Returning prescribed fire to California forests is the focus of a new climate-adaptation plan from the Karuk Tribe, but the federal government will need to play big role.
More and more land in California is going up in flames. The area in the state burned by wildfires has increased by a factor of five since 1972, according to a recent study, which identified human-caused warming the likely culprit.
The Karuk Tribe wants to fight fire with fire. This summer the tribe, one of the largest in the state, released a climate-adaptation plan that calls for a return to a more natural fire regime. According to the plan, using prescribed burns at appropriate times of the year in place of the current policy of fire suppression would reduce the possibility of high-severity fires, which have proven deadly and costly for California in recent years and are expected to worsen as the climate warms.
“Climate adaptation is about restoring human responsibilities and appropriate relationships to the natural world,” says Bill Tripp, deputy director of Karuk Natural Resources Department and a co-author of the plan.
Wildfires have always been a part of the ecology of California, and “Karuk people have long been part of the ecosystem,” says Tripp. Prescribed burning, in particular, has been a key part of cultural practices of Indigenous people for millennia. As the Karuk climate plan explains, “Due in part to these thousands of years of purposeful fire management, the forests of this region are ecologically dependent on fires that are low in heat production, or ‘cooler’ fires.”
But much of that historic burning was snuffed out with the arrival of white settlers and a century-long U.S. government policy of fire suppression. In the Karuk territory and many other areas of the West, ecosystems are adapted to burn frequently, but suppression disrupts those natural processes. Instead, forests end up with dense, homogenous stands of trees, meadows are crowded out and dead materials accumulate on the forest floor — all of which can contribute to high-intensity fires that are now being supersized by warmer, drier forest conditions.
For the Karuk this has consequences for everything from food to culture. As the plan explains, “The exclusion of fire has led to radical ecological changes including high fuel loads, decreased habitat for large game such as elk and deer, reduction in the quantity and quality of acorns, and alteration of growth patterns of basketry materials such as hazel and willow.”
The Karuk’s climate-adaptation plan is an effort to shift the management dynamic and builds on some recent cooperative work among the Forest Service, the Karuk and other local groups.
“This plan is years in the making and we’re hoping we’ll be able to actually start to change the paradigm in the way fire is managed in Karuk country,” says Tripp.
The Karuk’s plan is also part of a growing effort from dozens of tribes across the United States to assess climate vulnerability and build adaptation plans, although each tribe faces unique challenges, especially tribes without federal recognition. (The Karuk have federal recognition, a relative rarity in California.)
“Indigenous people are disproportionately impacted by the changing climate as they lack the financial resources to build new infrastructure,” says Kari Norgaard, associate professor of sociology and environmental studies at the University of Oregon and a co-author of the Karuk plan. “But for the Karuk, their vulnerability to climate change is also a function of state policy — the Karuk’s ability to do what they want to do is reduced because of those structural conditions.” Basic management decisions regarding land-use, logging and fire policy are out of their hands.
At the same time, says Norgaard, tribal members possess a wealth of information on the management of local ecosystems that should play a leading role as the region plans for how to cope with climate impacts.
“Native American tribes and native nations have been at the forefront of a lot of climate work, whether that’s in the-street-protests or putting up solar panels or doing climate adaptation plans,” she says.
“One of the biggest obstacles is the sense that indigenous knowledge is sort of dead or not valid,” says Norgaard, who has conducted collaborative research projects with the Karuk since 2003. “Many people just do not understand how much indigenous knowledge about fire use is really a modern science still today.” Western scientists have increasingly called for the incorporation of traditional ecological knowledge into new plans for reintroducing natural fire regimes back to the landscape.
“Prescribed fire is one of the most widely advocated management practices for reducing wildfire hazard and has a long and rich tradition rooted in indigenous and local ecological knowledge,” Crystal A. Kolden, an associate professor in the Department of Forest, Rangeland and Fire Sciences at the University of Idaho, wrote in a report in the journal Fire. “The scientific literature has repeatedly reported that prescribed fire is often the most effective means of achieving such goals by reducing fuels and wildfire hazard and restoring ecological function to fire-adapted ecosystems in the United States following a century of fire exclusion.”
There’s also the public perception or “social license,” he says. Twenty years ago, the majority of people believed that all fire was bad, says Tripp. But he’s seen that mentality shift in recent years. More and more people are learning that fire can be used beneficially — although it can be still be a tough sell in a state that has seen recent wildfires claim dozens of lives.
But the Karuk are hoping to convince people through example. The tribe has been working closely for years to develop a plan with the Six Rivers National Forest on a 5,500-acre demonstration project that will allow them to begin some restoration and prescribed burning in the national forest. They hope to carry the lessons learned from that work to further efforts, says Tripp.
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