Once outlawed, cultural burns can save our forests from uncontrollable wildfire
In the past several years, California has endured the most extreme fires in its recorded history.
2018's Camp Fire grew into the state's deadliest and most destructive fire on record, devastating the towns of Paradise and Concow. Last year the state suffered the Dixie Fire, raging for months through five Northern California counties on its way to becoming the single-largest blaze in state history.
These deadly infernos are stark evidence of how vulnerable California's communities and forests have become in the era of climate change. But warmer, dryer forests aren't the only factor behind these so-called mega fires. Ironically, it is a lack of fire that is also playing a major role.
Two hundred years ago, someone walking through Yosemite would not have seen the densely packed forests we now associate with the Sierra Nevada.
They would have passed through broad meadows and perhaps have even been drawn to comment, as the Spanish did, on how the land appeared like a “well-tended garden.”
In fact, that is exactly what Spaniards were seeing: Indigenous people native to Yosemite and other parts of the world for millennia have used fire to promote healthy forests. Today, the wisdom of that approach is seen as one of the keys to unraveling the deadly cycle of California wildfires. (Video about Yosemite National Park)
Using fire to help forests flourish
It's easy to assume that the impenetrable forests we associate with the mountains of California have always been there. Many of the popular images of Yosemite, for example, were taken decades after federal agencies moved to suppress fires in the region and removed native tribes.
Ask the Honorable Ron W. Goode, Tribal Chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe, what's missing from the land and he will tell you it's fire.
It may be a contentious subject, especially given California's recent traumatic wildfires. “But I need to talk to you about fire,” Goode says.
“Many of the bushes that we're now burning haven't actually been burned for about one hundred and twenty years,” Goode said while conducting a burn on the Jack Kirk estate in Mariposa, California. “And they're crying. They want fire, they want to be restored.”
“When you talk to different native people from the Yosemite area, they talk about how it used to look when fire was used as a management tool,” says UC Davis professor of Native American Studies Beth Rose Middleton Manning. Her classes have worked alongside Goode and members of other local tribes to help carry out traditional Indigenous burns. “The way valleys are now being encroached upon by conifers and other species in areas that were once open.”
The landscapes tribes in California cultivated were diverse, including foothills, woodlands and forest. Goode describes how, as a result of Indigenous land management, Spaniards were able to travel for over 60 miles under a canopy of mostly water oaks, a shade tree that produces abundant acorns, and how early Euro Americans found wide open pathways into Yosemite.
But early European settlers who set foot in California saw tribes setting fire to the land and regarded it as primitive. Strangers to the ecosystem and fire's role within it, they suppressed the practice. In 1850, California passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which outlawed intentional burning in the newly formed state. One early U.S. forest ranger suggested people who set fire to the land should be shot.
Federal and state governments radically transformed the land in other ways as well. In many instances, tribes were forced off the lands they had been carefully maintaining. Forests were extensively logged, then replanted in dense groves, further shifting delicate balances between trees and open areas, and creating the kind of closely packed forests that can fuel massive, uncontrolled wildfires.
Goode estimates that the California canopy is now twice as dense, or more, in places that have been missing fire. “When the Indian was on the land, the canopy was 40 percent or less open,” he says. In that open space, a variety of plants, bushes, and smaller trees, like oak trees, were able to grow, as did plants still used today by native tribes for food, medicinal or cultural purposes. These varied landscapes were more resilient to fire; in today's forests, once the crowns of the trees catch fire, a blaze spreads rapidly, using the tree canopy as a kind of deadly highway.
Credit: Bioneers Beth Rose Middleton Manning
These tall trees, planted close together, compete with one another for sunlight and water, and prevent smaller plants below from thriving. Stressed by drought and climate change, they are vulnerable to parasitic attacks. Bark beetles have now killed as much as 5 percent of the forest in the western United States, scientists estimate. These dead trees are more fuel for wildfires, helping them spin out of control.
“When everything's a mess and dry and needs brushing, needs clearing, then only the big trees are the ones that are sucking up water,” Goode says. “They can reach down two meters, but cultural plants can only go down about a meter for water. Beyond that, they're out of water. That's when you begin to see parasites attack the bushes and the plants.
“Who grows a garden like that?” Goode asks.
“That's why the need is to come in and put fire on the land.”
Goode has been practicing what is known as cultural burning for nearly 30 years. Cultural burns are a form of land management passed down by Indigenous tribes over thousands of years. It is called cultural burning not only because of its spiritual and cultural importance to Indigenous communities, but because the burns are designed to cultivate the biodiverse, sustainable growth that make landscapes more resilient. Goode shares the importance of the practice with educational and government institutions and teaches others, including students of UC Davis professor Middleton Manning, how to use fire to restore the land.
In response to a foundational 1963 report led by UC Berkeley conservationist A. Starker Leopold, the U.S. National Park Service changed its policy in 1968 to allow lightning fires to burn within special fire management zones — usually remote regions at high elevations — where danger to human settlements was low. Forestry and park services have also shifted their approaches to include strategic use of fire to thin vulnerable areas. This practice, known as prescribed burning, is performed by fire experts under certain conditions in select areas.
Prescribed burns versus cultural burns
But there are important differences in philosophy and execution between prescribed burns and cultural burning in their approach to the land, Goode says.
Agencies tend to focus on acreage and fuel reduction, relying upon natural features or previous fires to control potential spread. Forestry technicians may prioritize large-scale pile burning, for example, then leave when it is done.
Indigenous cultural burns focus on what needs to be burned to revitalize the land with the intent of returning to make use of it again. Traditional baby baskets of the Yurok and Karuk Northern California tribes, for instance, are made from hazelnut shrub stems that are collected after fires. Only those types of stems are straight and strong enough to create the baskets. But in order to collect them, hazelnut shrubs must be burned, a step many agencies do not currently take.
Indigenous preparation of land for a burn can also involve promoting oak trees in place of pines, for example, creating a new food source for animals and people alike. The ecological and spiritual importance of cultural burns is written into a North Fork Mono creation story — how the Inchworm was able to retrieve the Falcon caught on a high rock by going up the rising water table created by fires put on the land by the Mono.
“Cultural burning comes back to what we are burning for, and it's not burning for acres,” Goode says. “We're burning to restore the land, restore the resources, restore water. Bring it back to where it can reproduce on its own.”
Credit: Kat Kerlin/UC Davis. Julie Dick Tex of the Western Mono tribe collects sourberry branches for basket making in Mariposa in 2020. Read more about Tex, sourberry basketry and UC Davis' engagement with cultural burns here.
A generational approach to burns
Another important difference between prescribed burns and cultural burns is their approach to time. The North Fork Mono Tribe puts fire on the land in a decades-long cycle. “We're burning minimally three times in 10 years,” Goode says. “Then the next 20 years, you're only going to need to burn once. That's what we call a 30-year cycle.” During the cycle, older people like Goode, now 71, train younger people on how to perform the burns correctly. Each burner performs this cycle of training and implementation and passes it onto the next.
“We thrive on the land, not survive,” Goode says. “Indians didn't ‘survive.' We look to our grandchildren's grandchildren, seven generations, basically 120 years down the road, that's where we look. So the decisions that we make and our practices that we do today need to affect generations down the road.”
This way of thinking and training others is difficult to translate into agency land management environments that are constrained by budget cycles, employee retention and other red tape issues that constrain the tribes themselves.
Nature, on the other hand, doesn't wait for a permit — and so the many varieties of berries, brush, buds and trees that each play a role in a forest's health languish, sometimes with deadly consequences.
University of California Cooperative Extension fire advisor and Northern California Prescribed Fire Council director Lenya N. Quinn-Davidson suggests we embrace this approach to fire.
“There is so much to learn from cultural practitioners — not just about traditions and techniques, but also about stewardship and connectedness,” she says. “Fire is a reflection of culture, and the kinds of fires we've been experiencing in California are a projection of our own disconnection and imbalance. It's time to reclaim the balance, rebuild the relationship. Cultural practitioners can help show us how.”
“Tribal members describe intensive landscape stewardship that they were engaged in in the past, which included low intensity burning, coppicing or trimming plants. And all of the work that they did had positive effects on opening up the forest, raising the water table,” Middleton Manning says. “There was no downside.”
A recent UC Berkeley study of Yosemite's Illilouette Creek Basin — a 60-square-mile area where lightning-created fires have been allowed to take their course over the past half-century — also speaks to fire's healing effects. Here the landscape looks something like it may have looked 200 years ago: A mixture of grassland, shrubland and meadow filled with abundant wildflowers and boosted plant and pollinator diversity.
“I think climate change is no more than 20 to 25 percent responsible for our current fire problems in the state, and most of it is due to the way our forests are,” said senior study author Scott Stephens in a recent interview. “Illilouette Basin is one of the few places in the state that actually provides that information, because there is no evidence of changes in fire size or in the severity of fires that burn in the area. So, even though the ecosystem is being impacted by climate change, its feedbacks are so profound that it's not changing the fire regime at all.”
Setting up the structure to support the practice of cultural burns in a 21st century climate of catastrophic fires is tricky, however. Land agreements can be tenuous, and state and federal agencies are still learning how to delegate stewardship of the land, and its burning, to the tribes that originally lived on it.
“The Forest Service or another agency may say, ‘OK, we hear you. This plant needs burning in order to be healthy so you can continue your tradition,'” Middleton Manning says. “‘But we can't let you burn because you don't have the certification. So our people have to burn and you can watch.' I think that is enormously frustrating for Indigenous people. And I know Ron Goode and others have advocated strongly for recognizing Indigenous expertise in Indigenous knowledge.”
But some positive changes have been made. A new California law, effective January 1, 2022, has affirmed the right to cultural burns, reducing the layers of liability and permission needed to set “good fire” on the land.
Yosemite itself is in the process of welcoming a return to cultural fire under the oaks in the Valley, Middleton Manning notes, led in part by National Park Service cultural ecologist Irene Vasquez, a UC Santa Cruz alum and Southern Sierra Miwuk and Paiute tribal member.
And there's a lot of really exciting stewardship and restoration projects happening on lands held or managed by native land trusts, Middleton Manning says, encompassing practices from pile burning to replanting native seeds, that bring together several generations of tribal communities.
These people, and other lifeforms essential to the ecological balance, can return after the cultural burns and enjoy the fruits of their work.
During a cultural burn shared with one of Middleton Manning's classes, Goode, tribal members and students burned three-leaf sumac that had been attacked by lichen and was dying. In need of new growth, it was unable to produce sticks for basketry or berries for food and medicine.
“When we burn it, a new crop will start to come up in a few months,” Goode said. “We should even be able to harvest by July or August from the very bush that we're burning in the back.”
And so they did — fulfilling a cycle that has shaped California for thousands of years.
When conditions are right, winter can be a good time to conduct prescribed burns for forest management, says Rob York, UC Cooperative Extension forestry specialist.
“A huge issue we have in California is fire severity. We know from research that prescribed fire can be a very good tool for reducing fire severity,” York said. “For forest landowners or foresters who want to do their own prescribed burning, winter burning can be a good entry point.”
York is based at the UC Blodgett Forest Research Station in Georgetown, where he developed a series of eight short videos demonstrating how fire can be used on landscapes during the colder months. The videos feature controlled fires conducted at the station on Dec. 6 and 9, 2020. More videos in this series will be posted during the upcoming year.
Among the factors covered in the videos are climatic conditions and site selection for winter burning.
Wet or snowy weather in the fall may seem to shut the window for prescribed burning, but York said often the snow melts away and fuels dry out enough to do a winter burn.
“The idea is to be ready when the fuels dry out,” he said. Thinning trees and masticating underbrush are ways to prepare the forest for a burn.
When selecting the day of the fire, relative humidity, temperature and wind speed and direction are important considerations.
“Relative humidity should be low. You want the cloud cover to be very low. A sunny day helps dry out the fuel,” York said. “In the winter, you want that drying and heating power of the sun to help the fuel be consumed.”
Among the factors to consider in selecting locations for winter burns is the aspect. The sun's warmth is optimized on south-facing slopes.
“That's what we're looking for,” York said. “Relatively small areas that are burnable.”
An open canopy allows sunlight to dry out the understory vegetation and surface fuels, enabling successful winter burns.
Vegetation type also weighs into winter burning decisions.
“Bear clover plus pine needles make this feasible, including conditions on the wetter side when you might not otherwise be able to burn, you can burn,” York said. “If you can encourage bear clover and pine needles, you can encourage more opportunities for low density burns, which I think do a great job to maintain low fire hazard.”
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources brings the power of UC to all 58 counties. Through research and Cooperative Extension in agriculture, natural resources, nutrition, economic and youth development, our mission is to improve the lives of all Californians. Learn more at ucanr.edu.
On a crisp and clear morning late last year, around 20 volunteer firefighters, landowners and community members gathered on a plot of land outside of the small rural community of Kneeland in Humboldt County. They listened intently to detailed instructions on how to safely burn 20 acres of private property that gradually rises on a hill before them. The volunteers gathered to learn how to successfully undertake a prescribed burn. It was all part of the ongoing education and training being conducted by Humboldt County's Prescribed Burn Association – the first of its kind west of the Rockies.
Lenya Quinn-Davidson and Jeffery Stackhouse, who both work for the UC Cooperative Extension in Humboldt County, developed the program in 2017 and have seen it steadily grow ever since. The association is comprised of landowners, nonprofits, volunteer firefighters and other community members who work together to carry out prescribed burns on private land. Until the association was created, most landowners and community members had lacked access to prescribed burn information and training.
“Fire is a natural part of California's landscape. Prescribed fire is a way for us to bring fire back to the landscape as a natural process under controlled conditions. We can choose the weather, we can choose how it's going to burn,” says Quinn-Davidson. “Private landowners have largely been left out of the fire picture and we realize that is a big part of the problem.”
The goal of the prescribed burn on that October day was to eliminate an invasive type of tree that was overtaking the grassy hill and restore the land to a state where native oaks can thrive once again. The property owners are receiving the same training as the volunteer firefighters on hand. Beyond eliminating invasive species, the association is utilizing prescribed burns to reduce fuels to prevent future wildfires, as well as restore wildlife habitat. But most importantly, the training and education empowers landowners and others to reconnect with fire as a management tool.
Since the Association was created, it has burned more than 1,000 acres in Humboldt County. The association has also been able to build a strong working relationship with CalFIRE, which also conducts prescribed burns on private lands in Humboldt.
Will Emerson is an assistant fire chief for the volunteer Bell Springs Fire Department in northern Mendocino County. He and his three colleagues made the 2.5-hour trip to participate in the prescribed burn training session in Humboldt County. He sees the trainings as a “really great experience” for volunteer fire departments, some of which have new trainees who have never worked a fire before.
“It's excellent training for them — just to get comfortable working with fire,” Emerson says.
The concept of a prescribed burn association is catching on. Quinn-Davidson and Stackhouse have presented the Humboldt County model to numerous counties around the state, and new associations are cropping up around California.
“We use our program to train people, to inspire people, to empower people,” Quinn-Davidson says.
The value of Humboldt County's Prescribed Burn Association goes beyond the training it provides. Quinn-Davidson and Stackhouse view the association as a “community cooperative,” bringing together groups that have traditionally been at odds. At any training session you may find volunteers from the ranching or timber industry, environmentalists or cannabis growers.
“Instead of being on opposite sides of an issue, people are gaining understanding for the other side,” Stackhouse says. “It has opened the door for real, honest communication between different groups that otherwise would not be happening. Having people work together who have been on different sides of the community really is amazing.”
Quinn-Davidson agrees. “We are building community and we are using fire as this positive, synergistic thing,” she concludes. “And I feel so positive about it.”
The CSAC Challenge Awards were created in the early 1990s to recognize county innovation and best practices. Humboldt County's Prescribed Burn Association is a recipient of a 2019 CSAC Challenge Award – one of only 18 Challenge Awards presented statewide out of 284 entries.
To view a video of this program on YouTube, click here.
The next meeting of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council will take place on April 25-26 at the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center in their brand new conference center.
The Northern California Prescribed Fire Council (NCPFC) is a collaborative group of scientists, land managers, tribes, NGOs, and other organizations and individuals interested in issues surrounding the use of prescribed fire. The goal of this diverse coalition of scientists and managers is to “increase understanding and acceptability of prescribed fire in the public realm, while working together…to improve techniques, increase training opportunities, and ameliorate permitting and other regulatory hurdles” (from NCPFC website).
The council holds two meetings each year in different locations across the north state; the meetings include research and management presentations, as well as field tours of different prescribed fire projects. The upcoming meeting will include presentations by a range of scientists and managers, including Ken Pimlott (CAL FIRE Director), Sarah McCaffrey (USFS Northern Research Station), Dennis Martinez (Indigenous Peoples’ Restoration Network), and others. The second day will include a field tour of the 4,600 acre property and research site.
Prescribed fire councils have formed across the country in the last couple of decades, and when the NCPFC formed in 2009, it joined more than 25 other state and regional councils (see map below). The first prescribed fire council was established in Florida in the 1980s, and more councils are forming every year. Though councils were once unheard of in the western US, they are now becoming more common, and recent years have seen the development of a Washington statewide council (2011) and, just last year, a new council in the southern Sierra Nevada region of California.
Participation in NCPFC meetings continues to grow, and over 100 people attended each of the two meetings in 2012. If you have an interest in fire ecology and management, or if you’d like to incorporate fire into your forest or range management practices, attending this or a future meeting could be well worth your time to 1) network with other folks that share your interests, and 2) learn new techniques and approaches for managing fire and fuels in California.
As a recent participant commented, “the council does an excellent job at bringing together different stakeholders from the fire community in productive interchange. The more collaboration between agencies, researchers, regulators, and the public the better! And on top of that, these meetings are lively and fun - the value of building camaraderie in the fire community should not be underestimated.”