The West Must Learn from Indigenous Communities Who Have Lived With Wildfire for Thousands of Years

Kari Marie Norgaard and Sara Worl November 12, 2019

Aja Conrad, the Karuk Tribe’s workforce and internships coordinator, lights a prescribed fire in Orleans, California.

For sev­er­al months in 2019, it seemed wild­fires wouldn’t rage across the West as they had in recent years. But then came the dry autumn and California’s San­ta Ana and Dia­blo winds, which can dri­ve the spread of wild­fires. Util­i­ties are shut­ting off pow­er across the state to reduce the risk of dam­aged equip­ment or downed trees on wires caus­ing fires.

There’s no lack of pro­pos­als for man­ag­ing wild­fires more effec­tive­ly: Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Gavin New­som recent­ly signed 22 wild­fire-relat­ed bills in one day. But what’s miss­ing are per­spec­tives from indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties across North Amer­i­ca, who have lived with fire for thou­sands of years.

In our research on cli­mate change and people’s reac­tions to it, we have worked with the Karuk Tribe in north­west­ern Cal­i­for­nia and south­ern Ore­gon on their plan to man­age their land under these evolv­ing con­di­tions. Amer­i­can Indi­an tribes across the West are work­ing with an increased sense of urgency to man­age fire-adapt­ed land­scapes in the face of cli­mate change. The Karuk Tribe’s cli­mate adap­ta­tion plan directs their efforts to do just that.

This work has con­vinced us that this is an excit­ing polit­i­cal moment to restore west­ern forests and pro­tect the pub­lic from dan­ger­ous wild­fires — and that tribes are unique­ly posi­tioned to lead the way.

Tanoak acorns (xun­tá­pan) are a sta­ple Native food for many indige­nous peo­ple and are also vital for numer­ous wildlife species. Tanoak (xun­yêep) is very sus­cep­ti­ble to high-inten­si­ty fire, but ben­e­fits from cul­tur­al burn­ing that decreas­es tree and acorn pests and reduces com­pet­i­tive veg­e­ta­tion. (Pho­to by Lisa Hill­man, Karuk Tribe, CC BY-ND)

From col­o­niza­tion to fire suppression

News media cov­er­age of wild­fires com­mon­ly frames them as nat­ur­al dis­as­ters” — dan­ger­ous ele­ments of the nat­ur­al world over which humans have lit­tle con­trol. The lan­guage of cli­mate change, fear of fire and the sense that it has become inevitable can be over­whelm­ing, leav­ing peo­ple with the view that lit­tle can be done to man­age these events.

But in fact, peo­ple aren’t help­less. While fires can be dan­ger­ous, they are inevitable and nec­es­sary in many ecosys­tems, and humans have long adapt­ed to them. Across North Amer­i­ca, indige­nous peo­ples have active­ly man­aged for­est ecosys­tems through the use of fire.

Euro-Amer­i­can set­tlers were struck by the rich bio­di­ver­si­ty of California’s forests, wood­lands and prairies, but they didn’t under­stand that indige­nous people’s use of fire was respon­si­ble for them. Instead, they sought to sup­press fires wher­ev­er pos­si­ble. The out­right vio­lence of the mis­sion and gold rush peri­ods toward indige­nous peo­ples, fol­lowed by the U.S. For­est Service’s fire sup­pres­sion poli­cies, so thor­ough­ly dis­rupt­ed his­toric fire regimes that the effects are vis­i­ble in tree ring data.

While many view cli­mate change as the major dri­ver of today’s mega-fires, one 2016 study demon­strates how Euro-Amer­i­can col­o­niza­tion caused the largest shifts in fire behav­iors in Cal­i­for­nia over the past 400 years. In oth­er words, the geno­cide of indige­nous peo­ples direct­ly relates to today’s cat­a­stroph­ic burning.

The inter­play between humans, fire, plants and animals

The Karuk peo­ple have devel­oped com­plex sys­tems of indige­nous knowl­edge over at least the last 10,000 years through direct inter­ac­tion with their envi­ron­ment. Indige­nous sci­ences include tra­di­tion­al eco­log­i­cal knowl­edge of the inter­play among humans, plants, ani­mals and nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­na.

Indige­nous peo­ples have long set low-inten­si­ty fires to man­age eco-cul­tur­al resources and reduce the buildup of fuels — flam­ma­ble trees, grass­es and brush — that cause larg­er, hot­ter and more dan­ger­ous fires, like the ones that have burned across the West in recent years. Before fire sup­pres­sion, forests in the West expe­ri­enced a mix of low- to high-sever­i­ty fires for mil­lenia. Large, high-sever­i­ty fires played an impor­tant eco­log­i­cal role, yet their spread was lim­it­ed by low-sever­i­ty fires set by indige­nous peo­ples, much like the pre­scribed burns” land man­age­ment agen­cies use today.

Karuk use of fire has been cen­tral to the evo­lu­tion of flo­ra and fau­na of the mid-Kla­math region of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Sophis­ti­cat­ed Karuk fire prac­tices include using fre­quent, low-inten­si­ty fires to restore grass­lands for elk and main­tain tanoak and black oak acorns. Fires also main­tain grass­lands that pro­vide qual­i­ty bas­ketry mate­ri­als, and pro­vide smoke that shades the Kla­math Riv­er, cool­ing water tem­per­a­tures and ben­e­fit­ing fish dur­ing the hot late sum­mer months.

As Dr. Frank K. Lake, a Karuk descen­dant and U.S. For­est Ser­vice research ecol­o­gist, explains, the Karuk Tribe, among oth­ers, sees fire as med­i­cine, and as such views tra­di­tion­al burn­ing as a human ser­vice for ecosys­tems.” Places where fire has been exclud­ed, he said, are sick, as are the peo­ple who live there, from a trib­al per­spec­tive. Even­tu­al­ly, those places then get too much fire (i.e., cat­a­stroph­ic wild­fire), like an overdose.”

Fire sup­pres­sion as colo­nial violence

Research in part­ner­ship with the Karuk Tribe demon­strates how fire sup­pres­sion and the out­law­ing of Karuk fire man­age­ment changes forests from food pantries to food deserts. We under­stand this exclu­sion of Karuk man­age­ment prac­tices as a form of colo­nial eco­log­i­cal vio­lence.

With­out fire the land­scape changes dra­mat­i­cal­ly,” Ron Reed, a Karuk dip net fish­er­man, told us. The tra­di­tion­al foods we need for a sus­tain­able lifestyle become unavail­able. The spir­i­tu­al con­nec­tion to the land­scape is altered significantly.”

As fed­er­al for­est researchers Jonathan W. Long and Frank K. Lake have found, col­o­niza­tion and the sup­pres­sion of indige­nous man­age­ment caused incred­i­ble harm to Native peo­ples and cre­at­ed a social-eco­log­i­cal trap, in which the very prac­tices that enhance ecosys­tems become more dif­fi­cult to achieve with­in present legal and polit­i­cal con­straints. The rec­om­men­da­tions pre­sent­ed in the Karuk Cli­mate Adap­ta­tion Plan under­stand that socio-eco­log­i­cal solu­tions are need­ed to address these traps.

Karuk Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources Direc­tor Leaf Hill­man explains his belief that fire sup­pres­sion has failed.

Com­bin­ing indige­nous and west­ern science

The Karuk Cli­mate Adap­ta­tion Plan calls for using indige­nous burn­ing meth­ods as an adap­ta­tion for emer­gency con­di­tions, such as cool­ing off streams that have become lethal­ly hot for fish. It includes an entire chap­ter on using pre­scribed fire to pro­tect crit­i­cal elec­tri­cal infra­struc­ture, as an alter­na­tive to pow­er shutoffs.

The plan cen­ters around revi­tal­iz­ing Karuk man­age­ment and fire sci­ence, includ­ing use of 23 Karuk cul­tur­al indi­ca­tors across sev­en habi­tat man­age­ment zones. Some of these species, such as salmon and black oak, are com­mon­ly ref­er­enced in non­trib­al cli­mate plans. Oth­ers, such Pacif­ic giant sala­man­der, Indi­an pota­toes and mul­ti­ple hon­ey­bee species, have received far less attention.

These species have sto­ries to tell — lessons of how to get back to tra­di­tion­al man­age­ment,” Bill Tripp, Deputy Direc­tor of Eco-Cul­tur­al Revi­tal­iza­tion, Karuk Tribe, and Lead Coor­di­nat­ing Author of the cli­mate plan, told us.

Much of the plan cen­ters on spe­cif­ic strate­gies for return­ing fire to areas that have not burned due to fire sup­pres­sion. It empha­sizes the need for col­lab­o­ra­tion with the com­mu­ni­ty and land man­age­ment agen­cies, increas­ing pub­lic aware­ness, and pol­i­cy advo­ca­cy to get Karuk tra­di­tion­al man­age­ment and fire back onto the land.

Burn­ing as restoration

Fed­er­al, state and local gov­ern­ment agen­cies are increas­ing­ly rec­og­niz­ing indige­nous burn­ing as an ecosys­tem com­po­nent and restora­tion tech­nique. We believe the cri­sis of cli­mate change offers land man­agers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to rem­e­dy inap­pro­pri­ate socio-eco­log­i­cal actions and cre­ate suc­cess­ful col­lab­o­ra­tions to pro­mote col­lec­tive survival.

We agree with Karuk Nat­ur­al Resources Direc­tor Leaf Hillman’s state­ment that We have to reestab­lish a pos­i­tive rela­tion­ship with fire. Fear of fire has got­ten us to the place where we need to be afraid of fire today.”

Edi­tor’s Note: This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Con­ver­sa­tion under a Cre­ative Com­mons license. Read the orig­i­nal arti­cle. Bill Tripp, Deputy Direc­tor of Eco-Cul­tur­al Revi­tal­iza­tion at the Karuk Tribe, and a Karuk trib­al mem­ber, con­tributed to this article.The Conversation

Kari Marie Nor­gaard is a Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy and Envi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon. Sara Worl is a Master’s Degree Can­di­date in Envi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oregon.
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