How Indigenous Burning Practices Could Prevent Massive Wildfires

17:26 minutes

a small area of brush burning
A cultural burn in 2015 in the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve in California. Credit: Don Hankins

state of science iconThis segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by Ezra David Romero, originally appeared on Capital Public Radio.

a blue paint circle badge with words in white that say "best of 2020"Down a long, single-lane road in the most northern part of California is Karuk territory—one of the largest Indigenous tribes in the state. It’s here that Bill Tripp’s great-grandmother, who was born in the 1800s, taught him starting as a 4-year-old how to burn land on purpose. 

“She took me outside—she was over 100 years old—and walked up the hill with her walker,” Tripp recalled, “and handed me a box of stick matches and told me to burn a line from this point to that point.”

Those cultural burns—or prescribed burns, as they’re often called now by fire agencies—are a form of keeping wildfire in check, a practice the state and federal agencies do use, but experts say isn’t leaned on enough as a fire prevention tactic. 

Climate change is a driving factor of California wildfires, but so is a build-up of excess fuels. That’s often attributed to a century of fire suppression dating back to the era of the Great Fire of 1910.

But what experts say is often missing from this conversation is the racist removal of Native American people from California. Along with their physical beings, the knowledge of taking care of the land was also removed resulting in overgrown forests, experts say.

Tripp grew up in a traditional village where his family has lived for millennia. He spent his adolescent years “keeping the area around our house burned off—a lot of times just by myself.”

“In a perfect world, if the landscape of California was still stewarded continuously with Indigenous fire, we would definitely not see the same level of fires that we’re seeing.”
– Plains Miwok fire expert Don Hankins

But Tripp, now director of natural resources and environmental policy for the tribe’s Department of Natural Resources, realizes his cultural fire education was a skill many other Indigenous people didn’t have the opportunity to practice. 

“Once I started connecting with more people from outside of our village it started to become kind of apparent that the world that I grew up in was kind of unique and different in the world today,” he said. 

Tripp’s experience dates back to way before his time when Native American people were largely removed from the California landscape in the mid-19th century—more than 16,000 were killed, others were forced onto reservations and many were enslaved. 

Char Miller, director of environmental analysis at Pomona College, said that altered the state in ways its residents are feeling in the 21st century.

“Once the state of California enacted what we can call a genocidal attack upon native people … what started to happen was the lands that they stewarded started to do what nature does, which is to grow,” Miller said. 

While climate change and a history of fire suppression are among the top reasons why experts say wildfires have grown so big so fast, Miller and others say removing Indigenous people from the landscape is an overlooked reason behind today’s explosion of fires. 

“There’s this whole other story that’s … meteorological that has nothing to do with race, and yet it collides with this kind of professional racism that led to the suppression of fire,” Miller said. 

Removing millennia of knowledge from the land has resulted in the wildfires we see today, Miller said. And with the west engulfed in flames, Miller says it’s forcing the agencies that govern land to rethink suppressing wildfires.

“If the reckoning is about fire, and how we might manage it …  this can serve two purposes, which is to acknowledge historic and contemporary wrongs as a fire tool, and as a social policy that amplifies Indigenous knowledge in a way that we have never done,” he explained.

Are Cultural Burns Scalable?

less than a dozen people burning a small area near a river
A cultural burn in the Sierra foothills. Credit: Jared Dahl Aldern

One of the ways Native Americans helped keep land healthy is through prescribed or managed fire. That’s where fires are lit on purpose to keep extra fuel from building up. Reengaging with tribes to expand prescribed burns, Miller says, could be a way to “burn the traces of racism even as it makes those forests healthier.”

Ecological Historian Jared Dahl Aldern says the removal of people who had a seasonal relationship with fire completely broke the cycle of good fire on the land. 

“They were lighting fires in certain places at appropriate times for cultivating food,” he explained. “So you’ve removed the native influence and now you’ve prohibited essentially all fires. The problem with that is it’s a losing gamble, because you’re creating the conditions for an eventual large fire to catch all that fuel.”

He says the idea of returning to prescribed burns on the landscape isn’t always an exact match with the world we live in today—nearly 40 million people live in California, so many entities manage land, and there are three million homes in mountain areas.

He advocates for cultural practices to be used in a chain-like fashion in areas where it’s possible. 

“Let’s follow Indigenous peoples’ lead with their desire to cultivate certain resources with fire,” he said.

Don Hankins, a Plains Miwok fire expert at Chico State University, agrees.

“In a perfect world, if the landscape of California was still stewarded continuously with Indigenous fire, we would definitely not see the same level of fires that we’re seeing,” he said.

“If our Indigenous rights to burn would be recognized, and we could get some consistent and reliable funding mechanisms in place, then we could do it ourselves.”
– Karuk tribe member Bill Tripp

Hankins says taking care of the land with an Indigenous perspective could still be a reality, although not quite scalable across all landscapes because the California of today is very different than a century ago. 

Neither agency-prescribed burns or Indigenous burns are at the scale needed to make a real impact, he said.

“If we added up all the different places in California where Indigenous people are actually practicing within the landscape, we’re only adding maybe a few thousand acres of land,” he said, “which is pretty small beans when we think about the scale of these fires currently over 3 million acres in the state.”

Hankins has taken his Indigenous perspective to his neighborhood and also applied it to maps of large-scale forests. He hopes the current tension around wildfires results in picking up Native American practices on private, state and federal land. 

“I think it’s possible. It is challenging, because … we’ve got smoke-sensitive groups,” he said.  “We just have to get to a point where people are willing to accept a little bit of smoke for the greater benefits.”

“I Too Have Struggled”

Ron Goode, tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono, has been working for decades trying to convince people to apply Native American knowledge to the land. 

“I too have struggled, but I’ve basically been patient enough to wait for the forest region to come around to how I think,” he said.  

Goode is a proponent of prescribed fires and rehabilitating mountain meadows, which when restored act like a wet sponge holding snowmelt. He says he’s entered an agreement with state and federal agencies in his region near Fresno to do more prescribed burns and restore meadows. 

“We are in the midst of a planning grant to do nine more meadows than the six that I’ve done —  so, that’s a start,” he said. 

“The land was constantly on fire. Removal of Native Americans from the land is the result of what we have today.”
– North Fork Mono tribal chairman Ron Goode

But with as many as 10,000 mountain meadows in the Sierra Nevada, he says the scale is not where it needs to be due in large part to the loss of Native American knowledge. He says there were around 350,000 Native Americans historically who lived across California, and they burned 2% of the state annually as a form of protection, food supply and for the health of the ecosystem. 

“The land was constantly on fire,” Goode said. “Removal of Native Americans from the land is the result of what we have today.”

Goode says what was removed is the spiritual connection Indigenous people have with the land, which, in part, resulted in the fire suppression we are experiencing more than a century later. 

“If you’re with an agency, where’s the spirituality,” Goode questioned. “You don’t hear them singing songs, you don’t hear them giving prayers, you don’t hear them making offerings. When you’re out with the Indians, that’s exactly what they do first. They want to make a relationship to the land.”

He says what was revealed by the historic actions of agencies like the Forest Service, is they were “not thinking in terms of how to take care of the land and how to make the land sustainable.”

Starting With The Legislature

a pasture burning
A cultural burn in Mariposa, Calif. in February 2020. Credit: Ron Goode

To take these ideas to the next level, Miller at Pomona College says a restructuring of how the state and federal government spends money on fire fighting and suppression is needed. It could also fundamentally address anti-Indigenous sentiment in California’s history. 

Miller says it could start with the California legislature reevaluating funding for entities like Cal Fire. 

“What if the state legislature begins to rearrange the budget?” he questioned. “That’s an incentive signal. So you get legislators who are savvy about some of these issues, and you begin to make a kind of political shift, because it was a political shift that brought about the kind of fire and fire suppression that we’re talking about.”

Miller says the current wildfires are bringing up the idea of moving agencies like Cal Fire and the Forest Service into becoming more proactive than they are today.

“So let’s start to look at that structure,” Miller said. “And I argue that, as important as Cal Fire is as a protective agency, it’s not been [very] proactive, so let’s move on.”

“I too have struggled, but I’ve basically been patient enough to wait for the forest region to come around to how I think.”
– Ron Goode

Still, Bill Tripp, with the Karuk Tribe at the northern edge of California, says there are signs of hope. He says some of the Forest Service agencies in his area have “completely embraced” a collaborative stewardship process and have hired Indigenous people to lead their ecological and fire divisions. 

But he says hurdles remain because of the bureaucracy that comes with permitting prescribed burns and the fact that state and federal agencies are primarily focused on fighting fires. 

“There are still institutional barriers that even the most progressive line officer can’t overcome,” he said. “If our Indigenous rights to burn would be recognized, and we could get some consistent and reliable funding mechanisms in place, then we could do it ourselves.”

In the meantime, wildfires still rage. The Slater Fire has had a direct impact on Tripp’s tribe. As of Wednesday it was 10% contained at just over 148,000 acres. 

“It’s very sad to see,” he said. “We just lost about 40% of our homes just to the north of where I live here. A good portion of local communities are now homeless.”

an indigenous man in a yellow safety jacket and hard hat with small fires burning behind him
Bill Tripp, whose great-grandmother taught him as a young child how to burn land on purpose to prevent large wildfires later. Credit: Bill Tripp

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Segment Guests

Ezra David Romero

Ezra David Romero is a climate reporter for KQED News in San Francisco, California.

Bill Tripp

Bill Tripp is director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy for the Karuk Nation Department of Natural Resources in Orleans, California.

Don Hankins

Don Hankins is a professor of Geography and Planning and a Plains Miwak cultural practitioner based at California State University-Chico in Chico, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. And now it’s time to check in on the state of science.


SPEAKER 1: This is KERA News.


SPEAKER 3: St. Louis Public Radio.

SPEAKER 4: Iowa Public Radio news.

IRA FLATOW: Local stories of national significance– it’s still wildfire season on the West Coast. And as crews work hard to put out the flames, save lives, and protect communities from damage, a conversation is raging about how it got so bad in the first place. First there’s climate change, right? That’s a definite contributor. But there’s also the role of forest management and whether it could have been done better.

The original experts on this topic, the Native American tribes who have occupied the West Coast for thousands of years, while carefully managing the land to keep wildfire risk low. Reporter Ezra David Romero from Capital Public Radio in Sacramento reported last week on how colonization, racism, and a fire suppression mentality all reduced the ability of the tribes to manage their ancestral lands, and what could change.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO: As a four-year-old Bill Tripp’s great grandmother taught them how to burn land on purpose, those cultural burns are a way of keeping wildfire in check.

BILL TRIPP: I walked up the hill through Walker, and handed me a box of stick matches, and told me to burn a line from this point to that point.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO: Now as deputy director of the Karuk tribe’s Natural Resources department at the northern tip of California, he’s working to give indigenous people more power to practice cultural burns. Tripp is doing this work because Native American people were largely removed from the landscape in the mid-19th century. That altered California, said Char Miller, an environmental analysis professor at Pomona College.

CHAR MILLER: Once the state of California enacted what we can call a genocidal attack upon native peoples in the state, what started to happen was that the lands that they had tended, managed, started to do what nature does, which is to grow.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO: Miller says the systematic anti-Indigenous racism resulted in the exclusion of fire. Ron Goode is a tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono.

RON GOODE: Well, removal of Native Americans from the land is a result of what we have today.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO: Goode says there’s some hope. He’s working with agencies in the Central Sierra to increase cultural burns and to restore mountain meadows. But how scalable are indigenous practices? Don Hankins, a Plains Miwok fire expert at Chico State, says, very.

DON HANKINS: It’s definitely scalable on the larger public lands that are out there. I’ll develop maps to think about how I would go about burning in those particular places.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO: But Hankins admits, for change to come, Californians need to adapt to the idea that fires aren’t always bad. Ezra David Romero, Cap Radio News.

IRA FLATOW: Ezra David Romero joins us now. Welcome back, Ezra.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: How did this story come to your attention as a reporter?

EZRA DAVID ROMERO: I’d been reporting on wildfire for about eight years, and I had reported some stories like this in the past. But then I was deep in a story about fire suppression. And I was on the phone with a friend, and he was like, you need to look at racism fueling today’s wildfires. And a little red light went off in my mind. And I was like, this is a huge story.

For me, it crossed over when I was talking to some of the people we’ll hear later. But there was these big fires in 1910. After that, the Forest Service and others decided that wildfire is not good on the landscape. But they alerted to me that, before that 1910 time, Native American people were murdered and put into camps or put onto reservations, and that their lives were taken off of the land that they’ve lived on for a millennia. And then, too, they have this knowledge about wildfire that was no longer there and that was sort of deemed not good.

And 100, 120 years later, the absence of that historic knowledge of wildfire on the land is gone. And they say that it’s resulted in this fire suppression and the ability for fires to get so big, so fast. When we say fire suppression, we’re just talking about putting fires out fast, and then seeing a lot of brush debris in trees that would historically burn every nine or 10 years not happening anymore.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about where this story about Indigenous land stewardship falls in the conversation about this record 2020 wildfire season. Has the story gotten a lot of attention?

EZRA DAVID ROMERO: Yeah, the story has gotten a lot of attention from outlets across the country to other people who study wildfire in California. I’ve seen a lot of stories in the past about returning to Native American ways in the landscape and how that is the way. But I haven’t seen many stories that question if that’s actually possible or not in our current landscape. I try to capture that in this story about whether it’s actually possible to go back to Native American ways. And the answer is, yes, in part, as much as we can.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s a good segue way, because that’s what we’re going to be talking about. I want to bring in two more guests. You heard them earlier in Ezra’s story– Bill Tripp, Director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy for the Karuk Nation, Dr. Don Hankins, Professor of Geography and Planning at Cal State University, Chico. He’s also a Plains Miwok cultural practitioner. Bill, as we heard, you’ve been setting prescribed burns since, what, you were four years old?

BILL TRIPP: Yeah, the fire I experienced at four years old was basically a teaching tool, where I lay on my belly and try to get the black oak leaves to burn. And so I had to learn how to arrange the fuels in a way that they would burn and how I could use the fire to draw itself together to move around. And so I was able to learn how to understand what fire is and how it moves on the landscape at a very, very early age.

IRA FLATOW: What makes these burns good, then, for preventing worse fires?

BILL TRIPP: Well, you take a black oak stand, for example. Those leaves fall off every year. And so if you let them pile up, that’s more fuel for the fire when the fire does come. So if you’re able to get in there, and say there’s some hazel that our people need to weave baskets with, you burn it on a regular interval. Not only do you get good, healthy, pliable hazel sticks for basketweaving, but you also reduce that fuel load. So if a wildfire does come through, it doesn’t burn as hot or as fast.

IRA FLATOW: How does a cultural burn differ from what we might call controlled burns done by, let’s say, wildlife agencies?

BILL TRIPP: Well today, people go out there with fire engines and hand tools and cut hand lines and [? fall ?] snags and do all these things before they do a prescribed fire. They require you to have certain qualifications before you can do a prescribed fire. The cultural burning I do, in a lot of cases, doesn’t even involve a hand line. Sometimes it doesn’t even involve having any water.

It’s just knowing that time a day to where a certain type of vegetation will burn, and it’s going to go out when it hits that other kind of vegetation that’s right next to it. It just takes a basic understanding of your environment. And the longer you can interact with the same environment, the greater your understanding can be.

Even prescribed burns can have cultural objectives. We can use hand tools and the fire trucks and all of these fancy toys we have today to do prescribed burns with cultural objectives, as well, so we can get to the point where we have a restored landscape to make it part of the culture once again.

IRA FLATOW: Don Hankins, as someone who is both a researcher and a cultural practitioner, as well, how do you describe the value of these burns? And how are they different?

DON HANKINS: When I think about the situation of prescribed burning versus that cultural or traditional side of it, there’s a lot of nuance that’s there. As Bill alluded to, you have to have an understanding of the environment, the wind, the soil, the different weather patterns that are coming in, how those are changing, what the fuel moisture conditions are in the vegetation communities you’re working in. You don’t have bare mineral soil being exposed by raking a line around it or anything.

You know the system. You know where the fire is naturally going to go. And you work within that landscape by reading those cues. So while a lot of prescribed burns might focus in on hazard fuel reduction in wildlife habitat improvement, the timing of when that’s happening, the outcomes of those fires will be quite different than what we would necessarily see from traditional burning. I’ve done burns with agency folks who will set the time, go out and burn.

And based on cultural indicators, I know that it’s not the right time. We’re not in the right place for those things to take place. And I think about how that can have an adverse impact on biodiversity. So there’s a lot of very specific objectives around why and when and how we’re burning across different ecosystems. And every ecosystem has its specific time for when it should burn or when it’s appropriate to burn within that system that is set forth based on our knowledge. And that’s been passed down generation after generation.

IRA FLATOW: Let me ask both of you, Don, Bill, is there a short explanation for what is a good place or when is a good time to do some of these burns?

DON HANKINS: During the onset of the rainy season is really a go-to time for burning. And I can say from my experience in working in northern Australia, the same pattern is there. When the rains start to come in, people are starting to burn. Or they’re doing it at the beginning of the dry season is happening. And then there’s a time period when there’s really not any fire activity happening, but maybe just a little bit here and there. Those are the safe times to burn. And if we know there are systems, it’s pretty easy to be able to put fire back on the ground in those different places.

IRA FLATOW: Bill, do you agree with that?

BILL TRIPP: Yeah, that’s a very valid point. And there are other time frames for other things, depending on why you’re burning in that cultural context. And prime example that we’re seeing right now with our tan oak stands. Karuk people burn in those tan oak stands at a very specific time of year. It’s not so much because it’s Tuesday, October 1 or something. But it’s because the buggy acorns have fallen with that first wind that came through or light rain.

And then you get to a point to where some of the good, viable acorns without bugs are starting to fall. And so there’s a window of time between when that wind event happens and when those good acorns start to fall, where you typically have a range of conditions in between those weather systems that is conducive for good, safe burning. And so by watching for those cues, you’re able to do that at the proper time and achieve your cultural objective to kill off the bugs before they get a chance to burrow into the ground.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow and this is Science Friday. And in case you’re just joining us, we’re talking about the role Native Americans have had in wildfire prevention with my guests Ezra David Romero, Bill Tripp, and Don Hankins. Ezra was reporting on the role of racism in undermining Indigenous land stewardship. Bill, Don, do you experience that?

BILL TRIPP: You know I got thrown into the middle of the government consultation arena with the Forest Service. I was about 19 years old. And I’m a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Indigenous person. And so I was in meetings looking like an intern from a white family. So yeah, I heard a lot of things that would really shock a person.

But when I think of the racism involved, I think of the laws that were created that made this illegal to begin with. And some of those were framed specifically around separating Indigenous peoples from their resource base. The very foundations of the fire management systems we have today are rooted in some of that racism.

DON HANKINS: From my experiences, I mean obviously from a policy level standpoint, thinking back to mission time period in the state, obviously the policy is a big part of that. But people hear me talk about Indigenous burning, and I’ve even had people say, well, you just want to run around naked in the woods and set fire. And it’s like, no, that’s not what Indigenous burning is about.

Indigenous burning is about so many levels of different things, from the cultural, the ecological, the metaphysical, spiritual relationships of just being able to burn and be able to uphold that responsibility that was put to us by our ancestors. And hearing people make fun of it in that sense is hurtful. And I wish that people had a better understanding of what it is.

And I know that in the past, when I have brought forward that idea of doing cultural burns, and say, well, we can use it as a tool to protect the wildland-urban interface and the people who live in those places– that’s one of the reasons why we do these kind of burns– that’s where people’s attitudes about, well, the landscape is changed, and people are living these places and you can’t practice the way that you used to practice. But knowing that that is our knowledge and that is what has been effective for so many thousands of years, that to me is very dismissive.

And I hear people from within the agency say, well, we’d like to work with tribes, but they have to learn our standards to be able to do burns. Really, what I think the standard should be is the inverse of that, where if they don’t have our knowledge of understanding, then they shouldn’t be using fire. And when you have thousands of years of that knowledge, you don’t see it in that light of fear. So those are some of the basic things that I see surfacing, as well as just the regulations around and the policies of who can be the keeper of fire, who can actually use that tool.

We have our own ways of training. We have our own ways of teaching people. And experience and intergenerational learning is a big part of that. So how do you get kids out to learn from grandma and grandpa and everybody else in the family or in the community if you’re not allowed to do that because they don’t have a card, or grandma and grandpa don’t have a card, or they didn’t pass their [? PAC ?] test.

IRA FLATOW: That’s really interesting to hear that perspective. Ezra, where are you seeing meaningful pushes, then, toward incorporating Indigenous knowledge of the land into how it’s managed?

EZRA DAVID ROMERO: Well, there’s movement across California around prescribed burns and cultural burns, everywhere from– up where Bill is at, there’s smaller agencies that are working on it. There are other larger agencies that are doing prescribed burns, but they’re not always doing it in this cultural fashion.

What I learned most from reporting this story was that the decision for curbing prescribed burns or stopping them was this political decision. And so everyone I talked to said that there needs to be a new political decision, whether it’s in the California legislature or in Congress. These people who represent the people of their land need to take this up again. And one way is this National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020. And that will establish around $300 million for both the Forest Service and the Department of Interior to plan and prepare to conduct controlled burns on all these jurisdictions, whether it’s federal, state, or private land.

And it also will establish this $10 million for this collaborative program to work across these barriers. It would establish somewhat of an incentive program. It will actually pay certain jurisdictions to do prescribed burns. And that’s if it ever leaves the House and Congress. But there is some movement around all of this. But it is still very slow to be adopted, like you hear from these two men.

IRA FLATOW: Bill, as someone working on behalf of one nation– and I’m talking about the Karuk– what resources or support would help you take care of the land better?

BILL TRIPP: The recognition of us as a sovereign indigenous nation that still occupies and utilizes our territorial land base, I believe is the key to even getting serious in the conversation. I hear a lot of talk about giving billions of dollars to this agency or giving billions of dollars to that agency. Yeah, we can get a grant, but they’re probably going to make us sign a paper waiving our sovereignty. And we really need to get to the point where we can have the programs to do this in our places. Because this is who we are and this is what we’ve done for millennia.

IRA FLATOW: I want to thank all of you for taking time to be with us today– Ezra David Romero, reporter for Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, Bill Tripp, Director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy for the Karuk Nation, and Dr. Don Hankins, Professor of Geography and Planning California State University, Chico, and a Plains Miwok cultural practitioner as well. Thank you so much for joining us today.

BILL TRIPP: Thank you.


DON HANKINS: Thank you, Ira. You’re welcome.

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