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Using Fire for Good on Tribal Land

Henry McCann September 1, 2020
photo - Yurok controlled fire

Indigenous peoples have been using fire to maintain the land for millennia. Such practices have cultural and ecological benefits, and help keep reservations and surrounding communities safer from wildfire. We talked to Margo Robbins, a member of the Yurok tribe and executive director of the Cultural Fire Management Council, about the use of fire in their community.

PPIC: Talk about the importance of fire in tribal culture.

Photo of Margo RobbinsMARGO ROBBINS: For thousands of years we used fire on a regular basis to maintain a healthy, productive, and balanced ecosystem. Before humans lived here there were spirit beings that went into the sky and stole fire. They passed it from one animal to the next to bring it to humans to use. That is how we got fire. Some of those spirit beings stayed on earth and took a physical form, we see them in the world around us—as trees, water, animals, rocks, and fire. These spirits had an agreement with the humans that we would take care of each other. Fire is one of the methods we use to take care of each other and the land.

From those beginning times until a little over a 100 years ago, fire was the primary tool we used to keep the land healthy, to make good habitat for animals and people. When we had that balanced ecosystem, all the things we need to thrive as humans were plentiful—the cordage we use, medicine plants, traditional food sources, all of these things benefit from fire. We burned from the coastline to the high mountains, at different times of the year and at different intensities.

The fire suppression era has restricted our ability to use fire, but the Cultural Fire Management Council has begun to reclaim fire as a land management tool. We use fire to increase the health and availability of culturally important species and to protect our community from the threat of wildfire. It’s also good for the water. The Klamath River runs through the middle of our reservation. Low and moderate intensity fire increases the quantity and quality of the water. Fire leaves charcoal on the ground, which helps purify ground water. When we do cultural burns we’re creating biochar on a landscape level.

Our first burn was seven years ago in a traditional hazel gathering area. The whole community celebrated because we had basket weaving materials again, we had put fire on the ground!

PPIC: What is the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) program and what does it hope to accomplish?

MR: Our community’s number one priority is to bring fire back to the land, which was the reason we formed the Cultural Fire Management Council.

In the past we’ve been punished for burning—our people were killed and imprisoned for using fire as a land management tool. Our community needed to find a way to reclaim our right to use fire. We heard about the TREX program, a hands-on prescribed fire training program. We partnered with The Nature Conservancy to bring the program to Yurok country. Now we’re able to do cultural burns twice a year. The program helps get our people trained and certified to manage fire according to state and federal requirements. Our goal was to have 20 community members trained and qualified as firefighters so we can legally burn our land. We reached that goal a couple of years ago.

In addition to TREX, the Cultural Fire Management Council is establishing a family-led burn program. We provide community trainings on safe burn practices. We have a tool-lending cache, offer help in putting in fire lines, and provide a fire engine as an extra safety measure on the day of the burn. We also integrate a fire education program into the local schools.

PPIC: What are some of the obstacles of scaling up cultural burning?

MR: We live in a steep, mountainous territory with a very heavy fuel load. It’s very challenging to do controlled burns there, so we burn much smaller acreage than on flat land.

Funding is also a challenge. For several years we operated on a shoestring budget, but this year we were awarded a fire prevention grant from Cal Fire.  This grant is a game changer. It enables us to hire a full time crew to prepare the land to accept fire in a good way. It enables us to take advantage of every burn window that opens, instead of only being able to burn twice a year. As wildfire continues to rage across the land the need for prescribed burns is becoming more apparent, and funding is becoming more available.

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