Cultural burning = #GoodFire.

A primer on why we need more good fire.

This week, another piece on the importance of indigenous fire knowledge and techniques went live online. I’m thrilled, because after working on this article for weeks, it appeared in Slate, a news magazine that usually carries more popular culture pieces. Even more exciting: the preponderance of news articles on cultural burning has risen exponentially this year: with reports appearing in The Guardian, CNN, Nature, WBUR, and in university news for Stanford and the University of California.

(Educators take note: the seven articles cited above would make an awesome curriculum module on cultural burning.)

It feels like the tide is finally turning – albeit belatedly, after hundreds of millions of forest lands – and all the lives that depend on those forests – have been devastated by catastrophic wildfires.

The Dixie Fire that wiped out Greenville, the Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, and dozens of wildfires threatening the Western part of the country, are taking place on fire-starved landscapes, sweeping through overgrown, tinder-dry forests.

One year after California’s largest single fire burned through ancestral Maidu territory within Lassen Volcanic National Park, many of the park’s attractions remain off-limits. Deep pine forests encircling mountainsides and sparkling lakes are marred by swaths of leafless, blackened trunks against dun-colored soil. “It took me months to come back home after the Dixie Fire,” confessed a barista in the nearby town of Chester. “It was just too much to take in.”

Park maps doled out to visitors list popular campgrounds as “closed for the season.” For families who didn’t manage to snatch up one of the limited reservations, camping options beyond the park’s boundaries are few and far between. Nearly all the first-come-first-serve U.S. Forest Service campgrounds in the surrounding Lassen National Forest are also closed, metal gates barring their entrances.

Many USFS Campgrounds in the Lassen National Forest remain closed for the summer following the catastrophic Dixie Fire. PHOTO CREDIT: Jeanine Pfeiffer

Few visitors realize that the roots of the catastrophic fires impacting their enjoyment of Lassen Volcanic National Park trace back to our great-grandparents’ time. Most national parks were founded by evicting Native tribes and, under the auspices of skewed conservation policies, prohibiting them from hunting, fishing, gathering, or wild-tending culturally significant habitats.

Native Americans were the continent’s original custodians, adhering to deeply held beliefs that regard ecosystems and the lives they contain as “all our relations.” Before the Gold Rush, the timber and railroad barons, and countless broken treaties, Indigenous stewards tended woodlands by routinely removing excess vegetation, pruning trees, and setting “good fires.”

Fires ignited during specific seasons, and carefully managed by expert indigenous stewards, promotes new plant growth to attract deer, elk, and rabbits for hunting, smokes out insect pests on oaks and pines to protect staple foods like acorns and pine nuts, and encourages strong, straight shoots on grasses and shrubs used to weave baskets.

Every traditional California basketweaver I know needs good fire to maintain the habitats where they harvest basketry materials.

Yet because of the dispossession of ancestral territories, including gathering, hunting, and fishing grounds and waters, and the criminalization of cultural burning, most basketweavers I know have to contend with landscapes that should have regular maintenance fires set on them, but don’t. Instead, these basketweavers must deal with forced evacuations during mega-wildfires, or in the case of one expert basketweaver quoted and pictured in my article, witnessing their tribal garden burn down.

For a tribal community to initiate a cultural burn, it needs to have culturally trained experts with appropriate certifications, costly firefighting equipment, permission from state and federal agencies, and access to its ancestral lands. Although California has the largest Native American population in the U.S., only a small portion of California Natives live on reservations or rancherias with intact ecosystems that could benefit from cultural burns.

The ugly fact is this: culturally and ecologically ignorant, racist, and genocidal removal of First Peoples from ancestral lands they stewarded for millennia is one of the primary, underlying reasons for the disastrous wildfires we suffer from today.

Frontispiece of Capital Public Radio article from September 16, 2022

Char Miller, director of environmental analysis at Pomona College, said that altered the state in ways its residents are feeling in the 21st century.

“Once the state of California enacted what we can call a genocidal attack upon native people … what started to happen was the lands that they stewarded started to do what nature does, which is to grow,” Miller said. 

While climate change and a history of fire suppression are among the top reasons why experts say wildfires have grown so big so fast, Miller and others say removing Indigenous people from the landscape is an overlooked reason behind today’s explosion of fires. 

“There’s this whole other story that’s … meteorological that has nothing to do with race, and yet it collides with this kind of professional racism that led to the suppression of fire,” Miller said. 

Removing millenia of knowledge from the land has resulted in the wildfires we see today, Miller said. And with the west engulfed in flames, Miller says it’s forcing the agencies that govern land to rethink suppressing wildfires.

– Excerpted from the 09/16/2020 CPR Article by ezra david romero

That’s the bad news. The good news is this: we can all support cultural burning.

How, you might ask? If you are not yet familiar with your local tribes and tribal communities, get to know them, in a good way. (If you need tips on how to do so, reach out! I just helped a Baltimore-based friend in navigating that question.)

If you do know who they are, then familiarize yourself with the boundaries of their ancestral territories, and what tiny percent remains under tribal management. Get to know the elders, the natural resource and environmental and cultural staff members, and the basketweavers in the tribe. If the tribe has a firefighting crew, ask them what their favorite snack is, and bring over a box or two.

Then ask how you can help support cultural burning in their ancestral territories. It may be that tribal youth need financial help in getting fire certifications. Or the tribe may need support in reaching out to local landowners in order to stage collaborative prescribed burns in the area, followed with permission to tend and gather culturally significant species.

Maybe you need to show up at a town or city council meeting, or a board of supervisors meeting, and ask how cultural burning can be incorporated into current wildfire prevention and mitigation efforts.

At the very least, share this article. Read and share the other articles. Educate yourself, and educate those around you.

We don’t have the luxury of waiting around for the next mega-wildfire. Prevention starts now.

Prescribed fire in Yurok territory. PHOTO CREDIT: Rod Mendes

3 thoughts on “Cultural burning = #GoodFire.

    1. Beth, there can be no greater an AP environmental science teacher than you — so if this piece finds its way into your classroom discussions during the chapters on climate change, forest ecology, resource management, or cultural geography, I would be thrilled!

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