California’s wildfire policy totally backfired. Native communities know how to fix it.
By Delilah Friedler
When it came time to set fire to the hillside, Kitty Lynch paused. A 70 year-old retired waitress, Lynch’s job during the controlled burn of a 2,200 acre ranch in Humboldt County, California this June was to keep the fire in check by tamping down small, errant flames with a tool called a McLeod. Lynch had been attending lectures by Indigenous tribes in her region about prescribed fires, blazes lit intentionally to control dry brush and prevent unplanned burns, for over a decade. But she was the oldest person in this group of about fifty, and she worried she wouldn’t be able to keep up.
Lynch’s worries were quickly put to rest. The organizers were “very welcoming, and [found] a place for everyone,” she told me on a recent call. Timed for a clear, sunny day with low wind and moderate humidity, the burn successfully cleared medusahead, an invasive grass, from 50 acres of the ranch. “I’m a firm believer in the results [prescribed fire] produces,” said Lynch, “and it’s wonderful to see the whole age spectrum of dedicated people in the community helping.”
The idea isn’t new. For countless generations, Indigenous people have worked with fire to maintain healthy landscapes that are less prone to massive wildfires. While allowing natural fires to burn, Native Americans in California and elsewhere started some intentionally to clear dry brush, maintain species balance, and create prairies and meadows where animals graze. In the early days of Western settlement, some ranchers also adopted this practice to maintain pastureland for cattle.
But in the 1880’s, the US Army began to administer Yellowstone, the first national park, and developed the idea of “fighting” fire. In 1910, wildfires in Idaho and Montana burned millions of acres, destroying communities and killing 86 people. The US Forest Service subsequently adopted a policy of putting out all blazes, which state and federal land management agencies mimicked in an effort to protect timber supplies and human lives. Under these policies, Indigenous people and ranchers alike could be fined for burning their own lands.