Living with fire: What California can learn from Native burns

MARIPOSA, Calif. ― Rain falls on the 300-year-old oaks on a cold midwinter morning as a group of nearly 60 gathers here on what was once southern Sierra Miwok land.

Some have returned year after year. Others are here for the first time, eager to learn what California’s oldest residents have long known about land management after the most destructive fire season in the state’s recorded history.

“We are here to make an offering to the land,” said Ron Goode, the North Fork Mono’s tribal chairman, who organized the event. “Mother Earth supports us. By putting fire on the ground, we support her.”

Rakes, clippers, shovels and chainsaws in hand, the group heads out to assemble the dead vegetation into burn piles. Using drip torches ― red tin canisters with mixtures of diesel and gasoline ― they delicately light the piles on fire in slow, deliberate motions, painting the land in strokes of orange and red.

It is the year’s first cultural burn for the North Fork Mono. For more than 10,000 years, tribes used small, controlled fires to open pasture lands and clear out underbrush, promoting new plant growth and reducing the risk of large, dangerous fires.

But when Western settlers took over Native American lands in the 18th and 19th centuries, they began barring many traditional practices, including cultural burning. In 1850, the U.S. government passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which prohibited intentional burning. After over a century of this strategy left the nation’s forests choked with dry underbrush, California’s fire officials are now beginning to reimagine fire and land management, drawing upon Native American tradition and perspective.

North Fork Mono tribal members are teaching the group of university students, ecologists, journalists and, notably, officials from the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) how it might help curb the state’s fire crisis by clearing out highly flammable vegetation before the dry, hot summer.

Officials from Cal Fire and the Forest Service were present, marking a shift in the way the state’s land managers are imagining fire “fighting.” (Photo by Ed Kashi/VII)

Goode, a state-certified “burn boss,” runs several burns a year to rehabilitate meadows across California. This 369-acre property became an unofficial educational site when he opened it up to university students nearly two decades ago, and for the past six years he’s invited the greater public. Interest surged within the past three years, he said, attracting hundreds of participants at each burn, including a growing number of officials from Cal Fire and the Forest Service. (Due to the pandemic, those numbers are currently limited.)

“People are interested in what’s happening,” Goode said. “But it takes disasters for people to start waking up.”

In 2020, wildfires ravaged 4.2 million acres of California, including Big Basin in Santa Cruz, the oldest and one of the most beloved state parks in California. Over the past decade, the state known for its lush forests and rich natural resources has seen hundreds of lives lost and tens of thousands of structures destroyed, entering, as fire historian Stephen Pyne put it, the “fire equivalent of an ice age.”

The disaster has awakened California’s land managers, who, after a century of promoting fire suppression and rejecting Native American controlled burn techniques, are now trying to figure out what to do with the abundance of dried shrub and brush that, along with a warming climate, fueled the current fire emergency.

Related: Learning online without a home: How families devastated by Oregon’s fires are trying to keep up with school

On this February morning, Goode’s 11-year-old nephew, Harlon, uses a chainsaw for the first time to take down a dying white oak. He watched it fall in awe.

“One day, I’m going to take over for my uncle and be the burn boss,” Harlon said.

The event took months of meticulous planning, including permits, funding and accommodating the pandemic restrictions. But they could not plan for the weather, and the forecast was for near-constant rain.

“Whether we get much burning done or not, I am fulfilled,” said Goode, gesturing toward the group huddled under tents to keep dry. “Look at all of you.”

So is Jonathan Long, a research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service who attended the burn.

“There’s some really bad history of labeling Native people as ignorant or superstitious, of actively arresting people and putting them in jail if they were trying to carry out traditional practices like cultural burning,” Long said. “Most people would now say: ‘Yes, if we kept burning in the frequency, in the ways Native Americans burned, we wouldn’t have the fires we are having now.’”

History of suppression 

Smoke lingers among the oak trees after two large brush piles were burns. Fire smoke also has a purpose in traditional Native land management: By reflecting sunlight, it cools nearby streams and rivers and promotes aquatic life. (Photo by Ed Kashi/VII)

For most of the last century, the Forest Service pushed a vigorous campaign of fire suppression, rooted in the belief that fire threatened commercial timber. In 1910, five years after the Forest Service was established, a series of fires known as the “Big Blowup” burned 3 million acres across Montana, Idaho and Washington, convincing lawmakers, Forest Service administrators and the general public that the solution to fires was more staff and equipment to prevent and suppress them.

Through the Weeks Act of 1911, the Forest Service offered financial incentives to states to fight fires, which dominated the national strategy. In 1935, it implemented its “10 a.m. policy” ― the notion that every fire should be suppressed by 10 a.m. the next day following its initial report. The Forest Service then created its iconic Smokey the Bear campaign, the longest-running public service announcement campaign in the country, further cementing the nation’s fire fear.

This strategy, though, only made California more prone to fast-moving mega-fires.

Tribes such as the North Fork Mono had long taken a different approach to managing land. Regular, light burning, mostly in the fall and winter before the spring’s bloom and the summer’s dry heat made the risk of spread too high, would clear dead undergrowth and invasive plants. It was also key to maintaining wildlife habitat, pruning native plants to grow back stronger and healthier. By burning grasslands and opening up pastures, tribes drew herds of deer and elk to the protein-rich new growth each spring. They would then burn the woods each spring to push the cattle back to the prairie. The thinned-out forests lend more visibility for precise hunting and allow spring water to more freely flow to the river, in turn making the land more tolerant to drought.

It’s part of a larger system of traditional ecological knowledge that seeks a holistic understanding of the land and has been passed down through generations but was largely ignored in Western science.

“The government wants us to prove everything we’re doing with scientific studies. We’ve been here for minimally 8,000 years,” Goode said. “We know how the land works.”

Recent decades have brought about more efforts to address the systemic oppression of Indigenous communities, beginning with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which protects Native Americans’ rights to exercise religious freedom, including ceremonies like cultural burning. But how it has shaped environmental practices and contributed to the “fire ice age” is only beginning to be understood.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the U.S. Forest Service began to change its tune. After research surfaced showing the positive role fire plays in forest ecology and preventing mega-fires — small and low-risk fires are integral to the evolution of flora and fauna, promote the sustainability of natural ecosystems and can prevent larger wildfires — the Forest Service implemented a policy to let natural fires burn when and where appropriate. This began by allowing fires that start from natural causes, such as lightning strikes, to burn in designated areas. From this evolved the “let-burn” policy, and since around 1990, efforts and policy related to fire suppression have considered exurban sprawl.

After the rain stops, a rainbow forms over the property in Mariposa, Calif. as volunteers finish up the first day of work. (Photo by Ed Kashi/VII)

Some state agencies have since made prescribed burning a more regular part of their land and fire management plan. In Florida, where officials have pushed to return to prescribed burning since the 1970s, landowners now intentionally burn more than 2 million acres annually, maintaining the health of its abundant wetlands.

Yet fire fear still drives much of the decision-making in California. The state only intentionally burns a fraction of what the Southeast does each year, and state and federal land managers, who control 57% of California’s forests, are bound by tight environmental and air quality regulations, as well as competing management rules and oversight.

But the recent increase in destructive wildfires, along with growing research that supports Native practices as a form of land management, is changing things. Long and other forest ecologists are working to fill the hefty gap between traditional Native knowledge and published science.

“There’s a growing recognition from agencies and desire from the tribes to see their values promoted as part of land management,” Long said. “They want to understand from the tribal perspective what they wanted to do and why.”

Goode warns that although the idea of prescribed burning might be taking root among government agencies, Native cultural burning is different. The process is not just about burning up flammable material but also fortifying the land in more holistic ways, which is a hard concept for the Western mind, he said.

“We are in a relationship out here in the land. These plants are related to the animals. The animals are related to us. We are also related to the plants. When we burn, all of a sudden we’ll have medicine plants come up,” Goode said. “These medicine plants treat the animals. If these medicines aren’t there, that’s when we begin to have ill wildlife. That’s when we see species depletion. It’s all a cycle, and it’s not just about preventing fire.”

More than anything, cultural burning is a spiritual practice: a ceremony beginning with a blessing of the land and a prayer. Fire holds great meaning in Native American culture. Around the fire, they share stories, memories and sacred rituals.

Goode and other tribal partners fear that the agencies are missing this wider range of objectives.

“Fire without any other tending or gathering or hunting won’t solve the health crisis of our overgrown forests,” said Helen Fillmore, a hydrologist and member of the Washoe tribe in Northern California. “But ensuring that Indigenous people have proper access is a huge first step in beginning the process of mending the broken pieces of our ecosystems.”

Illustrating the interconnectedness of the practice, Goode cites the southern Sierra Pacific fisher, which was deemed endangered in 2020. The fisher eats gray squirrels. Gray squirrels eat acorns. Millions of white oak trees are not producing acorns because they haven’t seen fire in hundreds of years due to the suppression of intentional burning. And so the gray squirrels suffer, too, he explains.

“That’s the cycle, and that’s the circle that we are a part of,” Goode said. “We have to come to understand that. We are only a part of that.”

Fighting fire with fire

Stephanie Beard, the communication specialist for the conservation non-profit Pepperwood, throws more dried brush on a flaming burn pile. (Photo by Ed Kashi/VII)

Last August, the state of California and the Forest Service signed an agreement to thin or intentionally burn 1 million acres of woodland per year by 2025. That is still significantly less than what Native Americans historically burned but double the amount of land intentionally burned in previous years.

And on Jan. 8, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Forest Management Task Force issued an action plan ― and a billion-dollar budget ― to mitigate wildfire risk, which will largely go toward fuel reduction, including prescribed burns.

After the Creek Fire burned nearly 400,000 acres and destroyed more than 850 structures between September and December in Fresno County ― the fourth-largest wildfire in the state’s history ― the Forest Service increased its efforts and funding for the initiative.

“We’ve been talking about cultural burning for years,” said Jeff Erwin, a forest archeologist at the U.S. Forest Service who attended the burn. “I’m here to learn, to take this knowledge back, use it and apply it.”

Cal Fire’s main focus is now on education ― getting more people to understand the significance of prescribed fire and precisely how it works. This requires heightened collaboration with Native tribes, according to Len Nielsen, the prescribed fire staff chief and tribal liaison for Cal Fire.

“It’s a science and an art,” Nielsen said. “Tribes have that. They don’t do the science so much because it’s a handed-down tradition. But the science is inherently there. They know the conditions in which it will be successful to accomplish their goals and objectives. That’s something we need to get into the hands of more people.”

And promising policy developments are in the works: On Feb. 8, the state Senate introduced highly trained prescribed fire practitioners outside of Cal Fire to put “good fire” on the ground. And a novel California state-certified burn boss program was approved in January, a 40-hour course for experienced prescribed fire practitioners, greatly increasing the pool of those legally able to run prescribed burns. The Prescribed Fire Council plans to begin courses this year.

“California needs some radical changes in its fire policy. This bill would be a total game-changer if it’s passed,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, the director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council. While there could still be more incentives to increase participation, she said the interest in prescribed fire is unprecedented.

Though Goode is hesitant about the government’s ability to adopt truly Native land practices, he finds the recent increase in interest heartening.

“I am elated,” he said. “People have come here to learn, to understand our traditions and rituals.”

The rain curbed their burn that weekend, with much of the brush too damp to ignite. But fire, Goode emphasized, is just a small piece of this work.

“Mother Earth knows what we’re doing to help her,” Goode said. “What we do to Mother Earth, we do to ourselves.”

Megan Botel is a Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellow at The GroundTruth Project. 

Michael Karam contributed to this report.

A version of this story appeared on HUFFPOST on March 11, 2021