and non-fire-dependent seeds in the seed bank. It gets to a level of intensity where people can’t stop it or suppress it anymore."

"With cultural burns, you not only are removing those fuel loads that create those super fires, but you’re healing the earth."

—Abran Lopez, Amah Mutsun Native Stewardship Corps

Partnerships in Practice

Fortunately, an increasing recognition of the importance of traditional ecological knowledge and cultural burning practices is developing. In some parts of the state, the U.S. Forest Service has begun to partner with tribes to reduce wildfire severity, promote biodiversity, and restore tribal cultural heritage.

A prescribed fire burns in Orleans, California.

One such initiative is the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership between the Karuk Tribe, the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, U.S. Forest Service, area Fire Safe Councils, environmental groups, and other community-based stakeholders. Using an open standards process facilitated by the Fire Learning Network, this collaborative project aims to create fire-resilient communities and forests by combining Indigenous science with new technology like GIS mapping.

TREX controlled pile burning.

Linked to the Western Klamath Restoration Project is the Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX). Funded in part by a grant from CALFIRE, this program provides training in prescribed burning, thus helping communities to become fire-adapted while supporting tribes in using their traditional ecological knowledge. "Karuk people have had a role in functional fire processes for thousands of years. Fire has been regulated out of our hands in this past century," says Tripp. "The Klamath River TREX is a great example of how Indigenous people around the world can help lead community-based solutions that address the social, economic, and ecological issues of our age."

A pre-burn planning meeting.

California’s landscape is diverse, and correspondingly, its fire patterns and cultural burning practices are, too. Prior to colonization, intervals between fires would have been shorter in grasslands and oak woodlands, and longer in areas with coniferous forests, alpine meadows, and juniper woodlands. There is no one-size-fits-all technique for fire, and integrating Indigenous practices informed by thousands of years of experience is key.

"We have to reestablish a positive relationship with fire," says Hillman. "We talk about fire suppression policies that are a hundred years old—that’s experimental. Our practices of using fire to manage this landscape—that’s not experimental. Those are tried-and-true practices that we know work."  

"We have to reestablish a positive relationship with fire."

—Leaf Hillman, Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources 

More collaboration between state agencies and tribes could help link up burns across the state and reduce fire risk over larger areas. Because traditional ecology is a living system intimately tied to culture and landscape, preserving tribal sovereignty and avoiding the practice of colonial knowledge extraction will also be key.

Karuk cultural practitioner Kathy McCovey leads TREX education. As part of its benefits, prescribed fires provide healthier acorns and basket-weaving materials for local tribal members.

"I think what needs to happen next is to maintain the close partnership and collaborative work that’s going on," says Frank K. Lake, a Karuk descendent and research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. "If we look at what’s important to the tribes, it’s water, it’s wildlife, it’s a range of resources in the forest that are good for tribal members but also the public and the broader society across our national forests."

For Ron W. Goode, chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe, cultural burning is an integral part of home tending. "If you have a brand-new house and nobody lives in it and nobody cares for it, in a matter of a couple of years it will begin to fall apart," Goode says. "It needs to have somebody living in it. And this land has to have somebody living in it."

Related Reading:

We May Already Have the Technology to Survive a Climate Crisis—We’ve Just Been Ignoring It

How Prefab Is Helping Fire Victims Rebuild After Disaster

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