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For millennia, native people have used flames to protect the land. The US government outlawed the process for a century before recognizing its value.
When Rick O’Rourke walks with fire, the drip torch is an extension of his body. The mix of diesel and gasoline arcs up and out from the little wick at the end of the red metal can, landing on the ground as he takes bite after bite out of the dry vegetation in the shadow of the firs and oaks.
“Some people are like gunslingers and some people are like artists who paint with fire,” he says. “I’m a little bit of both.”
This is the kind of land management O’Rourke grew up with on the Yurok reservation in the Klamath mountains of northern California. Now, lighting the forest on fire to save it – and his tribe’s culture along with it – has become his life’s work, as fire and fuels manager of the Yurok Cultural Fire Management Council. On this day, he’s working the drip torch alongside a few dozen cultural practitioners from tribes across the US, and firefighters from around the world.
He draws the can back and forth across the green, turning it red and then black. The lines of little flames creep along the forest floor, ebbing and growing with the contours of the land.
This fire will chew out the underbrush and lick the moss off the trees. It will blister the hazel stalks and coax strong new shoots that will be gathered and woven into baskets for babies and caps for traditional dancers, and it will tease the tan oak acorns to drop. It will burn the invasive plants that suck up the rain, letting more clean, cool water flow through the black, into the watershed and down the Klamath river for the salmon.
Soon all that black will be dotted with bear grass and huckleberries pushing up for the sunlight and down for the water they couldn’t reach when they were crowded out by tall scotch broom and dense twists of blackberries and the ever-encroaching fir trees. Even sooner, animals will flock here to roll in the ash, a California dust bath.
For more than 13,000 years, the Yurok, Karuk, Hupa, Miwok, Chumash and hundreds of other tribes across California and the world used small intentional burns to renew local food, medicinal and cultural resources, create habitat for animals, and reduce the risk of larger, more dangerous wild fires.
This is “good fire”, traditional practitioners and firefighters would say.
For most of the last 100 years in California, however, government agencies have considered fire the enemy – a dangerous, destructive element to suppress and exclude from the land. Traditional ecological knowledge and landscape stewardship were sidelined in favor of wholesale firefighting, and a kind of land management that looked like natural conservation but left the ground choked with vegetation ready to burn. As the climate crisis creates hotter, drier, more volatile weather, that fuel has helped drive larger wildfiresfaster and further across the west.
Our first agreement with our creator was to tend the land. It was taken away from us, and now we’re trying to reclaim itRick O’Rourke, Yurok fire manager
After decades suppressing small and gigantic fires alike, California is slowly embarking on a course correction. Alongside huge expenditures on firefighting staff and gear, the state is making new investments in prescribed burning. But who gets to decide where that fire goes, what it burns, why it burns – who is the steward of a natural element – remains contentious. These native people are trying to revitalize their right to indigenous cultural burning, a practice that was criminalized long before California became a state, before their culture dies out.
“Our first agreement with our creator was to tend the land,” says O’Rourke, 52, resting for a moment on a log in the green, lit drip torch still in hand. “It was taken away from us, and now we’re trying to reclaim it.”
The Spanish were the first California colonizers to prevent indigenous people from burning the land. In 1850, the US government passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which outlawed intentional burning in California even before it was a state.
Early National Forest Service officials considered “the Indian way” of “light-burning” to be a primitive, “essentially destructive theory”. Championed by the Forest Service, ecologists and conservationists, new colonial notions of what is “natural” won the day. The valuable timber trees would be protected and burns would be extinguished at all costs. Fire was a killer, and America would make war on this new enemy for most of the next 100 years.
“They said if we suppress all these fires, we end light burning, we will have great new forests,” said the fire historian Stephen Pyne. “And we did – we had so much great new forest that we created a problem.”
In 1968, after realizing that no new giant sequoias had grown in California’s unburned forests, the National Park Service changed its prescribed fire policy. In 1978, so did the Forest Service.
Since then, some state agencies have made prescribed burning a central part of their land and wildfire management strategies. The south-east leads the way: in Florida, landowners and government agents burn more than 2m acres a year.
But many in California, where millions of homes have sprawled into the mountainous and flammable wildlands, still fear fire in all forms. They fear it will destroy lush, natural forests and turn them into barren shrubland; that it is a tool of timber companies and a friend of clearcutting old growth; that it will produce oppressive, toxic smoke and emissions year-round. More than anything, they fear the flames will jump holding lines and run across the land and into communities, as they sometimes do – an escaped fire killed three people in 2012 in Colorado.
They fear fire cannot be controlled. On this, at least, firefighters and firelighters would agree – which is why most no longer use the term “controlled burn” to refer to something as powerful as fire, usually opting for “prescribed”, “cool” or “light” burning to distinguish between good fire and the wild kind.
After a string of disastrous fire seasons, though, California is growing bolder. In 2018, the state made plans to triple the amount of prescribed burning, “creating a culture where fire is a tool, not a threat”. Now, according to the state air resources board, 125,000 acres of wildlands are intentionally burned each year in California – which still comprises a tiny fraction of all the prescribed fire in the US.
This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in The Guardian on 21 Nov 2019. Included in Vox Populi on a noncommercial license.