Karuk Tribe, allies press California to change fire policies as report released

By Dan Bacher | 

Happy Camp, CA –  In the wake of last year’s disastrous fires on the Klamath River and elsewhere in California, the Karuk Tribe and a diverse coalition of partners today released Good Fire: Current Barriers to the Expansion of Cultural Burning in California and Recommended Solutions.

“The report is a comprehensive look at the obstacles that Tribes, ranchers, community fire safe councils and others face when trying to use cultural and prescribed burning to manage the unhealthy buildup of fuels in rural landscapes across the state,” according to a press release from the Tribe and their partners. “Policy solutions are proposed for every barrier to allow more prescribed fires to protect communities and resources. The document is basically a policy roadmap for lawmakers and communities committed to better managing wildfire in California.” 

Last fall Karuk Tribal members and their neighbors in the small rural community of Happy Camp on the Klamath River in Northern California lost over 200 homes and lost 2 lives in the Slater Fire.

Organizations collaborating on the Good Fire project include the Karuk Tribe; Mid-Klamath Watershed Council; Pacific Forest Trust; California Indian Environmental Alliance; The Watershed Center; Shute, Mihaly, and Weinberg, LLC.; Northern California Prescribed Fire Council; the Cultural Fire Management Council; The Fire Restoration Group.  

“Over 100 years of fire suppression and poor environmental stewardship have contributed to a dangerous build-up of brush and unhealthy forest conditions,” said Don Hankins, Ph.D,  a professor at Chico State where he teaches a course in pyrogeography. “Add to this climate change and communities unable to use fire to reduce brush and improve forest health creates disastrous results as seen in Happy Camp, Redding, Santa Rosa, and Paradise in the aftermath of devastating fires.”

“Restoring fire to the landscape is a fundamental way we can alleviate such conditions,” added Hankins, an internationally recognized expert in academic circle and a Plains Miwok cultural fire practitioner.

“We identified eight policy areas that serve to prevent local communities from using prescribed fire to manage the landscape and protect their homes. In many cases, well intended environmental and public safety policies serve as barriers to keeping our forests healthy and communities fire-safe,” said co-author Sara Clark, an attorney with the public interest law firm Shute, Mihaly, and Weinberger. 

The report’s executive summary states:

In 2020, over four percent of California burned in wildfire. Over 30 people lost their lives in the fires; experts estimate an additional 3,000 premature deaths may have resulted from wildfire smoke. Property damage is expected to top $10 billion and related greenhouse gas emissions erased California’s progress on climate change. Cultural burning and prescribed fire are essential tools in managing these impacts, restoring California’s fire-adapted ecosystems, and repairing the fraught relationship between California, its Indigenous peoples, and stewardship of the landscape. Based on the direct experiences of cultural fire practitioners and other burners, Good Fire explores the legal and policy underpinnings of current barriers to expanding the scope of intentional fire in California. From there, the paper identifies legislative, regulatory, and policy solutions. While individuals and agencies have made good progress, far more work is needed if intentional fire is going to have a significant impact on the wildfire-related challenges California faces. The time to act is now.”

Tribes like the Karuk say they are “seeking a return to the historic landscape management practices of their ancestors while farmers and ranchers are trying to manage noxious weeds and pests.” In many cases the legal and policy barriers to both are the same, according to the Tribe.

The Tribe is currently working with Governor Gavin Newsom to provide funding for tribal cultural burn programs and a number of lawmakers to reform problematic statutes.

“California’s landscape evolved with fire. The idea that we can put out every fire is ridiculous and harmful to the land,” said Bill Tripp, Director of Natural Resources for the Karuk Tribe. “But we can work with fire to nurture forests, making them healthier while keeping our communities safe.”   

in an essay published in the UK Guardian on September 16, 2020, Tripp wrote that the solution to the devastating West Coast wildfires “is to burn like our Indigenous ancestors have for millennia.”

”As wildfires rage across California, it saddens me that Indigenous peoples’ millennia-long practice of cultural burning has been ignored in favor of fire suppression,” wrote Tripp. “But it breaks my heart, that regardless of our attempts to retain our cultural heritage and manage our homelands in a manner consistent with our Indigenous customs, the Slater fire is burning down the homes of our tribal members, our tribal staff and our community.”

Tribes and allies are now working with State Senator Bill Dodd (D-Napa) on reforms to liability laws that “currently disincentivize prescribed fire.” 

According to Dodd’s Office, “Sen. Dodd has been a leading advocate for wildfire safety during his time in the Legislature, writing more than a dozen new laws to improve prevention and response. He has been a champion of innovation, authoring the 2019 bill that established the state’s Wildfire Forecast and Threat Intelligence Integration Center to enhance California’s ability to predict and prepare for wildfires.”

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