California calls on Native American tribes to help prevent wildfires with traditional burns
State, federal and local agencies will partner with tribes to reintroduce the Native American tradition of prescribed cultural burns, which are deliberately lit and low in intensity. The technique is based in part on fire prevention: clearing the land of wildfire fuels such as debris, brush, undergrowth and certain grasses. Such fuel ignites easily, allowing for more intense flames that are harder to fight.
These burning practices will help make “forests more resilient” and reduce the likelihood of future wildfires, the statement said.
Without controlled fires, the California landscape has become cluttered with “forest floor waste”, according to Don Hankins, a cultural fire practitioner who helped shape the language of the new California plan. Litter includes dry vegetation that does not leave room for grasses, wildflowers and other beneficial plants.
“It comes down to conservation,” Hankins told CNN. “The conservation of our environment when we think of declining biodiversity, the resilience of our ecosystem to climate change, and cultural practices and knowledge. All of this is intertwined.”
By reviving the Indigenous practice of cultural fire burning, Hankins said Earth can finally “put things back to the order they have been for thousands of years.”
Newsom’s plan intends to expand “beneficial fire” practices to 400,000 acres per year by 2025 — part of the state’s overall goal of treating 1 million acres per year the same year.
“As climate change continues to exacerbate wildfires, we are bringing federal, state, tribal and local partners together to more effectively address the scale of this crisis,” Newsom said in a statement. “California is doing everything we can to help protect our communities from the devastating effects of wildfires, build for the long term, and protect our precious state for generations to come.”
From prohibition to appreciation
Native American tribes in California have long viewed fire as a means of managing the earth, practitioners told CNN.
“Fire is an important part of our community,” said Redbird Willie, land steward and cultural fire practitioner in Sonoma County. “We don’t just include people, we include plants, animals, fire, water. They are members of our community and we should treat them with respect and honor.”
Cultural burns sometimes include pre and post ceremonies, especially if it is the first time practitioners have introduced fire to an area. The fires are treated “as if they were a living thing,” Willie said.
“We say prayers to him and good words, and we mean well when we light them, and we do the same when we put out fires as well,” he said.
Since the late 1700s, California and other states have discouraged or outright banned Native Americans from participating in many of their cultural practices, including fire burning, according to Hankins.
“Americans and Europeans came to Yosemite Valley to talk about the beauty of the valley,” Hankins said. “When they saw the active fires that the native people were burning, they complained that they had to put out the fires not realizing that this place was created because of those fires. The beauty we see till today is the product of the fire.”
In 1911, the US government banned fires in Native communities through the Weeks Act. Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service pursued a fire suppression policy, focusing on extinguishing fires rather than managing them.
These policies further stripped indigenous communities – who had also been displaced from their lands – of their traditions.
That their practices are now respected, encouraged and appreciated “means everything” to the community, Willie said.
In recent years, a number of states have also directed Native American fire practitioners to use their cultural burning practices to minimize the impact of wildfires. In Arizona, the Fort Apache Agency and the White Mountain Apache Tribe have treated thousands of acres of land.
According to the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network, Native Americans in Oregon and New Mexico also carried out prescribed burns.
“We’ve been talking about these fires for a long time and trying to get people to listen to us, and for decades nobody really did,” Willie said. “Now suddenly everyone is listening, so for us to bring so much attention to such a critical thing is something we couldn’t have dreamed of.”
Knowledge sharing and capacity building
Native American fire practitioners are an integral part of the new California task force with their wealth of knowledge about successful burns. They know when to light a fire and under what conditions. They know what time of year and what time of day is best. They also know what types of fires to light for different types of land – how long to burn and how often.
“It’s not a wildfire where there’s white ash and red dirt,” Hankins said. “Unlike larger fires that release carbon into the atmosphere as a gas, when we create low-intensity combustion, it creates charcoal. That charcoal is that carbon locked in the ground, not the soil. ‘atmosphere.”
“It’s a very low fire that will eventually improve soil health, moisture and infiltration,” he added.
The change will not be immediate, warns Hankins. It will take at least a decade before the normalization of cultural burns leads to visible changes – such as the growth of flowers and bulbous plants, as well as a decrease in wildfires, he says.
Education within the Aboriginal community will also take time.
“In many tribal communities, there is a great need to reconnect to knowledge systems around fires because we haven’t been able to practice it for so long,” he said.
“We need to build capacity around this again. It’s not like flipping a switch and everyone comes back and starts these fires,” Hankins said. “There’s a lot of learning that needs to take place in our communities, and figuring out how we can work with our neighbors, agencies and the public to mainstream it again.”
As part of this knowledge building, tribes across the state are partnering with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to host cultural burning training days for firefighters.
Firefighters will learn directly from tribal leaders about “the tradition of fire and its importance to tribal culture,” Len Nielson, Cal Fire’s chief of staff for prescribed fires and tribal liaison, told CNN in a statement. .
“California Tribes advises Cal Fire on traditional ecological knowledge to increase the use of cultural burning and we are working to incorporate this knowledge into our own practices, including when, where and how prescribed burns are conducted,” Nielson said. “Our relationship with the California tribal community continues to evolve and we look forward to working collaboratively with the tribes to increase and expand the use of cultural cremation.”
For Hankins, encouraging cultural fires is a major part of righting some of the wrongs committed against California’s native communities.
“If you want to rebuild the culture and support the indigenous community, you have to support our fires and what they do for our land,” he said.