Learning from the centuries-old prescribed fire practices of Native Americans

Slater or Devil Fire
Slater/Devil Fire complex, September 15, 2020. InciWeb.

National Geographic has a long, interesting article about the differences in Northern California forests before and after the resident native Americans were prohibited from continuing their practice of prescribed burning. The author, Charles C. Mann, interviewed members of the Karuk tribe that were affected by last summer’s fires, including the Slater Fire that destroyed hundreds of structures near Happy Camp. They are hoping to restore, in a current-day context, a more robust prescribed fire program.

Below is an excerpt:

…The anti-flame campaign profoundly altered the American environment. Wildfire had been common in western forests. Much or most of that burning was due to the area’s first humans, who torched away the undergrowth that fueled future fires before it could build to dangerous levels. Thousands of years of controlled, targeted combustion created a landscape that was a patchwork of new and old burns—meadows, berry patches, park-like woodland, and so on. As these flames ceased, a new kind of forest emerged: a nearly fire-free ecosystem that was unlike anything that had existed since the end of the Ice Age.

[Kathy] McCovey is a retired Forest Service anthropologist. With [Joe] Jerry, she belongs to a Karuk fire-lighting brigade. For years they had been begging the Forest Service to let them burn the brush on the slopes around their homes. If you don’t let us burn, they had warned, there will be a catastrophic fire.

“Whoops,” McCovey said.

When something—lightning, a campfire, a downed utility line, a spark from a tool hitting a rock—sets the forest debris on fire, the flames climb the “fuel ladder” to shrubbery and young trees, then jump to the crowns of the older trees, creating a high wall of flame that can be caught by the wind. “We’re going to have to get these trees out,” she said, pointing to the mass of fire-blasted fir around us. “If they don’t, in five years it will burn again and be worse.” (Here’s how wildfires get started—and how to stop them.)

To McCovey, the problem was not just that the new forests were flammable. It was that they were “a food desert for animals and people.” The Forest Service and western state governments, like her ancestors, had managed the forest—had, in effect, farmed it. But the Forest Service and the states had farmed the forest to produce a single commodity: timber. McCovey’s ancestors had farmed the landscape for many reasons.

(end of excerpt)

More information is at the Indigenous Peoples Burn Network, a growing collaboration of Native nations, partnered with nonprofit organizations, academic researchers, and government agencies. It is a support network among Native American communities that are revitalizing their traditional fire practices in a contemporary context.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

10 thoughts on “Learning from the centuries-old prescribed fire practices of Native Americans”

  1. Having been involved in wildfire since the early 70’s and seeing the cycles of wildfire and drought and comparing this to the sensible forest management practices of the heritage land owners of North America who spoke out concerning the heavy fuels deposit for decades without anyone listening I am not surprised in the least by the larger than usual fires of today! A hundred years of wrong decisions has put us here! This is not a 1 to 3 degree increase in temperature issue, it is poor land management that is the issue!

  2. Just once I’d like to see discussion on the effects of the air pollution and risk to private holdings from the fires these people advocate. Not to mention the cost of suppression… The Red Salmon complex burned all summer, tying up resources during one of the worst fire seasons we’ve seen for years. We will not be able to burn our way out of forest mismanagement.

  3. I started a career in wildland fire in the mid 70’s and continue to be involved these days in a very modest capacity.
    I have seen a lot of fire across the U.S. and some in canada over the decades in many different fuel types.
    I wouldn’t begin to suggest that I have the answers, but I do find wildfire, the landscapes it thrives in, and the unprecedented explosive change in the planets climate to be fascinating and challenging on an academic level.
    Bill posted some stats recently in another article that, as I recall, there was a graph that showed the hottest years on record…ALL of them were in the 21st century…how do you wrap your head around that ?
    I have said this before. I feel like we are operating in a new paradigm….i.e, things have changed in such a significant manner climate wise and fuel environment wise that it may not be possible to reliably predict what works and what doesn’t. Throw in the fact that the human population continues to grow and fill these landscapes without adaquate mitigation measure and you are left with an ever worsening situation.
    Going down the path of creating/wanting more suppression capability without addressing the underlying realities will get us nowhere imo. As far as prescribed fire being the answer….??? Maybe…partially…., but there are certainly very real limitations, in part because of the buildout of the rural lifestyle. Spend a little time on onx and look at the patchwork of private lands mixed in with public. I can’t see where, in many locations, that you can get prescribed burning done on a scale to really have an effect on landscape…
    Simply put, I don’t think there are easy, viable solutions on the macro scale…on the micro scale…thats a whole different ballgame. An individual owner can and should take specific actions to remediate and influence the impact of wildfire on their property. Thats been discussed at length in various threads on this forum in the past year, and should be both food for thought and a wake up call to many…
    Waiting around for “government” to solve all of this is not something I would be betting on…..right there along with rising sea levels. Government action tends to be reactive…An individual, if properly motivated and educated can be very proactive….
    The education part needs to start with the goverment…at all levels, being honest about the risks involved, capabilities to respond, and responsibilities on the part of the individual. The media sure doesn’t help…..their 30 second soundbites with helicopters dropping water and circling air tankers don’t do a thing to inform or help….but it sells airtime I guess..
    End of rant…for now

    1. Good rant. I share your skepticism, even your cynicism. But I especially agree with the “education” part and the “scale” part.

      With respect to “the human population continues to grow and fill these landscapes without adaquate mitigation . . .” “mitigation” alone will never be able to make up for the quantities lost, but paying attention to at least partial preservation and maximum ecosystem restoration with no net loss of species might be achievable. I could illustrate this with “before and after” pix, but I don’t see a provision for that capability . . .

      I would like to hear more about your specifics. Is there a listserv that accommodates photos?

  4. I suspect a significant portion of the natives burning the Northern Boreal forest was primarily for food driven reasons. If natural fires provided enough locally( which likey was often the case) there was no need to. If not they put some fire on the ground as required. Browse for moose and blueberries establishment are two that quickly come to mind.

  5. With respect to evidence, anecdotes, particularly first-person observations, are instructive, even with respect to principles, but while it is possible to draw conclusions from observations, is also is possible to draw incorrect conclusions from correct observations, especially if we fall into the trap of drawing generalizations (and perhaps confusing them with principles) based on anecdote alone. Certainly, Wagenknecht’s observation regarding airborne burning material, for example, has been made many times yet remains minimized by many—so it bears repeating. The media especially, tend to jump to conclusions and use more dramatic but often misleading language (the fire “jumped” the freeway, for example).

    [Paragraph] While fire progression into recent burns may well “lay down,” comparatively speaking, they cannot be depended upon to stop fires in “unburned” fuels. Since flame fronts burn small-diameter fuels, recently burned areas can burn quite well, and in fact can be ember-generators—lightweight charcoal and standing and down dead material in a zone where wind is little affected by mature vegetation. Such fires can move faster, especially before the wind. And we should remember that any fuel reduction burn can and will grow into more and more fuel more quickly than.

    [Paragraph] While I don’t pretend to have consumed all of the literature on the subject, I find it difficult to swallow all of the “reasoning” concerning “Indian burning.” I do not thus declare that it did not take place at all, but I do question how much, where, and in what manner such burning actually took place. The emphasis on fuel may be important, but it might also be overdone, especially since a large factor, particularly in catastrophic fires, might be written on the wind, O2. The idea that intentional fires can be “prescribed” or “controlled” seems to have a bit of an arrogant ring to it. “Prescribed” burning “experts” might do well to pay more attention to Missoula. The devil sure’n hell is in the details. Facts, accurate or at least good data, disciplined thinking . . .

  6. The Slater Fire really hit home with me, since I lived and went to school in Happy Camp in the 1960s and later worked for the Forest Service there for 14 years. It was initially a wind-driven fire and blew down into the Indian Creek canyon across land that had burned in both 1966 and 1987. Houses were set ablaze not by the fire front but by a rain of wind-driven embers. As the fire blew up and across the drainage, it ran into the footprint of other fires, especially the Natchez Fire of 2018, where a great deal of underburning had been done, and this greatly reduced its spread to the west up the South Fork. While the BAER report indicates that soil damage in most of the area was low to moderate, damage to trees was severe — most were killed but not consumed, as the fire was moving very fast. In the large East Fork drainage, virtually all trees were killed. The hardwood species will resprout, and deerbrush will grow from dormant seeds to act as a soil cover. I’ve read Charles C. Mann’s books about the Americas before and after European incursion, and glad to see him talking to Yuroks and Karuks. They long ago figured out a way to live in a fire-prone landscape; in a warmer and dryer world, it can still work if we give it a chance. What worked when it was wetter and cooler simply won’t anymore.


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