Over the past several years, “fire season” has emerged as an annual catastrophe in California, with increasing severity and scale. Currently, there are 625 active wildfires, displacing thousands of Californians -- too many with nowhere to go, all during a pandemic. To boot, we don’t have enough firefighters to contain the fires, and incarcerated people who are usually enlisted (for cents on the hour) are trapped in prisons with COVID-19.  

Climate change is much to blame for the flammability of California, but the truth is, our problem goes way back, even before the introduction of the combustion engine. At least one study demonstrates how Euro-American colonization caused the largest shifts in fire behaviors in California over the past 400 years. People Indigenous to California have long practiced strategies like controlled burns to reduce the build-up of flammable trees, grass, and brush and maintain their cultures. Cultural survival and environmental protection go hand in hand for tribal communities. Unfortunately, fire suppression tactics, as well as violent repression of Indigenous cultural practices taken by the state have ignored, thoroughly outlawed, or punished Indigenous land management practices. Ours is a fire-adapted state, and responsible environmental policy demands the reintroduction of Indigenous land stewardship.

Despite state repression, tribes have continued to manage tribal lands the way they know how, sometimes in collaboration with federal and state agencies. For example, the Karuk Tribe in northwestern California created the Karuk Climate Adaptation Plan. This comprehensive, 200-page plan details strategies and interventions across the diversity of California ecosystems such as using prescribed fire to protect critical electrical infrastructure, as an alternative to power shutoffs.

California tribes have had 10,000 years to hone their land management practices. While there are many proposals out there for our state’s fire management, those proposals still largely lack a perspective from the people who have lived with fire for thousands of years in California. That is why I am proposing an Indigenous Wildfire Task Force, to be composed of researchers, representatives from all California tribes, CalFire, federal officials, and state and local officials representing fire-prone regions. The ultimate goal of the task force is to align tribal, CalFire, local, state-level, and federal fire management practices to prevent the severity and scale of wildfires across California. Another outcome of the task force would be developing and implementing a plan for how tribes could expand their land management practices beyond the boundaries of tribal lands, a jobs program for tribal members and non-tribal members, and necessary funding or policy changes to make that possible.

The road to recover from the pandemic and the wildfires is a long one. We must seize the opportunity to begin unprecedented collaboration between tribes and the state government to maximize our best odds for collective survival.

“We are working to develop an intertribal convening in California to discuss these exact things. We hope to drive the changes needed to put Indigenous stewardship principles and practices back into the hands of the people. Being able to connect this group to an Indigenous Wildland Fire Task Force would help to progress the shared stewardship discussion.”   

Bill Tripp, Director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy, Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources and lead author of the Karuk Climate Adaptation Plan

“California Tribes stewarded our lands for generations and understood traditional fire management practices as a way to keep our lands cleared and fuel-free. With each passing year this does not occur, our homelands are increasingly at risk of being ravaged by fire. Within 30 years, there will be a 55% increase in large wildfires as we have already seen that occur. We desperately need a statewide policy that is spearheaded by the traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and Indigenous people who are committed to the needed fuel management in a holistic way.” 

Morning Star Gali, Project Director, Indigenous Justice, member of the Ajumawi band of Pit River Tribe

“California’s Native Nations and the Karuk Tribe in particular have detailed and sophisticated knowledge of fire management that is needed now in the face of climate change.”

Dr. Kari Marie Norgaard, author and professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies, University of Oregon