Restoring Our Relationship to Fire: How Following the Lead of Indigenous People Can Save Us From Mega-Fires

Caroline Griffith and Will Harling, Mid-Klamath Watershed Council Executive Director

Fire has been a part of the landscape since long before we have, and humans have lived side-by-side with fire for much of our existence. Here in California, Indigenous people managed the land by regularly introducing fire to enhance the production of food, fiber, medicine, and utilitarian resources. When the Spanish colonizers arrived here, they were horrified by the practice of burning to maintain and revitalize vegetation. The practice was seen as so threatening that the first Legislature in the newly formed state of California added a prohibition on burning (specifically banning Indigenous people from burning, later expanding it to everyone) to the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, the same law that allowed for the kidnapping and enslavement of Indigenous people. Cultural burning was outlawed for many reasons beneficial to European colonizers. Perhaps least of these was that it was a threat to life. In addition to being a threat to property and resources (including timber), it was a means to take away native people’s ability to feed themselves and produce the resources needed to live without support.  

Prescribed burning at Tshanik on June 22, 2020. Photo by Will Harling

According to Will Harling, Director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council (MKWC) and Orleans/Somes Bar Fire Safe Council, this misguided attempt to remove fire from California ecosystems is the prime cause for the spate of devastating wildfires over the past decade, above climate change and the lack of raking. “It is hard to comprehend the fire deficit we have accrued in the past century, and it is even harder for settlers like me to understand how Indigenous burning created and maintained the diverse and productive landscapes that Muir eulogized.”  

MKWC is a collaborator in the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership which works with diverse partners to return good fire to their 1.2 million acre landscape. According to Harling, the problem is not only fire suppression, but the fire suppression industry and the fact that fire management, and a relationship with fire, have been taken out of the hands of the people. “Fire is currently owned by CAL FIRE and the Forest Service. While some more progressive leaders within these organizations are pushing for change, most still believe no one else is capable of managing fire,” says Harling. “Locally, indigenous led burns by Karuk and Yurok practitioners to manage their resources are still being disallowed or criminalized.” 

The agency that would become the U.S. Forest Service was founded in 1876 as the Special Office of the Dept. of Agriculture tasked to “assess the state of the forests in the U.S.” As the agency changed into what it is today, it continued to sell fire exclusion as a way to turn meadows into robust timber forests. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the mission of the current Forest Service is to “sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” As author Tim Egan elegantly described in his book, “The Big Burn,” referring to the massive wildfires in 1910, this created a reason for the Forest Service to exist: to create timber and manage this “resource.” Both traditional ecological knowledge and western science have clearly shown that intentionally reintroducing fire to the landscape will make it more resilient, healthy and resistant to mega-fires, but the agencies that are tasked with “sustaining the health” of our forests are resistant to this method. As Harling says, “Our federal partners are so consumed putting energy into fighting fires and planning salvage sales, they don’t have time or resources left to advance proactive measures.”

So, what proactive measures should we be taking? How do we change the fire suppression paradigm? One way, Harling suggests, is to change the way we fight fires on the ground. The Red Salmon Complex that started near Red Cap Lake in the western Trinity Alps Wilderness in late June provides a recent example. “So far, us taxpayers have spent around $90 million over the past two months to contain this fire by 40%. Much of this money was spent building firelines along wilderness ridges and dumping retardant from aircraft to slow the fire’s spread. With $20 million we could fall back to the communities this fire eventually reached anyways and invest in fuelbreaks in the Wildland Urban Interface we will use for decades to come.”

“What if we used unlimited wildfire resources to implement existing Community Wildfire Protection Plans in the fire’s path, as well as landscape level integrated fire management plans forwarded by WKRP and similar collaboratives?” Harling mused. “Nothing reduces the public’s healthy fear of fire more than a two mile fuelbreak around town regularly tended with fuels reduction and fire!”

The North Coast Resource Partnership recently provided funding to MKWC to work with regional fire experts and partners to create a draft network of potential strategic fuelbreaks across 11 million acres from Sonoma to Siskiyou Counties.  “The first step to landscape scale fire management is agreeing to where fuels treatments can be implemented to maximize opportunities to safely manage wildfires for resource objectives and implement large scale prescribed fires,” Harling said. Modelling efforts led by Chris Dunn at Oregon State University  are under way to show where these places are and what work is needed. They look at topography, existing fuel loading, infrastructure and other variables to determine where potential control lines could be placed, and under what conditions they will be able to hold a fire. These models factor in recent burn footprints that have proven to be about the only thing capable of stopping wind driven wildfires. 

But simply changing the way that fire is suppressed won’t solve the problem. As Harling points out, “Every dragon they slay, more dragons come out of those ashes.” Every natural wildfire that is effectively suppressed means another fire interval missed, and a harder fire fight next time fire comes.  Fire needs to be reintroduced to the landscape and there are significant policy and legislative hurdles to making that happen. CA Senate Bill 1260 took small steps towards addressing many of these policy issues, including a certification program for prescribed fire burn bosses that includes shared liability with CAL FIRE, a mandate for CAL FIRE to look into workable liability insurance models for groups wishing to implement prescribed fire, and cover costs for smoke permits that were getting untenable for non-industrial burners. 

Prescribed burning brought down to homes on the South Fork of the Salmon River. The
lines get blurry between wildfire and prescribed fire as far as effects. Photo Source: Will Harling

“While there are recent mandates to double the amount of prescribed burning in California across ownerships, many of the local organizations that could make this a reality can’t even get prescribed burn insurance,” Harling reports. “Only when prescribed burning is treated like other essential services like fire, medical, and law enforcement that are in part publicly insured, will the insurance industry be willing to start writing new policies.” Other needed legislative changes include decriminalizing cultural burning, categorizing prescribed fire smoke (like wildfire smoke) as natural to reduce permitting restrictions, and dedicated annual funding to build our prescribed fire workforce. National measures such as Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) recently introduced “National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020”, that establishes a $10 million collaborative program, based on the successful Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, to implement controlled burns on county, state and private land at high risk of burning in a wildfire, are a huge step in the right direction.    

The most important thing we can do, according to Harling, is to develop a personal relationship with fire. He urges everyone to get involved with fire processes on their landscape, to engage in local prescribed burning efforts hosted by developing Prescribed Burn Associations and Training Exchange (TREX) events.  “Making fire a grassroots endeavor again is vitally important,” he says. “Tribal people are ready to take back ownership of fire on our landscape, and there’s a place for non-tribal residents to support them. Restoring our relationship to fire is what our culture most desperately needs; to be connected to place, to take on this responsibility and steward these lands in a way that benefits all life. Fire is our greatest tool.”