Jan 8, 2021 - Science

How indigenous fire management can prevent wildfire disasters

Warlpiri people burning spinifex to promote growth. Tanami Desert, Northern Territory, Australia.

A member of the Warlpiri people burning spinifex to promote growth in northern Australia's Tanami Desert, where traditional prescribed burning takes place on a large scale. Photo: Auscape/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Climate scientists and indigenous leaders are urging policymakers to embrace traditional burning to avoid catastrophic wildfires like those experienced in the American West in recent years.

Why it matters: Climate change is expected to cause extreme fire events this decade. Per traditional cultural practitioners like Don Hankins, who's worked alongside indigenous leaders in California and northern Australia, indigenous controlled burns are proven to help prevent fire disasters.

A Karuk Tribe member surveys damage from last September's Slater Fire in Happy Camp, Calif.
A Karuk Tribe member surveys damage from last September's Slater Fire in Happy Camp, Calif. Karuk member Bill Tripp said the last big traditional burn in California in 1910 led to the passage of a law that essentially made this practice illegal: "People were shot, hung and jailed." Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
  • Northern Australia experienced no major bushfires where large, traditional prescribed burns took place during the 2019-2020 season that was so disastrous for the southeast, notes Hankins, who's also a professor of geography and planning at California State University.
  • "They already had burned a lot of those places, so by changing the season and timing of those burns the spatial extent of wildfire is kept in check," Hankins said.

Driving the news: California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced plans for the 2021-22 budget on Friday that features an additional $143 million to support 30 new fire crews, and includes $48 million to continue phasing in Black Hawk helicopters and large air tankers.

  • Bill Tripp, a member of California's Karuk Tribe, told Axios that with different groups "scrambling for the same budget" a holistic approach is needed.
  • The director of natural resources and environmental policy for the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resource notes indigenous stewardship is a cost-effective measure that creates jobs while paying tax revenue into the system.

The big picture: Prescribed and cultural burns are intentionally set during favorable conditions to reduce the density of vegetation that can cause severe wildfires and clear undergrowth to promote forests that are more fire resistant.

Of note: Tripp said indigenous groups have "started to drive some change and actually been able to influence some national-level policy changes." But controlled burning is not being conducted at a scale that would make a significant difference.

  • Part of the problem is there's never been a treaty officially ratified in California, so permits that Tripp says tribes shouldn't have to apply for can prevent big burns.

Be smart: Tripp said agencies and indigenous leaders should work together "so the use of fire can once again become a cultural norm" and build sustainable systems like endowment investment models.

  • Things are slowly changing. The Karuk conducted a burn last June that "was the first kind of in-season-type burn where Cal Fire didn’t require a whole bunch of stipulations for the permit," Tripp said.
  • Non-indigenous groups typically want to burn at inappropriate times, such as when the grass is too green, he notes.
  • "We have a lot to do on getting the traditional timing hammered out."

The state of play: Cal Fire spokesperson Christine McMorrow told Axios the Native American Advisory Council was "set up to direct recommendations on how to accommodate tribes in decision making, and insight on how best to work with tribes and cooperate statewide."

  • "There is an ongoing effort from tribes across the state to identify traditional ecological knowledge and bring that knowledge to the department, as well as the private burning community," she said. "Once that is complete, we will use that as we need to bring the knowledge to Cal Fire."

For the record: Hankins believes there's not widespread indigenous stewardship because of the uncertainty of roles and responsibilities, with a big reason being liability.

  • He points to Australia's Northern Territory, where the Bushfires Management Act 2016 protects Authorized Bushfire Volunteers from liability in fire response. A person who didn't conduct due diligence to protect their property on fire-prone land is responsible.
  • "The whole liability discussion in terms of agencies looking at it in fear of a fire burning down a house or a neighborhood ... it takes that away," Hankins said.
  • Newsom's office did not respond to Axios' requests for comment.
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