Image caption: Flames and smoke rise from the ground as a prescribed fire is used to manage the landscape. Image Credit: Glacier NPS, Openverse.
Script by: Sophie Wenzlau Audio by: Jericho Rajninger Blurb by: Amanda Neslund
What is a Prescribed Burn?
Prescribed burns “reduc[e] excessive amounts of brush, shrubs, and trees, encouraging the new growth of native vegetation, and maintaining the many plant and animal species whose habitats depend on periodic fire,” according to Smokey Bear. Prescribed burns are conducted by intentionally igniting a fire on a day with very little to no wind in the forecast, in an area with abundant dry brush that was not recently burned. Fire is a natural part of California’s ecosystems. Prescribed burning mimics natural processes by reducing kindling and other fuel on forest floors, which in turn reduces the likelihood that massive and deadly wildfires will occur.
The History of Prescribed Burns
For thousands of years, Native tribes around the world have practiced cultural burning, otherwise known as prescribed burning. Cultural burning is “the intentional lighting of smaller, controlled fires to provide a desired cultural service, such as promoting the health of vegetation and animals that provide food, clothing, ceremonial items and more,” according to journalist Dave Roos.
Roos notes that Spanish colonizers not only brought disease and violence to America, but a prohibition on cultural burning practices: “one of the first official proclamations by a Spanish bureaucrat in California in 1793 was to outlaw ‘Indian burning,’ which was viewed as a threat to the Spanish cattle herds and pastures.” According to The Guardian, the US government passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians in 1850, which outlawed practices of cultural, prescribed, or intentional burning before California was even a state. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wildfires increased in size and intensity. Roos writes that “Millions of acres were destroyed by a series of deadly wildfires, many caused by sparks thrown from the new transcontinental railroad.”
Fire suppression can lead to a buildup of ‘fuel’ in forest landscapes, including fallen trees and drought-ridden undergrowth that help wildfires start and spread. Frequently controlled burning reduces this accumulated fuel and in turn reduces the intensity and severity of wildfires.
The Controversy around Prescribed Burns
The practice of prescribed burning is not without controversy. According to Bryant Baker, Conservation Director for ForestWatch, controlled burns could inadvertently exacerbate the problem they are trying to solve by killing native plants and causing the proliferation of invasive, early-drying grasses with low ignition points. Baker argues that this cycle could actually increase fire risk: “The spread of invasive grasses is increasing the frequency of fires. They pose a greater fire risk because they dry out earlier in the year … and have a very low ignition point.”
Current Regulations around Prescribed Burning
Since 2014, Native American tribes are required to obtain a permit signed by the local, state, or federal government before doing a prescribed or cultural burn. In addition to the permit, tribes must have a safety plan in place prior to the burn. These restrictions, while cumbersome, reduce the risk of prescribed burns resulting in uncontrolled fires. Nonetheless, the partnership of firefighters and Native American tribes in the practice of prescribed and cultural burns is becoming more common, bridging over two hundred years of restrictions that curbed a vital practice of stewardship, and which ultimately created the dangerous wildfire conditions we face today.
Prescribed burns are also a vital wildfire prevention tool utilized by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The agency uses planned and controlled application of fire as an efficient and cost-effective land management tool to reduce vegetation and wildfire risk. Approximately 125,000 acres of wildlands are treated with prescribed burns annually in California, and this number is expected to rise as the risk of wildfires continues to grow and more access is given to Native Tribes to utilize this tool as well.
Bill Tripp and the Karuk Tribe
Bill Tripp is the Director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy for the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources. The Karuk Tribe is a sovereign aboriginal people whose territory spans over a million acres in California and southern Oregon. The Karuk’s Natural Resource Department was established in 1989 and operates over 85 projects in 9 integrated program areas ranging from fisheries and water quality to wildfire management and generational learning. The mission of the department is to “protect, enhance and restore the natural resources and ecological processes upon which the Karuk people depend.” Within the department they have established a wildfire management program that trains members to meet national and state standards for fire response, which is the same system required for prescribed fires. Tripp is also a tribal government representative for the Biden Wildfire Mitigation and Management Commission, as well as a co-chair of the Western Regional Strategy Committee, which works to create a new doctrine of fire management and restore fire resilient landscape and effective fire responses. Tripp works as a co-lead on the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership to build trust and a shared vision for restoring fire resilience at the landscape scale through the Klamath Mountains and beyond.
Fuel Breaks, Prescribed Burns Controversial Wildfire Tools, Lompoc Record, 2020
History of Colonial Fire Laws, History.com, 2021
‘Fire is Medicine’: the Tribes Burning California Forests to Save Them, The Guardian, 2019
Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources
Prescribed Burning, California Air Resource Board
Prescribed Burns, SmokeyBear.com, 2021
Prescribed Fire, The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
Prehistoric Fire Area and Emissions from California’s Forest, Woodlands, Shrublands, and Grasslands, Science Direct, 2007
Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind, and you’re listening to Climate Break. Climate solutions in a hurry. Today’s proposal: using indigenous forest burning practices to prevent catastrophic wildfires and improve habitats in the face of climate change. We spoke to Bill Tripp, Director of Natural Resources for the Karuk Tribe in California, to learn more.
Bill Tripp: My great grandmother taught me how to use fire when I was four years old. Our ceremonial practices are deeply rooted in the use of fire.
Ethan: Prescribed burns, like what indigenous tribes conducted for thousands of years until colonial powers stopped them, are key to making communities more resilient to wildfires, which are increasing in severity with climate change. These burns remove excess vegetation and nurture native plants as an important climate solution.
Bill Tripp: I started writing grants, which quickly turned focus to fuels reduction with an eye towards restoring cultural burning practices at the landscape scale. The systems in place that led to agency control over fire and its use were founded on taking indigenous people out of that environment. So changing the thought process there is going to be critical. Let’s all get out there together and do some prescribed burning. Let’s create conditions where our people in our communities can get back and start to burn as a maintenance effort.
Ethan: To learn more about prescribed burning and indigenous-led efforts to address climate change, visit climatebreak.org.