USA – HAPPY CAMP, Siskiyou County — Leeon Hillman walked slowly, sadly, to a semicircle of piled rocks surrounded by blackened trees. He knelt there, turning away from the heap of ash, which was all the massive Slater Fire had left of his house.
The 53-year-old member of the Karuk Tribe was among dozens of Native Americans who lost their homes in the forested hillsides surrounding Happy Camp, in Siskiyou County. The fire, which is still burning across the border in Oregon, raced through the area in September.
“I used to make arrowheads right here,” said Hillman, who teaches the techniques his ancestors once used to make bows, arrows and other ceremonial regalia. “It’s going to take me forever to come back and try to create what I lost. It’s depressing, especially when you know all this stuff could be managed better.”
The wildfire was a particularly hard blow for people like Hillman, who adhere to Karuk traditions. That’s because it burned most intensely in a portion of the Klamath National Forest where Karuk leaders had for years been urging the U.S. Forest Service to employ traditional prescribed burning techniques, to no avail.
For thousands of years, California tribes burned the state’s forests and brushlands, clearing and enhancing the fire-adapted ecosystem. Then white people arrived and banned the practice.
The United States government later put into place a strategy — in part to protect the timber industry — to aggressively extinguish all wildfires. The result over the past century has been overgrown forests in California with vast quantities of under-story debris prone to the kinds of massive fires that have been raging across California.
“I would like to be able to use modern tools and our ancestral knowledge and integrate it with western science so we can restore the natural landscape,” said Bill Tripp, the director of natural resources and environmental policy for the Karuk. “We are trying to work with the Forest Service. We’ve been trying to do that for decades.”
Hillman, who owns a local market where 10 of his employees also lost their homes, believes preventive burning would have thinned undergrowth and slowed the spread of fire enough for firefighters to be able to protect people’s property.
“It’s something that the Karuk Tribe has been trying to do for years,” said Buster Attebery, 69, chairman of the tribe. “Our plans seem to be never considered.”
It is most troubling, Attebery and other tribe members say, because a great deal of progress seemed to have been made over the past few years convincing authorities to re-introduce ancient, indigenous fire stewardship techniques to the California landscape.
Only recently have scientists begun studying indigenous burning techniques, which were lit strategically at specific times of year in different places. That knowledge helped inspire state and federal fire officials and forestry experts to begin touting controlled burning as the cheapest and most efficient way to clear dry brush and excess debris in woodlands.
On Wednesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to conserve land in a way that would bolster the fight against climate change, including the use of prescribed fire. Cal Fire and the Forest Service signed a pact this year to dramatically increase the amount of prescribed burning.
Indigenous burning techniques were mentioned in the 93-page National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, a blueprint released in 2014 for scientists, foresters, planners and other stakeholders to work together building resilient landscapes, fire-adapted communities and respond to wildfires in more effective ways.
But, despite all the planning, the amount of controlled burning done in California is far short of what is needed to address the scope and scale of the problem, according to fire science experts. The Karuk and other tribes have worked with the Forest Service on small scale burns, but it is generally agreed that not enough has been done to incorporate American Indian knowledge into the process.
The 3,800-member Karuk Tribe would like to change that. Their idea is to partner with the Forest Service, Cal Fire and other agencies to establish a statewide joint training program that would teach burning techniques used for centuries by Native Americans to clear undergrowth, promote growth of usable and edible plants- and restore the landscape to health.
The Karuk and their tribal neighbors, the Yurok and Hupa, have been at the forefront of the effort to restore prescribed fire to the Klamath basin, which they say has been transformed from spaced-out woodlands and open meadows before Europeans arrived to dense conifer forest.
Tripp helped prepare a collaborative program called the Western Klamath Restoration Project, which identifies conservation priorities in the region. Over the past 11 years, the Karuk have put together wildfire protection, climate change adaptation and fuels reduction plans, including traditional burning, for about 1.3 million acres of their ancestral lands along the Klamath and Salmon rivers.
The Somes Bar Integrated Fire Management Project, which included controlled burning in parts of the Six Rivers and Klamath national forests, was approved by the Forest Service in 2018.
But the Karuk were never able to do the burning or thinning projects they wanted to do in the forests that the Slater Fire tore through. That’s because as much as 99% of their aboriginal territory is managed by the Forest Service. The tribe owns multiple small pieces of land, including their administrative offices in Happy Camp, but even those are held in trust by the government. It means their plans won’t get implemented unless the government agrees.
Frank Lake, a Forest Service research ecologist and expert on indigenous and fire science, said federal officials have been trying hard to forge partnerships with the Karuk and other tribes, but it is difficult to get controlled burning projects implemented.
“I think it needs to be done,” said Lake, also a Karuk tribal descendant. “There needs to be an awareness of the importance of doing this kind of work and scaling it up, and you do that with collaborations.”
Lake said joint burning projects have been done with the tribe on forestry research plots in the area and the effects are being evaluated by scientists. He has conducted several studies showing the benefits of traditional burning and is now working with the California Air Resources Board to determine how much smoke such fires historically released.
Other projects have also occurred around the state, but Lake admitted that the amount of prescribed burning in California is far from what it could be. There are still many places in California that historically burned every 10 years that haven’t seen fire in a century, even after all the recent fires, he said.
One of the difficulties is incorporating native cultural and spiritual traditions, which regard fire as a medicine to be prescribed in doses appropriate for maintaining and perpetuating the ecosystem.
For the Karuk, the doses were prescribed based on seasonal and ecological clues — like changes in bird vocalizations — according to the traditions handed down through the generations. The fires removed excess vegetation, pests and cleared low lying branches that blocked sight lines for hunting. They also caused trees and bushes to drop seeds, producing food, like acorns and fruit.
Studies have shown that the Karuk historically burned 2-mile concentric circles around their village, creating a mosaic of brush and hard woods used for basketry, bow making and other tools, said Kathy McCovey, a Karuk cultural specialist.
“They would light fires when coming down in the fall from summer camps to the villages to clear the area, but also for basket material,” McCovey said. “We learned to evolve with fire and how to use fire as a tool, to enhance the habitat for animals and for material.”
Certain landscapes were burned upon the appearance of the Pleiades, popularly known as the Seven Sisters star cluster — known in Karuk folklore as the seven wives of the coyotes — and never during bird mating season, according to tribal leaders.
The smoke was believed to shade and cool the rivers and streams, inspiring salmon to spawn. These burning regimes were incorporated into flower dances, world renewal and other ceremonies that the Karuk still perform.
The difficulty incorporating such traditions into government policy goes both ways. Native Americans, including the Karuk, believe the act of seeking permission from the government to conduct their ceremonies or traditions violates their sovereignty.
“The Karuk shouldn’t have to prove these techniques work through western science,” said Tripp, who is a leader of the Nature Conservancy’s Fire Learning Network and its subgroup the Indigenous People’s Burning Network. “It has been proven over 10,000 years.”
Forestry officials, who generally acknowledge the value of the ancient traditions, say it is hard to put words into action because prescribed burning is so controversial. California’s forests are so dry and overgrown that introducing fire is now dangerous even during the winter. There are concerns about pollution from the smoke and fears that flames will get out of control, damage property and provoke lawsuits.
There is also a lot of red tape. Environmental documents have to be submitted to the state and federal governments, water quality and wildlife agencies before permits can be obtained.
“It can take years to go from point A to point B,” said Professor Don Hankins, an expert on forest restoration and tribal burning at Chico State University who has worked with the Karuk. “It’s definitely something I hope will make a difference as we move forward. It’s a matter of realizing the colonial ways of stewarding fire on the landscape just doesn’t work and we need to do something different.”
For now, the tribe will continue to train firefighters every year under the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange, or TREX program, with the goal of setting up a local incident command team that would be authorized by the government to use traditional burning methods.
It is too late for Hillman, who, in addition to his home, lost elk, otter and deer hides, rare shell necklaces and arrow making material, but he said the quest to bring back his disappearing culture will never end.
“I came from a medicine family, so we try to make the world better,” said Hillman, who cheered up a bit after finding his cat, Beans, wandering around the rubble on his property. “So we all have to do something to keep that going.”