Bill Tripp learned to burn when he was 4 years old.
In an Indian community along a bend in the Salmon River in the northwest corner of California, Tripp absorbed traditional burning techniques from his great-grandmother, who was born in the late 1800s and was a repository of knowledge on where and when to burn. He learned the difference between good fire and bad fire.
“We’ve being doing it for millennia,” Tripp said.
In listening to Tripp, a member of the Karuk tribe, I was struck by the parallels with aboriginal burning traditions in northern Australia, which I wrote about during a two-week trip covering the fires.
Native burning techniques have come into the spotlight as many parts of the world grapple with how to reduce destructive, out-of-control wildfires.
The experience in northern Australia has been critical. Researchers have used satellite data to calculate that an aboriginal burning program started seven years ago has cut hot and destructive wildfires in half and reduced carbon emissions by more than 40%.
Could something similar be done in California?
Margo Robbins, a member of the Yurok, California’s largest Indian tribe, traveled to Australia two years ago and saw many similarities with her own cultural burning practices.
In 2014, Robbins helped organize a burn of seven acres on the Yurok reservation. A crew of 20 prison inmates brought by Cal Fire worked with the tribe to conduct the burn.
“The No. 1 priority for our community was to bring fire back to the land,” she said.
The 2014 burn rekindled the tradition and has been repeated every year with help from the Nature Conservancy, a charity.
“The land needs fire in order to be healthy,” said Robbins, a basket weaver who relies on the long and pliable shoots that emerge from burned hazelnut bushes.
Don Hankins, a fire expert at Cal State, Chico, estimates that, at most, a few thousand acres are burned in California every year using traditional cultural burning techniques. This is tiny compared with the Australian program, which covers close to 90 million acres, about the size of Montana.
But Hankins and tribal fire experts say there seems to be an appetite in California to better understand and expand tribal burning practices. This week he gave a presentation on indigenous practices to federal officials who visited Butte County to discuss the strategies on dealing with wildfires.
“If we are going to make our landscapes resilient, and thus our communities resilient, we have to follow these practices that are tried and true,” Hankins said. “There’s definitely opportunity for it.”
Native American burning traditions are similar to aboriginal ones in the way that they look to nature for signals on when to burn.
Tripp says it is crucial not to interrupt natural reproductive cycles with fire — nesting birds, flowering plants — but to burn in ways that encourage growth of critical plants like hazelnut bushes and acorn-bearing oaks.
As in Australia, fire was a crucial tool in managing the land before the arrival of Europeans.
Hankins says researchers are realizing that some of California’s most scenic vistas were shaped by fire — more than they previously appreciated. John Muir’s celebrated paeans to the beauty of the Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy Valleys ignored the indigenous role in fires, Hankins said.
“The landscape that he fell in love with was a product of that burning, and he completely missed it,” he said.
Scholars have noted parallel experiences of indigenous groups when they came into contact with European conquerors. Bans on burning came into force in both Australia and California after colonization, and natives were punished if they persisted in burning.
This attitude toward fire was later manifested in public admonitions such as the Smokey Bear campaigns warning against setting wildfires.
For more than a century, the policy of the United States has been to “eliminate every fire,” said Leaf Hillman, a member of the Karuk tribe who is active in fire activities. “It’s catching up with us now and we are paying the price for it.”
There is tension between native groups in California and state and federal authorities — who require that tribes obtain permits before burning, and sometimes ban the activities citing concerns over air quality, liability and fires spreading out of control. Indeed, fire specialists say some forests in California would need to be thinned out before they undergo cultural burning.
As with other native fire experts, Tripp, who is deputy director of the Karuk tribe’s Natural Resources Department, says he is working with the National Forest Service, Cal Fire and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to obtain more sovereignty over fire.
“It’s starting to turn the corner,” Tripp said. “We just want to take the handcuffs off.”
“We view this as our right, a right that we never ceded.”