‘Fire As Medicine’ — Exploring The Millennia-Old Indigenous Tradition Of Prescribed Burns

August 17, 2021

By Aara Ramesh

For a few months now, it seems like there has been fresh news about the western United States burning almost every day, with record heat-waves and fires sweeping through the region. Per the National Fire Information Center (NFIC), the country’s National Preparedness Level is currently at 5, the maximum — something that has been the case since July 14. The NIFC says that “above normal significant fire potential” will likely continue through September for some regions of the country, including the northwest and Northern Rockies.

As of Monday, Aug. 16, more than 25,000 firefighters and associated personnel are engaged in fighting 97 large fires and complexes that have collectively burned over 2.1 million acres. They are supported in these efforts by six military aircrafts and a large air-tanker from Australia. A simple perusal of the Associated Press website shows that it is not just the U.S. that is facing this battle — areas as far apart as Siberia and Jerusalem are also fighting active blazes.

Amidst this, scientists and experts are sounding the alarm over the likelihood of climate change only exacerbating this problem, saying that record-breaking wildfire seasons may come to be a way of life in the near future.

While the solutions to this broad problem are multifaceted, one idea that has gained traction recently is allowing the “prescribed” burning of select areas, to help prevent and stall deadly wildfires. In fact, in urging the public to do their part in limiting damage, the NIFC asked citizens to safely clear potentially flammable vegetation around buildings, in large lots, and along roadsides.

What sometimes may slip under the radar is that prescribed burns are part of cultural tradition that traces back millennia, to some of the earliest peoples of North America. In today’s piece, we look at the Indigenous practice of cultural burning and what relevant lessons can be learned from that history.

Indigenous Peoples And Climate Change

As awareness and worries over climate change have increased over recent decades, many have been highlighting the fact that, in addition to the poorest communities around the world, Indigenous Peoples are being disproportionately affected by the effects of extreme weather events.

Forest fires tend to affect those areas where Indigenous reservations are located, and the drying up of oceans and other water bodies has led to a loss in traditional food sources and species that Native Peoples depend on for hunting, their livelihoods, and their survival. Their very way of life is at stake, Indigenous leaders warn.

Despite the fact that there are many who would argue that Indigenous Peoples have had little to do with exacerbating climate change, the truth is that the secret to conservation and the mitigation of this global disaster may also lie in the hands of these communities, known sometimes as the “custodians” of the Earth.

According to the UN, Indigenous Peoples account for less than 5% of the world’s population but safeguard 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. As a result, they are considered one of the most critical demographic groups when it comes to fighting climate change and building resilience to its effects.

One of these tried-and-tested solutions that is simple and well-backed by science is the practice of prescribed burns.

Cultural Burning As A Practice

Historically, cultural burns or prescribed burns have also been called “controlled” burns. But the truth, as anyone who has ever come face to face with a raging fire will tell you, is that fire is extremely difficult — and sometimes impossible — to really control. It has, however, also long been considered a tool of human progress and development.

Though the idea of purposely setting a fire in a forested area might seem anathema to some, Indigenous Peoples in North America have been conducting light burns with “good fire” for centuries now. In fact, some 70 different uses of fire by Indigenous Peoples have been documented across the world.

The reasons for deliberately setting fires to some parts of forests are manifold. On one hand, razing a piece of land to the ground promotes the growth of food sources that tribes used to rely on before settled farming became the norm. Some species like salmon also see life cycle benefits from managed burns. It can also be beneficial for non-food plants that are used in manufacturing like, for instance, the hazel used by the Yurok peoples for weaving baskets, which needs fire to grow straight and sturdy. 

Another way managed burns were used by Native Americans was to provide nutritious fodder for deer. It was also used to clear travel routes, as a way to send messages over long distances, control populations of pests like rats and insects, and to both drive away and lure in animals like buffalo or deer for hunting purposes.

One of the most important benefits, however, is that prescribed burns of a small or medium scale are crucial to clearing the forests of fuel that would otherwise feed a spontaneous fire. Without regular burns, vegetation is allowed to grow unchecked and, as the climate dries up (either due to changing seasons or climate change), this turns into an abundance of kindling that is just waiting for a spark, like a lightning strike.

Prescribed burns are considered to be one of the best methods to manage and mitigate potentially catastrophic wildfires because they involve systematically clearing vegetation build-up and removing this kindling from the path of a naturally occuring fire.

History Of Cultural Burning

Historians say that many of the most treasured natural assets of the U.S. today have been traditionally cultivated and nurtured by Native Americans for thousands of years, largely through the use of fire.

With European arrivals, however, came a belief that the practices of setting fires as a way to control wildfires was primitive and that fire itself was destructive at best. Expressing a healthy fear of flames, the leaders of the colonies — and eventually the United States — outlawed many Indigenous religious ceremonies, including cultural burning. At stake were efforts to protect the highly lucrative timber trade, as well as watersheds, cattle and other domesticated animals, and rapidly expanding communities. 

This policy was, by all accounts, largely misguided. After all, Native Americans had extensive practice and experience with setting fires. “We don’t put fire on the ground and not know how it’s going to turn out,” Ron Goode, tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono, is quoted as saying by NPR. What’s more, such ritual burnings were highly common even in Europe, where experienced farmers and herdsmen had been likewise utilizing fire on their own lands for centuries. Their knowledge, however, was just as summarily dismissed.

This negative cultural association between fire, primitivism, and economic interests among the new peoples of the Americas culminated in a widespread policy of complete fire suppression. Part of this was the passing of the Weeks Act of 1911, which allowed the government to purchase millions of acres of land, ostensibly for preservation purposes and on which they banned fire-setting.

In 1910, a series of fires over a two-day span burned over 3 million acres in Montana, Idaho, and Washington, killing scores of firefighters. Known as the “Big Blowup” or the “Great Fires of 1910,” it further cemented beliefs that total fire suppression was the only way to stop such a thing from happening again.

For the majority of the 1900s, the U.S. government continued to focus on this policy, choosing not to embrace the cultural burns practices that Native American tribes endorsed. Without the aforementioned burns, fuel was plentiful, meaning that those once safe landscapes now became primed for out-of-control wildfires.

It has only been in recent years that non-Native officials have come to realize the many benefits of prescribed burns. Today, many Indigenous organizations are working to bring the practice of cultural burns back, including through cooperation with local, state, and the federal governments.

There are a number of “Prescribed Burn Associations” (PBAs) in areas like California, where wildfire season is a way of life. These PBAs are “community based, mutual aid networks” between neighbors, farmers, and private landowners, who routinely come together to help each other with deliberate burns, through sharing labor, equipment, and skills.

Still though, Indigenous Peoples are not entirely allowed to take the lead or chart the path forward. Due to federal laws, those who do still have the historical knowledge on how to conduct safe burns are not allowed to do so — even if that would mean preserving their culture or protecting the surrounding community and ecosystem. Even if they have the right (under treaties with the government) to hunt and fish on public lands, they are not allowed to set fires. Sometimes, they are not even allowed to do so on their own reservation land.

Per Bill Tripp, director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy for the Karuk Tribe, the inability for his people to conduct prescribed burns has meant a loss of heritage, as the materials they once were skilled in using now no longer grow properly, meaning that treasured techniques and practices can no longer be passed down to the next generation.

The prevailing understanding is that many more prescribed fires are needed, across many more acres, and more frequently, to minimize the damage that wildfire seasons are now wreaking on the western U.S. This is especially urgent due to the fact that, according to experts, fire seasons are starting earlier in the year now and are proving to be more severe than ever.

There are some who advocate for a bottom-up approach to solving this crisis. One of these people is Margo Robbins, the co-founder and president of the Cultural Fire Management Council and a member of the Yurok Tribe. “People need training in how to do it safely, but there’s so much land that needs to be taken care of and there’s no way the agencies can do all that,” Robbins says.

“I think […] fire should be put back into the hands of all people,” she suggests. “Let’s all pitch in.”

You can see a live, interactive map of the active wildfires in the U.S. here

You can find a list of Prescribed Burn Associations here.