'Fire is medicine': the tribes burning California forests to save them

Susie Cagle with photographs by Alexandra Hootnick

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 wildfires faster 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 it

Rick 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.”

How the US waged war on fire

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.

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“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.

The burn, part I: ‘Putting fire on the ground’

Catching the good-fire windows in climate-changing California weather is an intricate proposition. For the best burn, the prescription has to be just right: a little humidity in the air, low winds, the leaf litter dry and crunchy underfoot.

For native people, the land is a renewing resource, and they feel a responsibility to keep it healthy. Light, frequent burning of the forest understory maintains oak tree health, and the acorns and huckleberries for food, hazel and bear grass for weaving, and pepperwood and wormwood for medicine. Fire clears and maintains prairie landscapes as habitat for elk and deer, and visibility through the dense woods for hunting them. It promotes better spring flow and drought tolerance. The smoke from the burns in turn reflects sunlight and helps cool the river water, benefiting the salmon.

Indigenous people here essentially co-evolved with the landscape they tended.

“It’s selective manipulation through millennia to foster a more resilient, diverse and productive landscape,” said Frank Lake, a US Forest Service research ecologist with Karuk heritage and Yurok family.

The burn units are identified ahead of time for their resources and carved out to manageable size. Clear 3ft holding lines on each side serve as paths for firelighters on the move, bumping up and down the steep terrain, and controlling boundaries for the fire itself. This unit is about 90 acres, but they’ll only burn half today, a little more than 30 football fields worth – the rest is still too damp from an unexpected rain shower earlier in the week. Engines full of water are staged in the slim shoulder of Highway 169 at the bottom edge of the unit.

The cultural burn begins in a small clearing, under a golden sliver of early afternoon sunlight from a break in the pine canopy. Harold Myers of the Yurok tribe and Chris Villarruel of the Pit River tribe hold wormwood branches, dried and bound into torches. The Yurok tribe member and secretary of the Cultural Fire Management Council, Elizabeth Azzuz, lights them.

“Creator, we’re here today to do work for the land, for the people,” Myers begins, crouching low to the earth with his torch. “Give us guidance, clarity of mind, purity, and we may carry this out with the best intentions. We apologize for our brothers and sisters who are living here, but we are here to help you and help us.”

He gently repeats the Yurok word for thanks, “wokhlew, wokhlew, wokhlew”, just above a whisper, and gratefully touches his torch to the leaf litter.

How ‘good fire’ is returning

“I’ve been burning since I was four – my grandfather and my father taught me,” said Azzuz. “For us, when little kids start playing with matches is when they need to learn about the importance of how we use fire and why we use fire.”

Margo Robbins, the executive director of the Yurok Cultural Fire Management Council and head of tribal education for the local school district, remembers a childhood spent sledding down the wide grassy meadows in the Klamath foothills. Now, after decades without fire, nearly all that formerly open space is dense with pine trees and blackberry brambles.

“The fire suppression and the rules that govern who can put fires on the land pretty much criminalized the average person from burning,” said Robbins.

“It’s called arson now if you want to go out and do any burning,” said Bill Tripp, deputy director of eco-cultural revitalization for the Karuk tribe Department of Natural Resources. “It has been a continual practice, but there may be only a few individuals or families doing it on a small scale here today.”

“When you have colonization removing native people, disrupting that social structure around fire use, outlawing fire, and then actively using every construct in a militaristic way to suppress and exclude fires, then we have the conditions that we have now,” said the research ecologist Frank Lake.

Without fire, the Yurok art of basket weaving had begun to die out. What was once a mixed landscape of conifer forest and open prairie grew dense, and weevils and Sudden Oak Death took hold in the Klamath, leaving the land vulnerable to future wildfires. The vegetation that would benefit from low, slow intentional burns has suffered from higher, hotter wild burns, carried by that extra fuel. Wildfires used to burn a couple of thousand acres a year on average in the region – by the beginning of the 21st century, they were burning hundreds of thousands of acres.

The return of good fire plays a central role in the climate adaptation plan for the Karuk tribe, who self-describe as a “fix-the-world people”. “Across California, the increasing frequency of high severity fire points to the need to re-examine human relationships with fire,” the plan reads.

Left: Acorns in northern California in October. Right: Detail of a Yurok cap started by the grandmother of Margo Robbins

Eight years ago, the California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities initiative surveyed hundreds of Yurok tribe members to find out what they wanted and needed to improve their lives.

“The community identified bringing fire back to the land as the number one most important thing,” said Robbins.

In 2014, fire practitioners from the Yurok and Karuk tribes began working with the environmental not-for-profit Nature Conservancy’s Prescribed Fire Training Exchange, Trex, a global network of events designed to expose more firefighters to the concept and practice of prescribed burning.

The first year, the Yurok Trex burned 57 acres. The next year, 167.

“We have our babies in baskets again,” said Robbins.

“In the last five years, everything just started falling in place,” said Azzuz.

At this fall’s Yurok Trex, 30 local indigenous practitioners and firefighters from federal, state and private agencies from as far away as Canada and Spain, some brand new to fire, some with decades of experience, gathered together in the tribe’s community center in the tiny town of Weitchpec to start their cultural burn training week. They began by covering the 10 Standard Fire Orders of organization and safety. The final point: “Fight fire aggressively.”

Robbins raised her hand in objection.

“I think it should be light fire aggressively,” she insisted.

“We train firelighters, not firefighters,” Azzuz added, grinning.

The burn, part II: ‘Accept some risks’

According to this day’s prescription, they’ll have 90 minutes to put fire on the ground. The tools of choice vary. The stalwart drip torch is a small metal can with a wick at the end, filled with a mix of one part gasoline (the starter) and three parts diesel (the carrier). When you walk with the drip torch, “you’re taking fire with you,” says the Nature Conservancy’s Jeremy Bailey, a firefighter for over 25 years who envisioned the Trex model. “You basically have a loaded gun.” The hand-held fusee is a fire-starting flare. Sometimes, if conditions are perfect, all it takes is a lighter held up against the brush.

As the fire begins to grow, the crew moves into their positions, one team on each flank: line-holders at the edge with their shovels and axes, firelighters at the ready to begin the burn, fire effects monitors with instruments to check the weather conditions.

A couple of flicks from O’Rourke’s drip torch and a few moments later, the California laurels spark up.

“The only thing I could see that might create a problem is if we had a wind anomaly,” he says as he checks over his work.

As the smoke grows thicker, the crackle and chatter of radio traffic picks up, and the firelighters hoot up and down the hill to signal where they are.

“Having a good time?” asks Gabriel Cortez, the Yurok wildland fire captain. Cortez first trained O’Rourke in prescribed burning seven years ago.

“Yeah, it’s all right,” O’Rourke responds, smiling. He hands his drip torch off to Raven Parkins for the second half of the burn, saying he’s tired. He looks up at the gaps in the forest canopy, where the afternoon sun is shining lower, casting interrupted beams through the smoke.

“Divine light for sure.”

The mood is relaxed, confident but vigilant. A pile of heavy logs catch and start putting off large plumes of smoke; they have to be chainsawed and doused. If the fire gets “sporty”, it’s quickly handled with a backpack pump full of water. There are brief moments of tension, as firefighters lose each other temporarily in the smoke. Someone’s snagged in the black, caught in a thicket of blackberries with large hooking thorns. Someone’s pants momentarily catch on fire.

Everything is fine. In over 10 years of Trex burns, no one has ever had to fight a fire.

“You can mitigate the danger but you can’t eliminate it,” says Bailey. “You have to accept some risks.”

The predominant collective concern is less that the fire will slop over the holding lines and escape, and more that it won’t burn the unit thoroughly and completely. As the firelighters work their way down the hill, neighbors and family members drive by on the narrow, winding Highway 169 and cheer, honk and stop to check on the team’s progress.

This unit burns so well, under conditions so ideal, it doesn’t need to be extinguished with water from the waiting engines. They’ll continue to monitor it for two days until it’s “cold out”, but for now the crew can walk away with the brush lightly smoking, little flames still working their way down into the ash.

How tribes are leading the way

There is fire on the ground here again, but the work is far from done. While the ends may look similar, this version is not the true vision of indigenous burning.

“Although we’re burning for cultural purposes, this of course is not the way we did it,” said Robbins. “Traditionally, we didn’t dress in green pants and yellow shirts with helmets and have fire engines.”

In 2015, Robbins, Lake, Tripp and other indigenous fire practitioners began collaborating on a strategy to bring back native practices. Together they authored a “healthy country plan”, laying out the ramifications of fire exclusion and a path to returning indigenous burning to Karuk, Hupa and Yurok land in order to renew and maintain cultural resources, create sustainable economic opportunity, and make the land more resilient in the face of the climate crisis. That work has grown into the Indigenous Peoples Burn Network.

“The goal of the network is to get back to true traditional burning, where the average person can go out and burn their gathering spot or burn around their home to keep their home safe,” said Robbins.

These are forever people who care about these forever places, and they're never going to give up on fire

Mary Huffman of the Nature Conservancy

It’s a goal Robbins is working toward today. The council obtains permits from Cal Fire that allow them to help families burn their properties. They’re overwhelmed with applications from local landowners hoping to put fire on their ground.

“These are forever people who care about these forever places, and they’re never going to give up on fire,” said the Nature Conservancy’s Mary Huffman, who facilitates the Indigenous Peoples Burn Network. “If their cultures are tied to fire, if they shaped the landscapes for thousands and thousands of years with fire, why would they?”

Despite California’s fire-suppressing legacy, the indigenous fire history in the Klamath region has helped make it a hotspot for good fire.

In 2018, the fire ecologist Lenya Quinn-Davidson founded the Humboldt County Prescribed Burn Association, a firelighting co-op of landowners who manage each others’ properties – the first like it in the west. “People really want prescribed fire in their toolbox,” she said. “Their grandpas used it, they’ve heard of the tribes using it historically. People are really curious and excited about it.”

After suppressing fire in all forms, and the traditional ecological knowledge that went along with it, California’s top politicians and fire officials are now seeking out tribal guidance on fire policy as state agencies gear up to burn more than ever before. The state’s air quality managers are tasked with outreach to educate the public on the benefits of fire, as regions hand out more and more burn permits. In one particularly busy month in 2018, the north coast air quality management district permitted over 250 prescribed fires in the region.

But the tribes still do not fully control their own elements on their own land. A week after the Yurok Trex, a regional Cal Fire office shut down a burn during the fall Trex on Karuk land, citing elevated wildfire risk. The conditions were perfect, said Tripp. It didn’t matter.

Indigenous people don’t eschew the use of modern science – they just know this land, burned it and benefited from it for thousands of years. But convincing all the fire-fearful is still an uphill battle.

“A lot of them just still think we’re all arsonists,” said O’Rourke.

And the growth of support for prescribed burning at large is not necessarily all good news for native people, either. Tripp worries that transferring traditional ecological knowledge could mean being wholly co-opted, losing control of burning their land in a different way.

“We don’t have a problem teaching about our principles behind our practice and where, when, why, how,” said Tripp. “But we’re not interested in doing that if five years down the line they say OK, we’ll do it for you now, and you can just stay in poverty. That doesn’t work for us. If our culture’s going to die, we’ll just die with it.”

‘Fire is in our DNA’

The morning after the last burn, each Trex firefighter reports back to the group on their greatest lesson of the week. “It’s not just healing our lands, it’s healing our people,” says O’Rourke, beaming at the other firelighters.

No one outside the tribes has ever seen anything like this. One fire veteran with decades of experience is brought to tears.

The land may need more burning, but skeptics say we also can’t burn our way out of the climate crisis. And that preventive fire may be no match for more extreme wind-driven fire events like the ones California has seen more and more frequently in recent seasons.

Californians are learning what it means to coexist with fire – a lesson indigenous people have known roughly since the ice age – but doing so under the new extremes of global heating. Indigenous people aren’t promoting light burning as a panacea for the climate crisis. But, they say, it is one piece of the process. And it is their responsibility.

“Prescribed fire is medicine,” said Lake. “Traditional burning today has benefits to society as well as supporting what the tribes need.”

There is still burning on native land that is not permitted by Cal Fire, which is technically illegal. Sometimes it’s in a known gathering place, sometimes it’s just in the brush on the side of the road. Despite decades of criminalization, said Robbins, people just cannot and will not stop using fire here to the best of their abilities, knowledge and instincts.

“I think perhaps fire is in our DNA, because we’ve used it for thousands and thousands of years,” said Robbins. “When they refer to epigenetics, they say that the trauma is in our genes. But, you know, if the trauma’s in there, the other good stuff is there too.”