The basket weavers were the first to notice that the forest was overdue for a fire.
When the artisans, who are members of the Northfork Mono tribe, foraged at Kirk Ranch in Mariposa, California, for the stalks of sourberry and redbud that make up the fibers of their baskets, they found them bent and brittle. Their weak stems were a sign not only that the overgrown woodland understory was impeding their growth, but that the forest above was in declining health and prone to burn big in a wildfire.
So on the weekend of Feb. 12, members of the tribe cut brush, trimmed limbs off trees, sawed up dead timber and cleared ground around the site. Then they set fire to the grass and scrub of the understory, which was filled with invasives like star thistle, dodder and tarweed that were crowding out the coveted redbud, elderberry and sourberry. Nearby, they ignited piles of timber dead cottonwoods.
Such intentionally-ignited fires in forests and grasslands are called “prescribed burns” by non-native firefighters and land managers, who acknowledge that such blazes must burn more often over much greater acreage to reduce the accumulated timber that is helping to fuel the nation’s steep spike in the size and destructiveness of wildfires. But to indigenous communities, they represent “good fire” and more than just tools to stave off the devastation of wildfires and make forests healthier.
“When we think of fire, we think of fire as a relative. We refer to fire as our kin,” said Melinda Adams, a doctoral student studying Native American use of fire at the University of California, Davis who joined the crew burning the ranch land. “Fire is a partner in this stewardship work.”
More academically known as “cultural burning,” such fires have for centuries been key events for Native American communities to pass on culturally important stories and language, build community and tend to the ecosystems that provide their food, water, fibers, medicines and shelter.
Cultural burns, or “good fire,” are small area fires burning at low intensity and conducted using traditional ecological knowledge, according to Frank Lake, a Native American fire researcher with the U.S. Forest Service, who grew up participating in such burns as a member of the Karuk and Yurok tribes of Northern California. Lake describes such fires as “socio-cultural medicine” that strengthens the intergenerational bonds between tribal members.
“Prescribed fire is medicine,” Lake told the Guardian newspaper. “Traditional burning today has benefits to society as well as supporting what the tribes need.”
At the university, Adams, who is also a member of the San Carlos Apache tribe from Albuquerque, New Mexico, is part of an effort to bring cultural burning practitioners together.
“Think of our elders—people who in their lifetimes have seen climate change, have seen ecosystem change, shifting environments and have seen the land their cultures belong to transformed,” she said. “They’re also the people who steward and tend and care for those lands. They are the knowledge sharers.”
The fires set by the Northfork Mono tribe burn at low intensity on the ground, and the tribal members stay and tend them until they’re out. They douse the remaining embers with water and rake the ash and topsoil to spread out the char to improve the soils. Adams said the burns at Kirk Ranch, which began in 2018, have already shown results in the redbud and sourberry.
“When they started to come back, we saw that their stalks were straighter and there was less breakage,” Adams said.