For tribes, ‘good fire’ a key to restoring nature and people

Oct 28, 2021, 8:18 PM | Updated: Oct 29, 2021, 8:45 am
Elizabeth Azzuz stands in prayer with a handmade torch of dried wormwood branches before leading a ...

Elizabeth Azzuz stands in prayer with a handmade torch of dried wormwood branches before leading a cultural training burn on the Yurok reservation in Weitchpec, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. Azzuz, who is Yurok, along with other native tribes in the U.S. West are making progress toward restoring their ancient practice of treating lands with fire, an act that could have meant jail a century ago. But state and federal agencies that long banned "cultural burns" are coming to terms with them and even collaborating as the wildfire crisis worsens. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

WEITCHPEC, Calif. (AP) — Elizabeth Azzuz stood in prayer on a Northern California mountainside, grasping a torch of wormwood branches, the fuel her Native American ancestors used to burn underbrush in thick forests.

“Guide our hands as we bring fire back to the land,” she intoned before igniting leaves and needles carpeting the slope above the Klamath River.

Over several days in October, about 80 acres (32.4 hectares) on the Yurok reservation were set aflame in a program that teaches ancient skills of treating land with fire.

It was among many “cultural burns” allowed in recent years by state and federal agencies that had long banned them — a sign of evolving attitudes toward wildfire prevention. Research increasingly confirms low-intensity burns can reduce the risk by consuming fire fuels.

Wildfires have blackened nearly 6,000 square miles (15,540 square kilometers) in California the past two years. Dozens have died; thousands of homes have been lost.

But to the Yurok, Karuk and Hupa in the mid-Klamath region, cultural burning is about reclaiming a way of life suppressed with the arrival of white settlers.

The tribes’ hunter-gatherer lifestyle was devastated by prohibitions on fire that tribes had used for thousands of years to spur growth of acorn-bearing trees, clear space for deer and spur hazel wood stems used for baskets.

“Fire is a tool left by the Creator to restore our environment and the health of our people,” said Azzuz, board secretary for the Cultural Fire Management Council, which promotes burning on ancestral Yurok lands. “Fire is life for us.”

Merv George, a former Hoopa Valley Tribe chairman who now supervises Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, said officials who once considered native burners “arsonists” realize a new approach is needed.

Two national forests — Six Rivers and Klamath — crafted a 2014 landscape restoration partnership with the Karuk tribe and nonprofits that endorsed intentional burns.

Yurok, Karuk and Hupa activists and The Nature Conservancy later created the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network, whose training burns that have drawn participants from across the U.S. and other countries.

“It’s really exciting and gives me a lot of hope that the tide is changing,” said Margo Robbins, a basket weaver and director of the fire management council. “We revived our language, our dances, and now, bringing back fire, we’ll restore the land.”

This month’s burn involved 30-plus crew members who prepared extensively — scouting the area, positioning fire hoses and water tanks.

As Azzuz finished her ceremonial prayer, the wormwood that coaxed the first flames was replaced with modern “drip torches” — canisters of gasoline and diesel with spouts and wicks. Team members moved quickly along a dirt trail, flicking burning fuel droplets.

Smoke billowed. Flames crackled. Tangled foliage was reduced to ash, while bigger oaks, madrones and conifers were largely spared.

Jose Luis Dulce, a firefighter in his native Spain and Ecuador, hopes to help revive Indigenous techniques in Europe and South America. Stoney Timmons said his tribe — the Robinson Rancheria Pomo Indians of California — wants to host its own training session next year.

Robert McConnell Jr. spent years with Forest Service wildfire crews, attacking from helicopters and driving bulldozers. Now a prescribed fire specialist with Six Rivers National Forest, he works with fire instead of against it.

“It’s encoded in my DNA,” he said. “It’s like there’s a spark in my eye when I see fire get put on the ground.”

When Yurok forestry director Dawn Blake helped light the hillside, she felt a connection with her grandmother, who wove baskets and set fires in the area long ago.

“We’ve been talking and begging about doing this for so long, just spinning our wheels,” said Blake, 49. “It feels like we’re finally being heard.”

But tribes want to go beyond training exercises and “family burns” on small plots. They’re pushing to operate throughout the vast territories their ancestors occupied.

“My ultimate goal is to restore all this land back to a natural state,” said Blaine McKinnon, battalion chief for the Yurok Fire Department.

Relations with federal and state authorities have improved. But cultural fire leaders say pledges of cooperation aren’t always carried out by local officials, who fear dismissal if fires get out of hand.

Craig Tolmie, chief deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the agency tries to balance the tribes’ desires for more fire with opposition from a jittery public.

“People have really been traumatized and shocked by the last two fire seasons,” Tolmie said.

Under new state laws, tribal burners and front-line regulators will work more closely, he said. One measure requires his department to appoint a cultural burning liaison. Another makes it easier to get liability insurance for prescribed fires.

Still, Tolmie argued that many areas first should be “pre-treated” with mechanical grinding and tree thinning to reduce decades of accumulated debris.

Chad Hanson, forest ecologist with the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute in California, contends regulators are “trying to extort tribes” by making cultural burns contingent on logging.

Tribes should be empowered to handle prescribed burns while Cal Fire and the Forest Service focus on suppressing wildfires, said Bill Tripp, the Karuk tribe’s natural resources director.

The mid-Klamath area is ideal for a teaching center where cultural burners could “guide us into a new era of living with fire,” Tripp said.

Tribes are uniquely positioned to train younger generations about stewardship-oriented fire management, said Scott Stephens, an environmental policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “We’d need literally thousands of people doing this burning to ramp it up to a scale that’s meaningful,” he said.

Talon Davis, 27, a member of the Yurok crew, welcomed the opportunity “to show the world what good fire is.”

“This is how we’re supposed to care for Mother Earth,” he said. “Put fire back on the ground, bring our home back into balance.”


Associated Press reporter Gillian Flaccus contributed to this story.


Follow John Flesher on Twitter: @JohnFlesher


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Associated Press

Judge rules naughty bits off limits at Trump dossier trial

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A federal judge ruled Tuesday that prosecutors cannot present evidence to a jury about the most salacious parts of a flawed dossier alleging connections between former President Donald Trump and Russia at an upcoming trial of an analyst who served as a primary source for that report. Igor Danchenko is scheduled […]
15 hours ago
FILE - A logo for Amazon is displayed on a screen at the Nasdaq MarketSite, July 27, 2018. Amazon i...
Associated Press

Report: Amazon freezes hiring on corporate retail division

NEW YORK (AP) — Amazon is implementing a hiring freeze on the corporate side of its retail business for the rest of the year, according to a New York Times report, becoming the latest company to pause hiring plans amid growing concerns about an economic downturn. Citing an internal announcement, The New York Times reported […]
15 hours ago
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz rubs his eyes during the penalty phase of...
Associated Press

Expert: School shooter faked fetal alcohol symptoms

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Prosecutors spent several boring hours Tuesday trying to prove Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz purposely did poorly on tests administered to see if he suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, the primary reason his attorneys say he murdered 17 people four years ago. But after presenting dozens of charts showing […]
15 hours ago
FILE - Kelli Ward, chair of the Arizona Republican Party, holds a news conference in Phoenix, Nov. ...
Associated Press

Lawyers: Arizona GOP chair pleaded Fifth to Jan. 6 panel

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward refused to answer questions during a deposition of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, an attorney for the panel revealed Tuesday during a court hearing in Phoenix. Attorney Eric Columbus told a federal judge that Ward asserted her Fifth Amendment right […]
15 hours ago
Freight cars wait to be hauled out of the Norfolk Southern Conway Terminal in Conway, Pa., Thursday...
Associated Press

Fourth union approves deal with railroads to get 24% raises

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Another union has approved the deal it made with the major freight railroads last month that helped prevent a strike to secure 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses for the workers it represents. The American Train Dispatchers Association said Tuesday that 64% of its roughly 1,600 members approved the deal with […]
15 hours ago
FILE - U.S. Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock, wearing a "I'm a Georgia Voter" sticker, leaves a press conf...
Associated Press

Walker report puts abortion back at center of Georgia race

ATLANTA (AP) — In Georgia’s pivotal U.S. Senate race, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, have each been laboring to cast the other as an extremist on abortion while deflecting questions about the finer points of their own positions. The sidestepping by Warnock, who supports abortion rights, and Walker, who has […]
15 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]
For tribes, ‘good fire’ a key to restoring nature and people