Wildfires are getting worse across the west. Do traditional Native American techniques offer the blueprint for safer fire seasons?
Table of Contents
Each year, about 7,500 wildfires burn approximately 1.5 million acres on national forests and grasslands, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Within the last 10 years, humans caused 54 percent of these fires; lightning ignited the other 46 percent.
With the climate getting hotter and drier and thousands of firefighters working overtime to battle these out-of-control wildfires, one solution exists. “Native Americans have been using controlled burns long before Colonialism,” Tony Marks-Block, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, Geography, and Environmental Studies at California State University, East Bay, says. “Incorporating traditional Native American techniques into current fire suppression practices could cost-effectively reduce wildfire risks. The time-tested technology that California Indians used for millennia is prescribed fire. And as many Indigenous fire leaders say, we need to embrace fire instead of fear it.”
Marks-Block collaborated with Karuk and Yurok Indigenous Peoples of the Klamath River watershed. It was there that he learned about Indigenous ecology, philosophy, and social movements. “Fire isn’t the problem,” he says. “It’s part of the solution.”
Also called “prescribed burns” and “prescribed fires,” controlled burns are set to manage and control fires. The National Park Service defines controlled burns as “one of the most important tools used to manage fire today. A scientific prescription for each fire, prepared in advance, describes its objectives, fuels, size, the precise environmental conditions under which it will burn, and conditions under which it may be suppressed. The fire may be designed to create a mosaic of diverse habitats for plants and animals, to help endangered species recover, or to reduce fuels and thereby prevent a destructive fire.”
Wildfires occur all over the world, except Antarctica, and while they cause extensive damage, wildfires have some benefits. It’s hard to see anything positive, especially for those living in the Western part of the United States. Lives have been lost and people lost their homes and livelihoods. Those living in states adjacent to out-of-control wildfires have spent a lot of time indoors trying to avoid the smoke, which makes breathing difficult and exacerbates asthma and other health conditions.
“Most of our western forests are in natural fire ecosystems,” says John Waconda, a member of the Pueblo of Isleta, New Mexico tribe, and the Indigenous Partnerships Program director at The Nature Conservancy (TNC). “”We have excluded fire in many of these environments, which has caused unhealthy forests, created an unnatural buildup of material, which is fuel for fires, and developed communities in forests which now need fire protection.”
The Solution: Prescribed Burns
Overcrowded forests where too many trees and vegetation compete for sunlight, water, and nutrients from the soil, are ideal places for out-of-control wildfires. The dense canopy doesn’t allow enough water to reach all of the trees and the soil, which makes for a dry environment, perfect for burning, especially when combined with hotter temperatures. “The canopy of tall trees block sunlight from reaching the forest floor,” Marks-Block says. “A controlled burn clears out the canopy and lets the sunshine in, which helps ground vegetation and small plants grow.”
Not Everyone Embraces Controlled Burns
The U.S. Forest Service shifted its focus from prescribed burns to suppressing wildfires. As a result, 40 fire and forest scientists sent a letter to Randy Moore, Chief USDA, Forest Service, explaining why controlled fires are more cost effective and beneficial than spending money solely on fire suppression.
“If state and federal governments invested the amount of money they spend on wildfire suppression for prescribed fire, wildfires would be much less costly and damaging in the long run,” Marks-Block says.
Controlled fires still occur on a much smaller scale in the U.S. According to Waconda, “Fire is part of nature. It’s just like the rain, the sunrise each day. It’s a natural occurrence, a part of nature necessary to complete lifecycles of different plants and animals.”
As director of the Indigenous Partnerships Program,” Waconda assists in implementing the Living with Fire Program developed by TNC, which works with indigenous communities and peoples to promote an integrated approach to managing fire.
Native peoples learned to live with and manage fire for centuries and to use it in ways to enrich their communities. “I’ve become very concerned about losing tradition and culture and being able to protect and preserve it by taking care of the forest and the resources,” Waconda says. “Especially being older now with children, you want the best for them, and you want a better life than what you have. To make the path a little bit better for them than what we have.”
“When it comes to balance and fire,” Waconda says, “there can be too much and there can be too little. Many of today’s extreme fires have sprung from the attitudes that people have had towards fire over the last century. That fire was bad, not good for the landscape, and that it needed to be extinguished. A lack of understanding of fire’s ecological role led to those attitudes.”
Removing fire or trying to change its natural cycle leads to “dense, overstocked forests that will cause repercussions later,” Waconda says. “Fire can be good if it’s practiced appropriately under the right conditions and at the right time.”
“In most Native American cultures, we are one with nature and fire is a part of nature’s cycle as all life is,” he explains. “”Understanding the role of fire as any natural event in our environment is essential in restoring and continuing to live with nature, not dominating or controlling it, but living with it. Our culture and traditions are place based and we value the natural cycle and events in nature, respecting the power and purpose of nature, of which fire is a restoring element.”
10 Preventive Methods You Can Do in Your Yard
Since we cause 54 percent of wildfires, here’s what we can do to prevent them:
- Avoid building campfires on hot, dry, and windy days.
- If you do build a campfire, make sure it’s far from dry flammable materials such as logs, brush, or decaying leaves and needles. Cut wood in short lengths and pile it in a cleared area. Always stay close to the fire and extinguish it completely before leaving the camping area.
- Use cold water to douse the fire and don’t leave until you are sure it’s completely out.
- If you are off-roading, your exhaust can reach flammable temperatures. Never drive or park over dry grass.
- When camping, carry a shovel, bucket, and fire extinguisher in your car to put out fires.
- Use glow sticks instead of fireworks. According to the National Fire Protection Association, fireworks start over 19,000 fires and send more than 9,000 people to the emergency room each year in the U.S.
- If you smoke, douse cigarette butts with water and place in waste receptacles.
- On your property, clear away dead trees, brush, and vegetation.
- Plant fire-resistant foliage in your yard. French lavender, sage, primrose, and other plants, trees, and shrubs work well.
- Install stone walls and patios to create fire-resistant zones on your property.