California must burn more of its forests to save them. Is the public ready?

29 December 2020

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USA – Bill Tripp was 4 years old when he began studying the benefits of fire, an education steeped in ancestral traditions many generations older than modern-day California.

After Tripp tried to build a fire in the wood stove of his family home one day to keep his great-grandmother warm, she scolded him. Flames were not something to mess around with, she said.

Then she led him toward some oak trees outside her home in a remote Karuk Tribe village near the border of Siskiyou and Humboldt counties. There, she told him to burn a small line in the leaf-strewn ground, a task at which, after some struggle, he succeeded.

Her goal was to show Tripp that fire didn’t have to be a volatile, unrestrained force wreaking damage. It could be controlled in the same way that his Karuk ancestors had done long before colonists arrived in Northern California.

“She told me that if I was going to be playing with fire, then I’m going to have to do something with it,” Tripp recalled. “While she disciplined me, she also enabled me to use it as a tool.”

Now, more than four decades later, Tripp has devoted much of his career to using the tool his great-grandmother showed him. And government leaders and forest managers across California are taking a similar approach, recognizing after decades of resistance that, in order to save homes and landscapes in an increasingly tinderbox-like state, they must fight fire with fire.

The stakes could not be higher: More than one-tenth of California’s forestland — close to 4.2 million acres — has burned this year, more than any other on record. Millions of Californians choked on smoky skies for weeks. Climate change is fueling ever worse conditions for disastrous fires, and the threat is expected to escalate further as temperatures keep rising.

To Tripp and other Native Americans, the concept of “good fire” is not new. Before colonization, tribes would routinely burn the land, a culturally important practice that kept forests healthy and reduced the likelihood of larger, more intense blazes later.

For years, however, tribes and other proponents of prescribed burns have been unable to light the controlled fires on anywhere close to the scale needed to keep the state’s parched land healthy. Even as research touted the benefits of prescribed fire more than a half-century ago, the practice was long held back by misguided forest management policies, a legacy of injustice toward Native Americans and a more nebulous, deep-seated cultural resistance to flames and smoke.

Finally, the tide is turning — slowly. California took a huge step forward this year when it reached a landmark deal with the federal government to reduce fire risk on 1 million acres of forest and wildlands annually, including through prescribed fire.

California has about 33 million acres of forestland, most of which is controlled by the federal government. Experts believe the 1-million-acre annual target could, in time, go a long way toward making the forests and wooded areas more resistant to ruinous infernos, if the work is sustained.

It’s a daunting task. Figures provided to The Chronicle by the Forest Service and Cal Fire indicate that, in order to meet the 1-million-acre goal, the agencies will need to increase their fire-risk reduction work, which includes efforts to manually thin overgrown forests as well as prescribed burning, by hundreds of thousands of acres per year. While the federal government controls huge swathes of forestland, Cal Fire typically handles prescribed fire by contracting with private landowners through its vegetation management program.

It will take years of arduous effort to reach the new goal, but officials across the board acknowledge that part of their efforts must include intentionally igniting more blazes. And climate change is making the equation still more complicated, as fire seasons have tended to drag on longer than they would in past decades. Prescribed burns need to be conducted when vegetation isn’t too wet or dry.

“In the past, we’ve done smaller-type burns,” said John Exline, director of ecosystem management for the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region. “We really need to look at larger, landscape-type burning — really start looking at thousands of acres at a time, not hundreds of acres at a time.”

In Tripp’s eyes, it’s a long-overdue course correction.

“People have been trying to say this is a mistake for a long time,” he said of past government aversion to prescribed fire. “We’re just now getting to the point where people are tired of seeing the devastation, so they’re ready to push a political discussion that starts to move us back in the direction that we really should have been going all along.”

California officials were warned long ago that they lagged behind other states on using prescribed fire — and that the shortcoming could make wildfires worse.

In 1958, then-UC Berkeley professor Harold Biswell wrote an article in the Journal of Range Management in which he compared the use of prescribed fire in California and Georgia, based on controlled burns he conducted himself in both states.

He wrote in the article that prescribed fire was used widely in the Southeast but scantly done in California.

If prescribed fires could reduce fire risk, they would “be a highly worthwhile tool in forest-land management in California,” wrote Biswell, who died in the 1990s.

His comments were prescient. But the paper wasn’t received well when it published.

“There was strenuous pushback from the land management agencies,” said Scott Stephens, a current UC Berkeley fire science professor. “Just terrible. Biswell was thought of at the time as really a zealot.”

Today the federal Forest Service and Cal Fire see prescribed fire as an essential tool. But there are also deeply entrenched obstacles.

One is liability. California does not currently absolve those who conduct controlled burns from legal responsibility if the fire they’re igniting gets out of control, according to Crystal Kolden, an assistant fire science professor at UC Merced. The situation is far different in Florida, where people involved are legally protected if the blaze escapes its prescribed boundaries, as long as everyone followed the rules and has proper credentials, Kolden said.

California lawmakers are considering changes to lower such barriers.

California had a major prescribed fire get out of hand in 1999, one year before an even worse one happened in New Mexico, Kolden said. Those helped make intentionally-lit fires less popular.

“There’s very little incentive for (California) fire managers to do prescribed fire and a lot of risk — and for them, much of it is a personal risk,” Kolden said.

For more than a century, the government’s focus on suppressing any and all California fires factored into its reluctance to embrace prescribed fire. But colonization also played a role historically: Spanish settlers suppressed intentional burning shortly after they came to California. Kolden said that “less whitewashed accounts of what happened” show that such policies were used “as a means to steal land and enslave and oppress indigenous peoples.”

“It’s all tied up in that very racist power structure,” she said.

Today, government bureaucracy has factored into prescribed fire frustrations felt by Tripp, the Karuk Tribe member.

As the director of natural resources and environmental policy for the tribe’s natural resources division, Tripp is among the foremost advocates of cultural burning in his tribe’s ancestral lands, which stretch into the vast Six Rivers National Forest along California’s North Coast south of the Oregon border.

Tripp said the tribe has pushed for years to do more burning in the forest, only to be held up by the federal government, which manages the land. One of the more recent issues centered around what he described as the tribe’s inability to set controlled burns without direct, in-the-field oversight from a Forest Service official. Tripp said the tribe could get as much as five times more work done in a single day without that requirement.

“We’ve been getting barrier after barrier thrown at us for decades,” he said.

A Forest Service official chalked it up largely to a misunderstanding, saying the agency wanted only to require tribal coordination with the government, not a federally designated supervisor on every tribal burn.

“Ultimately, I’m responsible for what happens with activities that I authorize on national Forest Service land. I’m not comfortable having folks out there working independently of us with us not knowing what’s going on,” said Ted McArthur, Six Rivers’ forest supervisor. “Up until recently, there was some confusion that I was asking for a Forest Service burn boss to be in the field at all times. That’s not what I was asking, but I think that might have been the interpretation of what I was asking.”

The situation has seemingly improved, if only slowly. After sending the Forest Service a letter outlining its concerns, the tribe quickly moved from “barely getting any burning done” to burning as much as 50 acres per day, Tripp said.

The tribe is one of the largest in California, with more than 3,700 enrolled members, but it doesn’t control much land of its own now. That’s why tribal leaders have to work with the Forest Service to burn in Six Rivers, which includes Karuk ancestral land.

One of the most stubborn challenges associated with prescribed fire is perhaps the most subjective: Many Californians don’t like fires in forests, no matter the reason, and they don’t like smoky air.

“Public perception is just challenging,” said Ken Pimlott, who was the director of Cal Fire from 2010 to 2018 and worked on prescribed burning for the agency earlier in his career. “We didn’t have the social license to burn with the smoke. I personally was more than once threatened with lawsuits when I was putting prescribed burns together and doing community meetings.”

State budget cuts also curtailed Cal Fire’s prescribed burning efforts in years past, Pimlott said. But the dynamics began to shift as California wildfires grew worse over the past decade. Pimlott recalled one “pivotal day” about four or five years ago when members of the Karuk Tribe lobbied him directly, saying that a small cultural burn they planned was being held up needlessly by officials citing fire risk at the other end of the state.

Pimlott realized that “we had to make a change,” he said. Even then, though, he knew it wouldn’t be easy.

“It was like turning a battleship,” he said.

Public support for controlled burns to stave off runaway catastrophes later appears to have grown considerably as infernos have encroached into more and more communities. In Sonoma County, which has seen some of the worst and most damaging fires in recent years, some residents in the Dry Creek Valley vineyard region near Healdsburg have eagerly turned to prescribed fire to protect their property.

“If we can responsibly burn brush in a way that would prevent us from having to lose our properties, that’s a game changer for the whole community to feel like they can have some control again,” said Helena Hambrecht, one of the residents involved in a controlled burn in November.

Dave Winnacker, the chief of the Moraga-Orinda Fire Protection District, credited his time battling the October 2017 Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa with transforming his views on how to protect his own community.

“It was absolutely a formative career experience for me, seeing fire move with that speed through urban neighborhoods,” he said. “It reshaped my understanding of the threat in our suburban communities. This big, angry snorting animal marched down the hill and started wiping houses off (their) foundations.”

Winnacker has since readily turned to prescribed burns as way of hopefully preventing Moraga from following Santa Rosa’s footsteps.

But whether those defensive measures will be sufficient in the age of climate change and wind-driven firestorms that mow down neighborhoods overnight remains an open question.

Tripp, the Karuk Tribe official, knows that forest managers are “nowhere close” to adequately restoring prescribed fire in his corner of California’s deep north.

“We really need to get serious about systemic change,” he said.

Still, Tripp sees positive signs in the direction he sees coming from California government officials as of late. He also sees hope in some of the climate-friendly policies being advocated by the incoming presidential administration, which is poised to include the first Native American to run a Cabinet agency.

Only time will tell if any of that is enough.

J.D. Morris is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @thejdmorris

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