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New study estimates ‘hard to comprehend’ historical scale of cultural burning among California’s Karuk Tribe

In December, members of several tribal nations conducted a cultural burn on the Sequoia National Forest, an event that was enabled by a co-stewardship agreement.
Forest Service
In December, members of several tribal nations conducted a cultural burn on the Sequoia National Forest, an event that was enabled by a co-stewardship agreement.

Some tribal nations in the United States have long traditions of using wildland fire for a number of purposes, like subsistence, resource management and ceremonial activities. A new paper in the journal Ecological Applications tries to quantify the scale of one Northern California tribe’s use of cultural burning in centuries past.

Working in collaboration with members of the Karuk Tribe and their natural resources department, researchers used historical maps, ethnographies and the knowledge of tribal members themselves to estimate their historic use of fire. On a roughly 650,000 acre swath of the Karuk territory, the authors found that nearly 7,000 fires burning some 15% of that acreage were set annually.

“It's an amount of fire that's pretty hard to even comprehend in the world that we live in today,” said lead author Skye Greenler, who did the research for the paper as a PhD student at Oregon State University. “That number of ignitions is kind of unfathomable.”

Last year, a major federal commission recommended dramatically increasing the amount of beneficial fire, including cultural burning, to help address the wildfire crisis.

“Wildfire is a natural process, and the use of fire is vital to both fire-adapted ecosystems and fire-adapted communities,” the report reads. “Fires serve to reduce flammable materials that fuel undesirable high-severity wildfires, thus mitigating risk to communities and fire-adapted landscapes. Knowing these benefits, Indigenous people have used fire for thousands of years to steward natural resources and as a core element of many cultural practices. Today, however, widespread beneficial use [of] fire has largely been lost.”

Oregon State University assistant professor Chris Dunn, a co-author on the paper, said that cultural burning offers “a really significant solution” as land management agencies and communities across the West try to find a better way to live with wildland fire.

“It really offers us a foundation of what could be, probably a foundation of what should be,” he said. “And at least a realization that the world can be different and things can be done differently, and we can move in that direction.”

Greenler said she’d like to see the paper’s methodology replicated on other landscapes with long histories of cultural burning, but cautioned that tribal collaboration is essential and that “Indigenous knowledge sovereignty has to be at the very center of doing the work.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.