On May 20, the U.S. Forest Service announced a 90-day “pause” on prescribed fires. The ban, instituted after two prescribed fires escaped across control lines and caused the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, set back critical planned burns an entire year.
The Forest Service would use this time, Chief Randy Moore said in a statement, to evaluate its protocols against “the best available science” and “on-the-ground implementation.” He noted that “lessons learned and any resulting program improvements will be in place prior to resuming prescribed burning.”
Criticized by scientists, the nationwide ban ignores vast differences in weather patterns, topography, and local expertise. It’s also frustrating tribal firefighters who spent months applying for a long list of permits and assembling teams, only to witness their last pre-summer burn window—the weeks following late spring rain—vanish.
National conversations about fire policy often ignore the fact that millennia-old models of “best available science” and “on-the-ground-implementation” are right before our eyes: Long before U.S. bureaucrats embraced prescribed burns as a forest management tool, Indigenous stewards across the West tended woodlands by routinely removing excess vegetation, pruning trees, and setting “good fires.” This practice, known as cultural burning, should be a key part of fighting what scientists predict will be a mega-wildfire season for 2022—and beyond.
State and national firefighting agencies, after all, are stretched to the brink. Prescribed fire is an essential tool to address millions of woodland acres suffering from unnaturally high dense fuel loads waiting to become massive wildfires. The more than 300 tribes and tribal communities that have ancestral homelands in the American West are ready to lend a hand.
Cultural burning, defined broadly as fires set by Indigenous experts in alignment with traditional belief and knowledge systems to revitalize habitats, provides important context for how we ought to conduct prescribed burns today. For three generations, cultural burning—like other parts of Native American history, such as ceremonial practices, languages, territories, and self-determination—was misunderstood, devalued, and penalized. Early settlers to the West commented on park-like conditions in places like Yosemite: the broadly spaced trees, open meadows, and abundant wildlife. No one recognized the role of tribes in creating and maintaining healthy, resilient ecosystems. Instead, cultural and ecological ignorance, combined with an unchecked sense of racial superiority, resulted in the forcible removal of Native stewards in the mid-1800s and the criminalization of cultural burning.
By replacing proactive Indigenous fire experts with managers who embraced clearcutting, monoculture plantations, and Smokey the Bear fire suppression policies, government agencies wiped out millennia of historical burning regimes that kept forestlands healthy, diverse, and fire-resilient. This history, along with heightened temperatures and extended drought due to climate change, set the stage for today’s catastrophic wildfires plaguing the Western United States.
The Dixie Fire that burned through ancestral Maidu territory within Lassen Volcanic National Park and wiped out Greenville, California, the Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, and dozens of wildfires threatening the West—they all are taking place on fire-starved landscapes, sweeping through overgrown, tinder-dry forests.
California in particular suffers from a prescribed fire deficit. Of California’s 33 million acres of forest lands, experts estimate 1 to 3 million acres need to be managed annually using prescribed or cultural burns. At present, only a small fraction of forest lands—around 125,000 acres—are treated each year.
In May, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced support for prescribed burning on 400,000 acres by 2035. Thanks to the recent passage of SB 332 and AB 642—state bills that recognize cultural fire practitioners and cultural burning as being separate from prescribed burning and remove liability risks for tribes that would otherwise face penalties for setting prescribed burns on traditional lands—some of the bureaucratic hurdles tribes face are finally being dismantled.
“As a state we still have a lot to do in order to restore beneficial fire to the landscape. To succeed, and to do so fairly, tribes and tribal members must be part of, and benefit from, this work,” said Angela Avery, Sierra Nevada Conservancy’s executive officer.
While the U.S. Forest Service ban doesn’t directly affect tribes with substantive reservation lands and fire departments like the Yurok or Tule River tribes, which oversee cultural burns on their own tribal lands, it still takes a bite out of this year’s burn plans. If the tribes need contingency resources—assistance on a burn, or if the fire gets away—that could cause trouble. “As the USFS aren’t allowed to do prescribed fire, we would be hard-pressed to get USFS resources,” said Rod Mendes, Yurok fire chief.
Cultural burning is relatively rare in California. At present, only the Karuk, Yurok, North Fork Mono and Tule River tribes, along with Plains Miwok pyrogeographer Don Hankins, routinely enact larger-scale cultural burns with collaborating agencies. This spring, the Mechoopda Tribe set fire within Chico city limits for the first time in more than a century.
“It’s been a lifetime of work to get to where we are today. Just now we have USFS and tribes and communities burning together,” said Bill Tripp, Karuk Tribe director of natural resources and environmental policy.
For a tribal community to initiate a cultural burn, it needs to have culturally trained experts with appropriate certifications, costly firefighting equipment, permission from state and federal agencies, and access to its ancestral lands. Although California has the largest Native American population in the U.S., only a small portion of California Natives live on reservations or rancherias with intact ecosystems that could benefit from cultural burns.
California tribes view landscapes through a different lens than many firefighters from outside the area. “We get a lot of nonlocals and contractors doing the work,” said Ron Reed, a Hupa/Yurok/Karuk fuels technician who works with the Forest Service. Reed created pocket plant identification cards to help outsiders recognize culturally important species and treat them accordingly pre- and post-burns. “Don’t burn the beargrass too hot, or cut the hazel or tan oaks: Those are our relatives, we need those for our animals to survive and for our cultures to survive.”
Traditional ecological knowledge, an intergenerational, place-based understanding of nature, underlies most Native practices regarding fire. Creation stories such as ones involving Coyote and other animals in relationship with fire help guide current tribal burning practices.
The Karuk Tribe in Northern California is focusing its cultural burn plans on bringing fire back to willow trees—in the right way. In their creation stories, Turtle gave fire to Frog, and Frog took fire underwater before spitting it into willow roots along the river. This translates into tribal firefighters performing nighttime burns to keep fire in the grasses, protecting turtles nesting in the willows. Later, in fall, they return to “areas of grass that can take the embers from wildfires, with a nice blackline to do some burning for some good willows, burning them for the weavers,” said Tripp.
Cultural burns help keep watersheds healthy, crucial to combatting climate change-induced droughts. “When you put fire on the land, the water comes back. We have that in our creation stories,” says North Fork Mono tribal chairman and fire expert Ron Goode. “Good fire eliminates the dying and dead plants, whatever doesn’t belong there. Fire is a tool for us to revitalize areas to bring back new life so the greenery is held in the plant and the water doesn’t run off, but is held in the soil.”
Cultural burning by itself, however, is insufficient to appropriately maintain ecosystems and associated wildlife. Consistent hands-on maintenance of fire-prone habitats can help both wildlands and nearby residential communities become more resilient, even to catastrophic fires.
Corine Pearce, a renowned Pomo basket weaver and herbalist, credits her proactive tending of culturally important plants in her tribe’s one-acre garden with helping them to survive the 2019 Mendocino Complex fire, California’s largest at the time. “We could easily have been wiped off the map. The fire ripped through my community and burnt my garden. That was really heartbreaking,” she said.
Following generations of prohibitions against practicing cultural burns, Pearce is relearning important lessons about fire’s impact on basketry plants in her tribal garden, the only one of its kind within 7,000 square miles of traditional Pomo territory. “I got to see what happened with plants that I had tended, and plants that I hadn’t gotten to yet that year,” she said. “Grey willow, redbud, and dogwood trees survived and regrew, even though they had ‘burnt down to the ground.”
Wild grape vines came back healthier and tasting sweeter than they had before. Volunteer oak seedlings appeared. Sedge grass beds—with roots that are excavated and split to make the finely woven baskets that made California tribes famous—were improved by having their roots turned into ash by the fire, and then into sandy soil.
“California was never truly a ‘wild’ land,” said Pearce. “It was always tended, and it always had fire. And, FYI, native plants have lower burn temperatures than invasive plants, like eucalyptus.”
In nearby Lake County—where 60 percent of the landmass burned in four consecutive years of wildfires—Pearce and other traditional basket weavers wild-harvest culturally important plants. There, the Tribal Ecological Restoration Alliance, a nonprofit, was recently formed to offer intergenerational training in cultural burning to local tribal members. The training, part of a 140-hour workforce development program that combines traditional ecological knowledge with restoration ecology, aims to “cultivate land stewardship, livelihood, and leadership skills that weave collaborative relationships between Tribal members and the community at large for the benefit of all lands and beings.”
Graduates will join a new generation of Native Americans, like Reed (the Hupa/Yurok/Karuk fuels technician), returning flames to lands hungry for good fire. “Every time I’m on a prescribed burn with a torch in my hand, I feel good,” said Reed. “This is my calling, this is what I was born to do.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.