Good Fire on the Klamath

Indigenous-led fire training exchanges support Native rights, open dialogue about wildfire management in California.

After a day of learning how to use drip torches, cut fireline, and read mobile weather meters, a group of about 40 prescribed fire trainees gathered to listen to a traditional Yurok story in the gym at the Morek Won Community Center, near the Klamath River in northwest California. Margo Robbins, executive director of the Cultural Fire Management Council, related the complex tale of the theft of fire, an account of a relay among a series of animals carrying a glowing ember across the landscape, one after another, until Frog is at last able to dive into the Klamath with the firebrand and safely stow it in the roots of a willow tree. Thus the trainees learned something of the web of ecological interrelationships in Yurok country and, as Robbins explained at the end of the story, how “fire is always connected with water.”

“Whenever we burn a hillside, we see more water running at the base of the hill,” she says.

Photo of wildfire training
Klamath TREX burn boss Jim Wills monitors a burn and communicates with other members of his team. Photo by Michael Max Hentz.

Native people have been applying good, medicinal fire to their homelands along the Klamath River for thousands upon thousands of years. Recently, amid intensifying climate, wildfire, and social crises, Karuk and Yurok people have been organizing TREX, prescribed fire training exchange events conducted in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and a diverse, international set of participants.

As a non-Native educator collaborating with tribes on reintroducing Indigenous fire in other areas of California, I visited the fall 2019 TREX events to learn more. Specifically, I wondered, Why do Karuk and Yurok people invite all these outsiders to learn about and burn Indigenous homelands?

Part of the answer dates back a couple of centuries to the first steps of European colonization. Mid-Klamath TREX co-organizer Bill Tripp of the Karuk Tribe Natural Resources Department recounts the long history of Karuk interactions with non-Native people.

“My family’s first contact with Europeans was with fur trappers from the Hudson’s Bay Company in the early 1800s,” he told me. “We traded hunting access to our land for apple trees. We’ve always understood that people should pay for the services they receive. The fur trappers didn’t conquer us, they didn’t ‘discover’ us, they didn’t establish a formal treaty.” There was only that initial common understanding, a reciprocal agreement: Apple trees for hunting access.

Karuk people continue to operate under the assumption that as more people may come to live in Karuk homelands, they ought to engage in reciprocal support with tribes and uphold Indigenous people’s rights to do the things they have always done there, including the right to sustain an appropriate relationship with fire.

The TREX exchanges allow the tribes to educate non-Indigenous neighbors about Indigenous practices, like those that Tripp first experienced when he was four years old and his great-grandmother taught him how to burn hazel bushes to encourage good growth for basket materials. Thus his earliest memories include how to make fire do some good. “I didn’t know it could be illegal to burn,” he reflects.

TREX also opens dialogue with government agencies that have taken control of fire management on federal and state lands, which typically focuses on fire suppression and thinning or logging operations. The US Government has been more focused on the potential damage that fire can do rather than the benefits it can bring, but as Tripp says, “They have not been able to cover their bases” in terms of wildfire management. Wildfires are more destructive than ever.

Government fire suppression policy has led to the current situation, he adds, in which “entire mountainsides are thick with young fir trees, all younger than 115 years.” These stands are more vulnerable to wildfire. On the other hand, remnant stands of sugar pine trees, which require a more open, thinner forest structure, are key indicators of hundreds of years of fire management by Karuk people.

Those centuries of Karuk fire management have been guided by generations of knowledgeable experts, informed by elder mentors and extended to new generations through careful first-hand observation and experience, as well as by traditional stories, songs, dances, and ceremonies. (Just as Karuk, Yurok, and other tribal ceremonies can control when and where salmon can be fished up and down the Klamath River watershed, dances and ceremonies can determine how to time and rotate burns up, down, and back and forth across the river.)

Steeped in tradition and deep, site-specific ecological knowledge, Karuk people began to collaborate with outside groups on fire and forest policy during the conflicts of the Timber Wars of the 1980s and 90s, when the Tribe forged alliances with direct-action environmental groups to protect sacred and ceremonial sites from loggers.

“We invested early-on in non-tribal voices to carry Indigenous messages,” says Tripp. Non-Native voices remain prominent in operations like TREX. For example, the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council acts as a co-lead and obtains the burn permits needed during the training.

These non-tribal collaborations may perpetuate a form of colonialism, but as Tripp says, “Our creation stories tell me it’s my responsibility to care for the land, and it’s my responsibility to do what I need to do to get that work done.”

At the same time, agencies like the US Forest Service have become more receptive to tribal fire management, but “in a way it’s because we’ve adopted their approach — we’ve learned how to negotiate the current regulatory environment. It’s not exactly where we want to be, but it’s hard for them to argue against their own approach. As people can begin to understand linkages, we can establish a set of principles for moving forward.”

Those mutual understandings emerge from lots of land-based conversations and common projects like prescribed burns — and now, TREX exchanges — that allow people to use their senses and talk with one another to monitor the progress and the effects of burns.

“I just want people to feel like they can do this and like they don’t need to be afraid to put a little fire on the ground,” Tripp says of the training. “I want to see the inspiration in the eyes of others.”

Another objective is to build tribal capacity to manage wildfire, and specifically, to train and assemble a bigger team to help move fire around during a wildfire incident. “The whole point of the TREX is to help change the fire paradigm, to put fire back in the hands of Indigenous people.”

photo of fire exchange
Elizabeth Azzuz and Margo Robbins of the Cultural Fire Management Council present on the cultural benefits of fire at a Klamath TREX session in Orleans, CA. Photo by Stormy Staats, Klamath-Salmon Media Collaborative.

Downriver from Karuk country, the Yurok-led Cultural Fire Management Council (CFMC) has been holding TREX events since 2014. Like Tripp, CFMC’s Elizabeth Azzuz has been burning since she was four years old, when she began to learn from her grandfather how to use fire respectfully.

With the exchanges, Azzuz has learned how to coordinate logistics and communication for the training events — including the lingo of the firefighters’ standardized Incident Command System, a hierarchical management system used to guide both agency wildfire response and prescribed burn operations — yet she refuses to earn her own officially recognized firefighting certifications.

“We train fire-lighters,” she says, “not fire-fighters.”

“I’ve worked with fire all my life, but I grew up here with the Yurok Tribe under US governmental control, and now I’m just not interested in the governmental piece of firefighters’ qualifications,” she adds. Still, she says young people need to get their qualifications so they can travel and broaden their world. She wants to increase community employment and capacity to help, in her words, the many “lost souls” among Yurok youth.

She also hopes visitors will take with them a better understanding of cultural fire practices, and will bring that understanding back to their own communities to inform efforts to heal and restore the land.

“We want people to understand that fire has a cultural purpose,” she says. “Our culture is really fire-dependent. We want them to understand that we’re meant to be part of the ecosystem and part of our responsibility is to use fire to take care of the land. It’s our most effective tool.”

In Yurok country, part of that healing comes through the provision and sharing of food through fire. When Yurok people employ cultural fire, says CFMC’s Margo Robbins, “The deer come back, all our food plants, our medicines.”

That connection between fire and food is so strong that CFMC leaders take part directly in community food distribution activities, making sure food reaches elders and others throughout the community. Azzuz says that young people sometimes ask her, “Why do I have to take food to elders?” Her reply is, “To heal the planet!” After all, healthy elders provide many services to the community and the land, including direction as to how to burn the land.

In addition to their twice-yearly TREX events, CFMC helps Yurok families to conduct smaller-scale burns to increase food plants and improve the plant materials for baskets.

As Robbins says, “We’re piecing together remembrances of people as to how to burn. A part of the traditional knowledge is to know when to burn.” Yurok elders lead these more intimate, home-based family burns that don’t require burn permits, nor do they need elaborate equipment to light and contain the flames. Family members and friends of all ages participate. “It’s such an amazing feeling when you use our traditional wormwood torches to put fire on the land because you can smell the medicine, it smells so good,” says Robbins, “and you know you’re putting medicine on the land, that the fire you’re putting there is healing the land. It’s awesome.”

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