Friendly Fire: The Science & History of Indigenous Burning

Friendly Fire: The Science & History of Indigenous Burning

What if fire wasn’t something to be afraid of? What if fire was a life force, a tool we could work in partnership with to sustainably steward our land and protect ourselves from harm? 

This is wisdom that the Yurok, Karuk, and Hoopa tribes of Northern California have known for a long time.

In recent years, California has been noticeably hard-hit by wildfires. These fires have raged too large for firefighters to put out, exacerbated by forest overgrowth. Plus, California continues to experience longer wildfire seasons as a direct result of climate change. 

Enter the concept of cultural burning: purposeful and intentional cultivated fire, intended to rejuvenate the land, and clear out flammable brush that starts and feeds uncontrolled wildfires. 

These fires, traditionally planned and executed by native tribes, remove overgrown or dying vegetation. They release the seeds inside pine cones, and make space for new trees to grow. It is thought that these controlled fires have been performed by Native Americans for thousands of years, shaping the Californian landscape, and preventing mass destruction by fire. 

PBS reports;

“Government agencies have realized their dire mistake in trying to exclude fire from the forest and unfortunately it’s taken these raging wildfires that happen year after year to realize the terrible mistake,” said Margo Robbins, a member of the Yurok tribe who heads the Cultural Fire Management Council, a collective of tribes in Northern California that lead prescribed burns on their lands. “They’re looking for answers and seeking out Native people as to what should be done and how to go about it.”

So, why haven’t we been practicing controlled burns all along? It’s a tale most Americans should be familiar with: western settlers came to California, and brought their ideas with them, excluding and erasing other ideologies. In this case, they brought a fear of fire. 

In the early 1900s, U.S. government officials set in motion a firefighting framework that would last until the present day. Our belief systems about fires changed. The idea was to put out any fire immediately, at all costs, to prevent its spread. Suppressing fire was thought to protect local communities and watersheds, as well as the commercial timber industry. 

Yet, fire suppression only made California’s wildfire risk worse. Not only were Native Americans removed from the land they managed, but they also faced persecution for performing burns thanks to regulations. Over the years, forests in California became overgrown. 

Just this summer, a partnership between scientists and indigenous tribes helped reconstruct a historical map of a Californian forest. Through oral accounts of the old habitat, they found that the current forest is extremely overgrown and fire-prone. Fire ecologists believe that hampered indigenous burning during colonization has something to do with the overgrowth, causing more intense wildfire seasons each year.

When Spanish settlers first came to the Yosemite region, they made a comment about how the forests appeared as “well-tended gardens.” It was because of the indigenous land management practice of intentional burning!  

Partnerships between land management agencies and these tribes in more recent years have slowly brought the tradition of cultural burning back into practice. Thanks to the reintroduction, some tribes have had access to weavable hazel again for the first time in years. 

These partnerships spark hope for tribal members eager to restore a stolen land management practice that, for some, is incredibly sacred. It also inspires us to heed the land stewardship advice of Native peoples, which can hopefully prevent destructive wildfires in California’s future. 

Incorporating controlled burning into U.S. land management policy will take time. We’ll have to completely transform the framework used to relate ourselves to land and fire. 

Sound familiar? In the United States, we’ve spent generations separating ourselves from the natural world, disconnecting from the Earth, and marginalizing the indigenous groups that had already lived in conjunction with the land for millennia. Western paradigms about our relationship with land have destroyed ecosystem balance in more than one instance.

The historical oppression of native peoples has led to the erasure of their knowledge and more severe wildfires. It’s also hurt their traditional practices. Purposefully burning certain areas has an effect on how certain plants grow, and by changing what plants grow, it changed parts of the indigenous ways of life. 

The most prominent example of this is in the growth of hazel, a plant used to weave traditional baskets for newborn babies. Hazel can only be woven into baskets when harvested from long, straight stems. The stems only grow this way after the land has been burned. Otherwise, the plant grows in a shrubby, tangled bush. 

The Nature Conservancy reports;

“Without being able to freely engage in our cultural burning practices, we lose our culture,” says Bill Tripp, director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy for the Karuk Tribe. “We can’t teach someone how to make a basket if we don’t have the materials that are pliable enough to make them. And we can’t access our food resources. We lose our salmon, we lose our acorns, we lose all those things, and we don’t have a culture. We just slowly disappear.” 

We can only work to try and learn from these tribes what they have already known from their ways of life. A great place to start is allowing the Yurok, Karuk, and Hoopa tribes of Northern California lead the efforts to bring controlled burning back into practice. If you’re feeling inspired, you might even share about the practice of controlled burning, too! 

To learn more about the practice of indigenous and cultural burning, check out these stories below: 

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