Why a trio of articles on tribes + fire = essential reading

A devastating ecological feedback loop. GRAPHIC CREDIT: Jeanine Pfeiffer

Wildfires are a permanent part of the landscape.

Climate change – and a host of “positive” ecological feedback loops (a positive loop is one that is self-reinforcing; a negative loop indicates reactions that move in the opposite direction) – mean that things will only get worse, not better, unless we enact radical changes.

We have always had fire. During our great-great-grandparents’ era, the fires were largely set, and managed, by experts. Indigenous experts throughout the world, on every continent – the Americas, Africa, Eurasia, Australia – used fire to renew the soil, improve gathering and hunting grounds, and reduce pest and fuel loads.

Aboriginal elders taught youngers. Bushmen taught other bushmen. First Nations managed vast territories of woodlands and wetlands using fire.

Then our EuroAmerican great-grandparents – our ignorant, domineering great-grandaddies – threw every system they touched out of whack.

Their persistent failures: their collective inability to be open-minded or humble or to adopt sustainable resource management techniques or even practice basic human decency towards peoples who didn’t look or speak like they did, wrecked entire cultures and cultural landscapes everywhere they went.

Aftermath of the Windy Fire on the Tule River Reservation. PHOTO CREDIT: Jeanine Pfeiffer

We are still paying a very high price for that history.

Our best change for turning things around involves the very people who paid the highest price: the First Peoples whose lives were lost, livelihoods and lands and waters and communities were decimated. Their descendants posses a profoundly essential knowledge base of how, when, and where to set good fires – one that was seriously eroded yet still persists.

Most of us have no clue of what good fire means, or how to bring it back.

Unless and until we make a special effort, our ignorance will persist. Everything I know about traditional ecological knowledge I had to teach myself, because at no point in my undergraduate studies (at Boston University) or during my graduate education in ecology (at the University of California) was I required to take a single course on Native history or culture.

Thirty-four years after receiving my first degree, I am beginning to understand what I wish I had grown up knowing. This year I published a trio of articles on tribes and wildfire, and I have a forthcoming piece on indigenous science coming out this Fall.

I write and share these articles in the hopes that more of us will educate ourselves and demand policy changes.

Every voice matters. It doesn’t matter where you are starting from – only that you start.

These articles – and the hyperlinks contained within – provide a thorough introduction. Together with my editors, I worked on each one for 4-10 months so that readers could absorb a tremendous amount of information in only a few minutes.

Pfeiffer, J. 2022. “Wildfire Management and Recovery on Tribal Complicated by Policy Inequities.” KCET News/PBS SoCal, August 18, 2022.

Pfeiffer, J. 2022. “Forests in the American West Need More ‘Good Fire.’ Tribes Can Help.” Slate – Future Tense, July 27, 2022.

Pfeiffer, J. 2021. “California Tribe Support Each Other and Seek More Inclusion in Wildfire Response,” KCET News/PBS SoCal, October 21, 2021.

Tule River Tribe staff, consultants, and colleagues. PHOTO CREDIT: Jeanine Pfeiffer


  1. Share the article links widely.
  2. If you belong to an environmental organization, or a birding or fishing or hunting group, discuss the articles with other members, and ask your organizational leadership to invite speakers from local tribes and tribal communities for future meetings.
  3. If your local fire department or firesafe council or state park or national park staff have not developed collaborative relationships with resident tribes and tribal communities, now is the time. You can help by courteously, persistently, assisting with building bridges between agencies and Native peoples. (Yes, given that we’re operating about 120 years behind, the process may take years. The sooner we begin, the sooner we get to where we need to be.)

Climate change is outpacing our capacity to successfully address catastrophic wildfires and protect the most vulnerable among us. Our elders are dying while trying to escape fires that move faster than they can get their garage doors or electric gates to open. Over half of the 86 Paradise residents who died when their town was wiped off the map were seniors or disabled people or folks without cars.

We must work together: the severity of the problem requires all hands on deck.

We got ourselves into this mess: we are the only people who can get ourselves out of it.

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