Learning from the centuries-old prescribed fire practices of Native Americans


Slater or Devil Fire
Slater/Devil Fire complex, September 15, 2020. InciWeb.

National Geographic has a long, interesting article about the differences in Northern California forests before and after the resident native Americans were prohibited from continuing their practice of prescribed burning. The author, Charles C. Mann, interviewed members of the Karuk tribe that were affected by last summer’s fires, including the Slater Fire that destroyed hundreds of structures near Happy Camp. They are hoping to restore, in a current-day context, a more robust prescribed fire program.

Below is an excerpt:


…The anti-flame campaign profoundly altered the American environment. Wildfire had been common in western forests. Much or most of that burning was due to the area’s first humans, who torched away the undergrowth that fueled future fires before it could build to dangerous levels. Thousands of years of controlled, targeted combustion created a landscape that was a patchwork of new and old burns—meadows, berry patches, park-like woodland, and so on. As these flames ceased, a new kind of forest emerged: a nearly fire-free ecosystem that was unlike anything that had existed since the end of the Ice Age.

[Kathy] McCovey is a retired Forest Service anthropologist. With [Joe] Jerry, she belongs to a Karuk fire-lighting brigade. For years they had been begging the Forest Service to let them burn the brush on the slopes around their homes. If you don’t let us burn, they had warned, there will be a catastrophic fire.

“Whoops,” McCovey said.

When something—lightning, a campfire, a downed utility line, a spark from a tool hitting a rock—sets the forest debris on fire, the flames climb the “fuel ladder” to shrubbery and young trees, then jump to the crowns of the older trees, creating a high wall of flame that can be caught by the wind. “We’re going to have to get these trees out,” she said, pointing to the mass of fire-blasted fir around us. “If they don’t, in five years it will burn again and be worse.” (Here’s how wildfires get started—and how to stop them.)

To McCovey, the problem was not just that the new forests were flammable. It was that they were “a food desert for animals and people.” The Forest Service and western state governments, like her ancestors, had managed the forest—had, in effect, farmed it. But the Forest Service and the states had farmed the forest to produce a single commodity: timber. McCovey’s ancestors had farmed the landscape for many reasons.

(end of excerpt)


More information is at the Indigenous Peoples Burn Network, a growing collaboration of Native nations, partnered with nonprofit organizations, academic researchers, and government agencies. It is a support network among Native American communities that are revitalizing their traditional fire practices in a contemporary context.

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