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Fire is a fact of life in many western ecosystems and the communities built within them. However, devastation from fire does not have to be the norm. In recent years, a growing number of regions have been obliterated by wildfires. As more communities succumb to these disasters, many seek solutions to mitigate fires. Indigenous communities are at the forefront of these mitigation efforts. They are being called upon to share and lead fire stewardship practices and traditional knowledge with local, state, and federal agencies and private individuals and organizations. As they should – Indigenous burning traditions have largely shaped California's ecosystems across centuries, and the diversity of life within those systems frequently depends on that fire.
It is clear that Indigenous communities did not live in fear of fire but had a nurturing relationship with it. However, the exclusion of these traditions for over a century has unraveled the natural resilience created by active fire stewardship, and ecosystems are increasingly more vulnerable to the climate crisis and its associated impacts.
A Brief History of Indigenous Fire Stewardship Practices
Since time immemorial, California's Indigenous peoples have tended the land with fire to avoid the wrath of wildfire devastation. Native people have found various critical uses for fire, including protecting village areas, cultivating plants, enhancing wildlife habitat, and increasing flows from springs to enrich the landscape and make it habitable.
Additionally, fire practices are regarded as an essential responsibility in caring for one's homeland. Fire practitioners read the landscape to understand where and when to use fire in a given area. Doing so, however, requires a deep understanding of the landscape. Aside from the fundamental factors contributing to fire behavior – fuels, weather, and topography — a more profound knowledge of fire's effect on other organisms, their life histories, soils, and other factors is required.
Indigenous fire has constantly shaped the landscape through past climate shifts. With the extensive care involved in stewarding the landscape with fire, it is no wonder early colonial settlers marveled at California's landscape. Unfortunately, settlers overlooked the significance of Indigenous burning traditions in creating and maintaining those places and quickly developed policies to remove fire and Indigenous people from the land.
A Growing Investment in Indigenous Fire Practices
Despite the history leading to the removal and erasure of Indigenous fire practices from the landscape, the embers of practice and knowledge persisted within Native communities. Fire stewardship practices continue to be used secretly or passed down through stories from one generation to the next in some tribal communities.
However, within the past 20 years, there has been a growing interest in Indigenous fire practices across the state. There has also been an increasing number of research projects documenting fire stewardship efforts. Indigenous fire is at the center of living with fire, biodiversity conservation, climate resilience, food and water security, public health, justice, equity, and inclusion. Such initiatives have primarily been voluntary actions by individual practitioners working across diverse ecosystems and land-ownership types. However, the synergy of people working toward a common goal of putting fire back on the land has led to organizations such as the Indigenous People's Burning Network and, most recently, the Indigenous Stewardship Network to support those efforts.
In the aftermath of some of the worst fires in the state's history, Indigenous stewardship has been of widespread interest, and there is similar interest globally to revitalize these practices for the benefit of our society. Nevertheless, a lot of change is still necessary before fire stewardship can be reimplemented and scaled. We've seen that the work and support for these practices have lagged behind climate variability and enabling policies. As a consequence, communities and ecosystems continue to be devastated by wildfires.
A New Era
Through the recognized need to support Indigenous fire, the state and federal governments have begun to reframe their approaches to fire to consider how they could support cultural burning. There are many moving parts to understanding the history and engagement around this topic. Some key examples from the past year and a half are below.
In January 2021, the Governor's administration released California's Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan, which outlines 99 elements across four goals to advance forest stewardship. The plan references supporting cultural burning among state and federal partners. The action plan opened new possibilities for how cultural burning and tribal leadership might address the future of fire.
Later in 2021, the Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force secured tribal representation on its nine-member executive committee and tribal engagement in work groups and subgroups. For instance, the prescribed fire subgroup worked with cultural fire practitioners to frameCalifornia's Strategic Plan for the Use of Beneficial Fire, released in March 2022. The interconnection of these documents to other efforts of state and federal partners extends beyond fire to include other initiatives, including climate action, water, and biodiversity planning, all of which recognize the role of Indigenous peoples' stewardship.
Supporting the effort to revitalize Indigenous fire required some realignment of policy to recognize and provide assurances for burners. In January 2022, two critical pieces of legislation - SB 332 (Dodd) and AB 642 (Friedman) came into effect and included cultural burning as part of their language. This legislation was partly shaped through reports like the Good Fire Report and a broad coalition of supporters.
SB 332 reframed the state's liability standards for burners to a threshold of gross negligence – meaning that if a burner lost control of the fire, provided they acted as a reasonable person in conducting that burn, they would not be liable for suppression costs. The legislation defines cultural burning and burners as part of its purpose and establishes some processes for cultural fire practitioners to burn according to this law.
AB 642 codifies the definitions outlined in SB 332 for cultural burning and cultural fire practitioners and outlines the need to engage with tribes, tribal organizations, and practitioners to address issues ranging from workforce development to training. Already, cultural fire practitioners have utilized the law to conduct some burns across the state. In time further legislative action can build upon these initial bills to achieve the broader revitalization of Indigenous burning traditions.
Connecting to the Land and Moving Forward Together
Where the impacts of colonization removed Indigenous peoples from the land, the responsibility to steward the land remained. Today, tribes, tribal organizations, and traditional cultural practitioners reconnect to their ancestral lands through various stewardship activities, including burning and other restoration actions.
Across the spectrum of burners from tribal to federal agencies, there is a need to support learning, capacity building, and workforce. For many tribal practitioners, there is interest in learning from other tribal practitioners to maintain cultural relevance and be inclusive of intergenerational learning. There is also interest in broader education opportunities, including public and agency employees, to enhance cultural awareness.
One emerging way is by forming the prescribed and cultural fire training centers identified in AB 642. Where the bill recognizes a single training center, the state's ecological and Indigenous cultural diversity requires a regionally focused approach. This type of training is already reflected in the locations where Indigenous burning and stewardship is ongoing – e.g., Klamath, Lassen Foothills, Southern Sierra, and Bay Delta — where tribes, tribal organizations, and/or practitioners are working with diverse landowners, universities, interested public participants, and agencies to learn and burn together. While there may be some regionally specific needs for infrastructure, equipment, staff support, etc., the model is already at work, but the mechanism and funding to formalize it is lacking.
Additionally, the actions within ancestral territories may be on private or public lands. Landowners and land managers can play a crucial role in supporting cultural fire revitalization and stewardship activities by providing access. In the fire community, there is a saying, 'all hands, all lands.' In a tribal context, supporting and following tribal traditions and leadership in stewarding those lands is essential. An example is the existing tribally-organized or tribally-informed prescribed and/or cultural fire workshops and training. In these cases, a tribe, tribal organization, or practitioner may host a learning opportunity in partnership with a private landowner or public agency, particularly where land access is needed for the activity. The attendees participate in stewardship guided by cultural leaders and others supporting that effort.
In the age of land acknowledgments and the land-back movement, it is sometimes challenging to navigate complex relationships to a place without creating new inequities. In some cases, multiple tribes, bands, or families may have a relationship with a given location. Recognizing this complexity, networks of people working together can create equity and help build community by tending to the land. This process may start within families or tribal community activities, including engagement with non-tribal entities.
We are seeing the initial emergence of Indigenous fire returning to the landscape. As it returns, there will be challenges to work through and relationships to be formed with each other and the land itself. In the end, there is a great potential to create ecological and social resilience that can be reconciliatory.