Prescribed burns are an Indigenous practice that clears out underbrush, supports
The last few summers have felt less like fearful apprehension about the future of increasingly intense and devastating wildfires in America and more like a full-scale alarm. Of the top five years in which the most acreage was burned nationally since 1960, three have happened since 2015, according to a NICC Wildland Fire report. And 10.1 million acres burned in 2020 alone, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and destroying or damaging thousands of structures. This year is predicted to be just as catastrophic, with California experiencing its third driest year in history.
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Climate change is the big-picture reason things are getting worse, with higher temperatures and longer, more severe droughts. But the other major consideration is fire management, or how we prevent, fight, and plan fires. That last part — planning fires — refers to prescribed burning. This method of igniting fires in controlled conditions gets rid of dry grasses, shrubs, and other excess vegetation that often turn into ready-made fuel in hot, dry weather. It also has benefits for the animals and plants that remain.
Prescribed burns are generally low and slow, targeting the understory where smaller vegetation often crowds out larger, older trees and plants for resources. The burnt plants return nutrients to the soil, too, and open up habitat for animals. The practice hasn’t always been a popular concept in America — opinion- or policy-wise — but it’s actually reflective of how many ecosystems naturally function, with small blazes occuring every so often. However, as the outlook for wildfires in America continues to get worse, many have touted it as an underutilized resource in fire management — and pointed out that Indigenous fire experts, who have been doing controlled burns for centuries, are also sorely overlooked.
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Controlled burns have been around for a very long time, with origins in Indigenous practices that stretch back thousands of years and around the world. In California, for example, North Fork Mono tribal chairman Ron Goode told NPR that burns often weave together cultural practices and ecological management; many of the plants used to weave baskets need fire as part of their growing process. In America, those practices have been suppressed since European colonists arrived. The U.S. government implemented policies specifically focused on fire suppression and banning controlled burns since the 19th century, which severely impacted Native communities.
They eventually realized the error of their ways; the National Park Service lifted its controlled burn ban when they noticed giant sequoia trees were declining. Fire, it turns out, is central to how the trees grow, and their rings even demonstrate a history of fires. The southeastern part of the country serves as its own case study, too; state governments and individuals in places like Georgia and Florida have more consistently embraced the practice, and 70 percent of the country’s prescribed burns occur in the southeast. The U.S. Forest Service has also practiced controlled burns since the 1960s, but at a much smaller scale than what Native communities used to do. A study from the University of California-Berkeley found that anywhere from 4.4 million to 11.8 million acres of the state burned before the arrival of European colonists, compared to just an estimated 200,000 acres annually in recent years.
The evidence is overwhelming that part of living fire today means returning to a management philosophy that embraces the benefits of burning. The last few years have seen some efforts to return some influence over fire management to tribes. In California, Indigenous fire practitioners have worked with Cal Fire to obtain permits so that individuals can perform their own prescribed burns led by Frank K. Lake, a descendant of the Karuk tribe. Members of the Yurok and Karuk tribes participate in the Nature Conservancy’s Prescribed Fire Training Exchange that teaches other firefighters about the method. Tribal members from around California also participate in Fire Forward training, teaching private landowners and a variety of organizations about living harmoniously with fire. And the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network holistically supports the work of Indigenous fire practitioners around the country.
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The hope is that making wildfires less devastating and using fire for good can also be the responsibility of communities and individuals who know their land. It’s an on-the-ground approach that’s a far cry from the combative attitude that’s generally characterized American fire management for centuries, and it’s a reason for optimism as the country faces a dire wildfire forecast. As Lake told The Guardian, “Prescribed fire is medicine.”