Tribes consider 'good fire' to be a key to restoring the natural world and human beings.

Elizabeth Azzuz prayed on a mountainside in Northern California, her arms outstretched.

Tribes consider 'good fire' to be a key to restoring the natural world and human beings.

Elizabeth Azzuz prayed on a mountainside in Northern California, her arms outstretched.

29 October 2021 Friday 15:21
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Tribes consider 'good fire' to be a key to restoring the natural world and human beings.

 She was holding a torch made of dried wormwood branches that she had used to fuel thick forests for years.

She said, "Guide us as we bring fire back into the land," before she crouching to ignite dead leaves and needles that were covering the ground.

She was joined by others. Soon dancing flames and pungent smell rose quickly from the slope high above Klamath River.

In early October, 80 acres (32.4 ha) of the Yurok reservation were set on fire. Crews were wearing protective helmets, clothing and had water trucks and firefighting gear ready to monitor the burning. They were part of an ancient program teaching Yurok and other tribes how to treat land with fire.

This act could have landed you in jail 100 years ago. As the wildfire crisis worsens, federal and state agencies that had long prohibited "cultural burns" in America West are now coming to terms with them and even collaborating.

California's wildfires have ravaged nearly 6,000 miles (15,540 kilometers) over the past two-years. This is despite prolonged drought and rising temperatures due to climate change. Numerous people have died, and thousands of homes were destroyed.

Research confirms what tribal leaders believed all along: Under the right conditions, low-intensity fires on designated parcels reduce the risk of consuming dead wood or other fire fuels on forest floors.

The Yurok, Karuk, and Hupa of the mid-Klamath area believe that the revival of cultural burning is about the reclamation of a way to live that was violently suppressed by the arrival of white settlers around 1800.

Many indigenous people were forced to live on reservations or had their land taken. Schools were set up that prohibited children from speaking their language or following their customs. Their hunter-gatherer lifestyle was destroyed by bans on fire, which tribes used for thousands of year to treat the landscape.

It provided berries, medicinal herbs, and tan oak nuts that killed bugs. It allowed deer and elk to have more space to browse. It allowed more rainwater to reach streams, which helped increase salmon numbers. It encouraged the growth of hazelnut stems, bear grass, and intricate baskets, as well as ceremonial regalia.

Azzuz, the Cultural Fire Management Council's board secretary, stated that fire is a tool of the Creator for restoring our environment and our health.

"Fire is our life."


Margo Robbins had a facial tattoo nine years ago. It consisted of two dark lines running from her mouth to under her chin and one midway. This was once a common mark among Yurok women, including her great grandmother.

Robbins, 59 said, "I got mine because I committed to continuing the traditions our ancestors' traditions." His witty jokes and sarcastic laugh mask a strong resolve.

She would be a prominent voice in the fight to restore fire to her people’s historic territory. This was much under federal and state management. The reservation of more than 5,000 members runs along a 44-mile (70.8 km) stretch of Klamath.

Federal policy has considered fire an enemy since 1910, when infernos ate more than 3,000,000 (1.2 million ha) of western acres. Smokey Bear declared in commercials that "only you can stop forest fires."

Merv George (48), a former chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, who oversees Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest in Northern California, said that they were arsonists because they considered tribal people to be tribal people. I heard of people being thrown in jail for being caught.

In 2008, George joined the U.S. Forest Service to become a tribal relations manager. Western wildfires were becoming more common and larger. Officials knew that something had to be done.

Klamath and Six Rivers national forests joined forces with the Karuk tribe to create a partnership for landscape restoration. It published a 2014 plan recommending "prescribed" or intentional burns.

One year prior, Cal Fire, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had approved a small cultural fire on Yurok land.

Robbins won. She learned basketry as a young girl from Yurok, Hupa, and Irish ancestry. Tribes use baskets to gather food and medicinal plants, trap eels, perform ceremonial dancing, hold babies, and even pray.

"Weaving is very, very soothing. She said that weaving is like medicine for the soul. She displayed finely made baskets in a Yurok firehouse close to Weitchpec.

However, weaving materials were becoming scarcer, especially hazel wood. In the past, burns helped shoots grow straighter and stronger. Hazel was stunted under no-fire management by shrubs, downed tree, and matted leaves.

Robbins had grandchildren and wanted to make sure they were carried in traditional baby baskets. To produce high-quality hazel again, she needed tribal forests. This meant fire.

Robbins and others from the community created the Cultural Fire Management Council after the Yurok small fire was approved by the state.

The Nature Conservancy and Karuk and Hupa activists teamed up to create the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network. This network conducts training fires and has attracted hundreds of participants from all over the U.S. It now has branches in Oregon, Minnesota, and New Mexico.

Robbins stated, "It's really thrilling and gives me hope that the tides are changing." "We have revived our language and our dances. Now, by bringing back fire, the land will be restored."


Yurok leaders prepared for the Klamath Region's one this month by studying weather forecasts and scouting mountainous burning areas. They also positioned water tanks, uncoiled firehoses, and equipped more than 30 crew members.

After Azzuz had finished her ceremonial prayer, the wormwood which ignited the first flames was replaced by modern "drip torch" canisters of gasoline or diesel with spouts. The team moved quickly on a dirt track, flicking drops of fuel.

Smoke billowed. The flames roared and hissed. The ash was reduced to ashes by the tangling of brown and green leaves. Another target was young Douglas firs, which squeezed out other species.

However, larger trees such as oaks, madrones and conifers were mostly unaffected, with the exception of some patches of scorched bark.

Azzuz exclaimed, "It's beautiful & black." "There will be many hazel shoots by next spring."

Hour after hour, torch bearers moved along the slope to ignite swathes of forest floor. Radio contact co-workers watched the firebreaks and were ready to douse or blow down any stray flames.

They included young and old, native and not-native, veterans and novices -- some from local tribes, and others from faraway.

Jose Luis Dulce is a Spanish firefighter who also served in Ecuador and Spain. He said that he wants to revive Indigenous techniques in Europe, South America and South America. Stoney Timmons stated that his tribe, the Robinson Rancheria Pomo Indians in California, would like to hold its own training session next spring.

Timmons stated, "I'm learning some good lessons to return."

Robert McConnell Jr. found the exercise particularly satisfying after spending years working with Forest Service wildfire crews. He used to fly helicopters and drive bulldozers. He is now a Six Rivers National Forest prescribed fire specialist, and works with fire rather than against it.

He said, "I feel like an Indian again when it comes to burning." It's in my DNA. It's almost like I can see the spark in my eye as fire is put to ground.

As the shadows grew longer, cheery yips gave place to shrieks: Log! Log! A chunk of flaming wood swung down a steeply-angled slope and smacked onto the two-lane road. It then crashed into a thicket below, setting off brush fires.

Crew members quickly put out the flames but the log that ranaway was a reminder about the dangers of the job.

Nick Hillman, 18, was not bothered by his grimy sweaty face. He said, "I know that my ancestors want this."

Dawn Blake, Yurok's forestry director, helped to lighten the hillside. She felt a strong connection with her grandmother, who used to weave baskets and create fires in the area.

Blake, 49, said that "we've been talking about this for so many years, just spinning our wheels." "It feels as if we are finally being heard."


Tribes are looking for more than just training and family burns on small plots. They want to be able to work across the vast territories that their ancestors occupied.

Blaine McKinnon (battalion chief of Yurok Fire Department) said, "My ultimate goal to restore all these land back to their natural state." He was also a leader in the recent cultural fire.

Although relations with state and federal authorities have improved, there are still complaints about permits denied, delays in burning, and poor oversight.

Cultural leaders who are involved in cultural fire fighting say that promises of cooperation from higher-ups at agencies aren't always kept by local officials. They fear being dismissed if the fires escalate.

Craig Tolmie, Cal Fire's chief deputy director, agreed that it's an important point. Cal Fire struggles to find the right balance between the fire-loving tribes and the public's fear of burning.

Tolmie stated that "people have been traumatized by the fire seasons."

He said that tribal burners and regulators will be working more closely under state laws this year. His department must appoint a cultural-burning liaison to provide training and certification for "burn bosses" in prescribed fire.

Another increases the likelihood of getting liability insurance. It requires burn professionals to pay for extinguishing uncontrolled fires. This is a rare but serious risk. The budget also includes $40 million for tribal burn programs and a prescribed-fire insurance fund.

Tolmie stated that prescribed fires can't eliminate more than 100 years of accumulation of woody debris. He suggested that some areas be "pre-treated" by mechanical grinding and tree trimming before setting fires.

According to Chad Hanson (forest ecologist at the John Muir Project, Earth Island Institute in California), scientific research and ancient wisdom prove otherwise. He said that regulators are "trying" to exort tribes by making cultural burns dependent on logging.

Bill Tripp, Karuk tribe's director of natural resources, stated that the solution was to empower tribes to manage prescribed burns, while Cal Fire and Forest Service concentrate on suppressing wildfires.

Tripp said that the mid-Klamath region is perfect for a teaching centre where cultural burners can "guide us into an new era of life with fire." He learned from his great grandmother and started setting small fires in his village at age 8.

Scott Stephens, an environmental policy professor at University of California, Berkeley, stated that tribes have the unique ability to teach younger generations about fire management stewardship.

He said, "We would need literally thousands of people doing the burning to get it up to a level that's meaningful."

Talon Davis (27), a member the Yurok crew, was happy to have the chance "to show the whole world what good fire looks like." His own toddler has been carried in Robbins' baskets, as she wanted.

He said, "This is how Mother Earth should be cared for." "Put the fire on the ground and bring our home back to balance."



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