California’s bushfires rival Australia’s. They’re turning to Indigenous knowledge, too

Yurok Fire Department Firefighter Andy Lamebear participates in a cultural burn on the Yurok Reservation in Northern California. Source: Yurok Tribe

Six of the top 20 largest California wildfires occurred in 2020, according to CalFire’s list. Authorities are now turning to Indigenous groups in recognition that thousands of years of knowledge may, in fact, be useful.

In the face of increasingly catastrophic fires in the US, fire authorities are taking cultural burning more seriously, a practice once outlawed.

In California, the Yurok Tribe is gaining recognition for its land management practices, particularly after devastating seasons in the past five years.

Across California this year alone, wildfires burned a record 1.6 million hectares, damaging or destroying 10,500 structures and killing 31 people. 

In August, a series of lightning strikes started hundreds of fires across Northern California, including California’s largest fire in history. 

During this season, which has barely ended, a state of emergency was declared for the state and thousands were evacuated, all during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Australian firefighters flew to the state, returning the favour of Americans who helped during our own catastrophic season.

The Yurok Tribe is the largest Native American group in California, with 5,000 members, located in the north of the state.  The Yurok reservation is around 40,000 hectares, tribal reservations are federal lands held in trust for a Native American tribe. 

“The tribe owns, manages, and has sovereign authority over the land,”  explains Tim Hayden, the director of the Yurok Tribe’s Natural Resources Division.

It is a fishing tribe and its culture is based around the river, with its governance centred around fishing rights.

“In some years when the fishing is good, we have a commercial fishery.”

As well as fishing, it has its own forestry program and for the past five years, the group has been on the front foot of land management, starting its own fire department, spearheaded by Tim Hayden.

 

The department grew quickly, now they have a fire chief, and formalised infrastructure like fire trucks. The department works with the community on cultural burnings, a practice that isn’t just aimed at managing wildfire, but serves to sustain cultural traditions, like hunting and basket weaving. Without fire, these practices have been dying.

The Yurok Tribe cultural burning.
The Yurok Tribe has its own fire department.
Yurok Tribe

For more than 13,000 years before colonisation, the Yurok and other tribes regularly practiced cultural burning -- small prescribed burns during strategic times of the year. This practice of intentional burning renewed food, medicine, basket and other cultural materials, as well as reduced the risk of larger fires.

“Fire was one of the main management tools that was effective over a wide area,” he said.

“Historically, over centuries, tribal members would burn the land to keep them open for hunting as-well-as for other cultural reasons."

For more than 100 years, fire has been the enemy of the state, and with colonisation came a ban of cultural burning. In 1850, the US government passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which outlawed intentional burning in California even before it was a state. 

The US Forest Service, the main firefighting and land management agency in the country, adopted policies that banned intentional burning in the state, only to admit this was a mistake a century later.

“The land was managed for timber production and fire was seen as a threat and burning was more-or-less outlawed, concluding that uncontrolled fire would impact timber production,” explains Tim.

“So over the last 100 years we haven’t been able to burn and, with climate change, there has been an increase of fuel build-up and our fire threat has increased.

“The recognition that the fire season is expanding and the scale of the wildfires and destruction was an eye-opener for agencies, and a recognition that a new approach is needed.”

A 2009 study in the International Journal of Wildland Fire found, “Effective fire suppression and land-use practices over the last century have altered forest structure and increased fuel loads in many forests in the United States, increasing the occurrence of catastrophic wildland fires.”

Another 2013 study concluded that euro–American settlement and 20th-century fire suppression practices drastically altered historic fire regimes, leading to excessive fuel accumulation and uncharacteristically severe wildfires in some areas and diminished flammability resulting from shifts to more fire-sensitive forest species in others. 

But it wasn’t just land management. Without fire, the materials to make Yurok baskets became sparse, and the cultural practice began to die out.

“Now there is more recognition that cultural burning can reduce the wildfire risk," he said.

“In the last five years, there has been a recognition that climate change is changing the fire conditions on the east coast.”

Yurok Tribe cultural burning
Agencies are slowly embracing traditional fire management practices.
Yurok Tribe

The US Forest Service has now embraced prescribed burning, and is slowly working with Native American tribes on fire management. Tim Hayden explains this is still a grassroots effort and formal partnerships are still building.

“We are building our capacity then working in partnership with state and federal agencies," he said.

“There is momentum for our state fire agencies and our federal agencies that tribes can use fire as a management tool.”

Climate change has increased the frequency and severity of fires, with Tim explaining that he has noticed the land change.

“We’ve observed a lot of change, within my lifetime, and in the last ten years. We are seeing the effects in the river, like water temperatures, and a shift in weather patterns.”

The Yurok Tribe is surrounded by federal lands, like National Parks, which is within their ancestral property, but isn’t under their management.

Tim explains that their ultimate goal is to manage these lands, too, using cultural burns.

“We would like to see the tribe assume jurisdiction of fire management on all of the lands. Then go as far to share management on these federal lands,” he said.

“It’s an ongoing progress and we hope to make more progress in the future.”