Fires Are Sometimes What a Forest Needs the Most

The Karuk Tribe in northern California has been prevented from practicing ceremonial landscape burns for 100 years. Now, ecologists are starting to realize that was a mistake.

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Mar 21 2018, 1:00pm

Forests in Orleans, California. Image: Kaleigh Rogers/Motherboard

Many of the mountain forests in Humboldt County, California haven’t seen a fire in more than 100 years. You might think that’s a good thing—California has been plagued with devastating wildfires in recent years—but as local Native American tribes have long understood, sometimes a fire is exactly what a forest needs. California's Karuk Tribe, which has about 6,000 members today, is fighting to get its ceremonial burning rights restored.

“At this point, national policy is changing,” Bill Tripp, the deputy director of eco-cultural revitalization for the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources, said in a phone interview. “We’ve got cities burning down in wildfires and people are realizing that taking fire out of the system should never have occurred.”

The Karuk Tribe performed ceremonial landscape burns for generations, usually leaving the fires to burn until the next rain. But somewhere along the way, US regulators began to believe that starting fires in the forest was bad under all circumstances, and began banning purposeful burns, including ceremonial practices of Indigenous people.

At the most basic level, regular controlled burning of forests can help prevent dangerous wildfires by clearing out the flammable leaves, shrubs, and sticks that line the forest floor. But research over the past 30 years has revealed multiple ecological benefits to controlled burns. Many plants and animals, including threatened or endangered species, benefit from regular fires in the forest. In Massachusetts, for example, controlled burns help seeds from wild blue lupine germinate. (The plant is an essential food for the declining frosted elfin butterfly population.) In Michigan, the endangered Kirtland’s warbler depends on the heat from fire to cause the cones of jack pines to open, and the flames clear out the forest floor which helps new jack pines grow. Controlled fires can even help stop the spread of already burning wildfires.

During the full moon in August, the Karuk Tribe would perform a ceremony with a large-scale burn that was intended to call the salmon upstream before the fishing season. Modern research has confirmed traditional knowledge that burns helped encourage the growth of berries, which the tribe depended on, and also promoted the health of the banks surrounding the river. This had a literal trickle-down effect on the health of the river, and river species including salmon.

“Salmon are a fire-dependent species,” Leaf Hillman, the director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy for the Karuk Tribe, told me over the phone. “You can’t just focus on restoring the stream habitat. You really have to go much further out than that and manage the upslope environment to prevent massive runoffs into the stream systems.”

Despite the fact that local Indigenous populations were aware of the benefits of controlled burns, in 1911 the United States adopted a federal fire suppression strategy under the Weeks Act. The belief at the time was that fire was only destructive and detrimental. Over the decades since, as controlled burns have become better understood as a conservation tool, tribes like the Karuk have started campaigning to have their rights to traditional burning restored.

The most recent advancement comes in the form of an environmental assessment draft with the US Forest Service for a project that would reintroduce ceremonial burning. With the cooperation of state and federal agencies, the Karuk Tribe has been pursuing an integrated fire management process that would, in part, allow them to resume periodic burns on Offield Mountain—a spiritually significant site that was once home to an annual ceremonial burn.

Frank Lake, a research ecologist with the US Forest Service who is a Karuk descendent and cultural practitioner, told me that education has to go alongside any efforts to fully restore these practices, to ensure other communities are able to integrate this symbiotic relationship with fire.

“There’s been a successful Smokey Bear campaign about the prevention of fires and a focus on the detriment of fire,” Lake told me over the phone. “We have to kind of relearn and help people figure out what good fire is, versus detrimental fire.”

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