Reclamation of fire and water for Klamath River tribes

The elements themselves were taken from the Yurok Tribe when the federal government forced them onto a northern California reservation in 1855.

Gone was the earth of the tribe’s ancestral lands. Gone were the salmon-filled waters the tribe had relied on. Gone was the tribe’s access to cultural burning. And, earlier this year, the tribe even lost access to its air.

On the evening of August 15, the Six Rivers National Forest was hit with 150 lightning strikes that ignited 27 confirmed fires, according to inciweb. A dozen of those fires were ignited in Del Norte County, fires that would later be managed together as the Smith River Complex.

Smoke from the complex drifted down onto the town of Klamath on the Yurok Reservation, according to Arizona Republic reporter Debra Utacia Krol. The town’s air would go on to acquire the unmistakable odor of gas-powered generators after the local utility shut power off in fears of sparking another wildfire.

Smith River Complex
Smith River Complex, Mad River Hotshots, inciweb photo

The Smith River Complex would burn 95,107 acres before it was 100 percent contained nearly two months later on October 13. The complex’s BAER team assessment estimated that ~49 percent of the area’s soil was burned at either a moderate or a high severity. The assessment also found that multiple watersheds in the area were severely burned. While the fire didn’t burn on the Yurok Reservation itself, it stands as one of the many reasons the tribe is pushing to reclaim its elements.

In 2013, the tribe formed the Cultural Fire Management Council to keep alive the practice of cultural burning on the Yurok Reservation and ancestral lands. The group partners with numerous agencies and nonprofits, including the USFS, Cal Fire, and the Nature Conservancy.

Cultural Fire Management Council
Cultural Fire Management Council [] photo
The council pushes toward its goal through fuels reduction, cooperative burns, and returning the freedom to burn back to individual families and property owners on the reservation. The council also offers numerous workshops and trainings to get more people involved in cultural and managed fire.

“We’ve been suppressing fire and really, what we’ve been doing is suppressing this critical piece of who we are as humans,” the group’s treasurer and cultural fire practitioner Elizabeth Azzuz told High Country News. “Fire isn’t something apart from us. Fire is family.”

The tribe is also working to reclaim its waters by leading the largest dam removal project in U.S. history. Over the next year, four dams along the Klamath River will be deconstructed and removed as part of a 20-year effort by river advocates and tribal members to stop the devastation of the river’s salmon population. The deconstruction of the first dam occurred in early November.


The recent wins contribute to a sense of the tribe’s reclaiming agency over its natural resources for the betterment of the land and the tribe’s members.

“We’ve been talking and begging about doing this for so long, just spinning our wheels,” Yurok Forestry Director Dawn Blake told the Associated Press. “It feels like we’re finally being heard.”

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3 thoughts on “Reclamation of fire and water for Klamath River tribes”

  1. Is there really any part of the Klamath that hasn’t burned in the last 50-60 years? The adage that we are “suppressing” fires is not accurate. Are there still fires that remain small enough for long enough to be lined and put out? Yes. But to say that the suppression of wildfires, especially in the north west, has any bearing on current conditions is a stretch. Most fires are getting big now a days because tactics have changed. And bigger doesn’t always mean badder.

  2. I live on the Yurok Reservation along the lower Klamath River and I am a strong supporter of prescribed management fire and prescribed natural wildfire (letting natural fires burn under the right conditions). I also support Indigenous tribes co-managing federal forests. However, while the Klamath River tribes used fire to manage vegetation, they did not use fire to control fuels because that was not necessary. When old forests predominated on the Klamath Mountains landscape, it was nearly impossible to get low-elevation forests to burn in any case and that was not necessary.

    The conflating of Native burning and modern prescribed fire is not accurate.

    1. How is managing vegetation different from controlling fuels? Is some vegetation not fuel? I don’t get what you’re saying here.


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