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California tribes reintroduce cultural burns to care for the land

Margo Robbins, president of the Cultural Fire Management Council of the Yurok Tribe, in a patch of hazel.

Margo Robbins, president of the Cultural Fire Management Council of the Yurok Tribe, in a patch of hazel.

Photo by Matt Fidler

About this story:
It was adapted from “California Burning,” a podcast and radio series of North State Public Radio. Listen to the series at

Historically, Native Americans all over California managed forests with fire. The practice kept the forests healthy because fire killed sick and dying vegetation, provided space for plants that need sunlight and maintained prairies and meadows for game animals to graze.

But many people seem to think that the land was untouched before European settlers came to California, an idea widely spread by naturalist John Muir, the “Father of the National Parks.”

“What he didn’t realize, and most people don’t realize, is that the natural places that they saw were not that way by accident, or what you might call just naturally,” said Margo Robbins, president of the Cultural Fire Management Council of the Yurok Tribe in Northern California. “That humans are a part of the ecosystem and Native people took care of the land, and the land looked like that because of the interaction between humans and nature. There was no separation.”

Robbins’ ancestors used fire to maintain the forests near the confluence of the Klamath and Trinity rivers in Humboldt County before the Gold Rush attracted Europeans who stopped Native Americans from burning the land, often in violent ways.

“In the early 1900s, late 1800s, the Native people were actually shot for doing controlled burns,” Robbins said. “They were afraid of fire and did not understand it, and so that was a pretty effective method of shutting down fire in the landscape.”

Now, for the first time in generations, the Yurok are bringing back what they call “cultural” burns to manage the forests and to support their way of life. Meanwhile, other California tribes and fire experts are returning to the practice, too.

During a recent weekend on the Yurok Reservation near the unincorporated community of Weitchpec, Robbins described the ways the tribe is using fire. For starters, it helps propagate plants that are important to the Yurok and that need fire to thrive. This includes pepperwood, a tree sometimes called California bay laurel. Its leaves are used to help alleviate arthritis, rheumatism and stomach problems. Another important plant is hazel, which is used to create baskets.

“The fire actually changes the DNA of the plant, and so it’s stronger and more flexible and it also gets rid of the bugs that will sometimes eat into the plant,” she said.

Seven years ago, the Yurok tribe agreed that the biggest issue facing their community was the lack of cultural burns that connect their people to their ancestral lands.

Robbins noted that there’s something about putting fire on the land—that it speaks to her spirit and helps her connect with nature. Up a steep hill from the Klamath River, a private landowner had let the Yurok burn a section of her property. Eighteen months later, about a quarter mile behind the woman’s home, fresh hazel sprouts—narrower than the circumference of a pen—have come up and are ready to be picked for basket-making. In a space densely populated with small trees and brush, Robbins gathered many grocery bags full of materials that she says will be used to create a baby basket for her grandchild.

According to Don Hankins, a Chico State professor of pyrogeography, both the Mechoopda Indian Tribe in Chico and the Konkow people in eastern Butte County also used fire to maintain the land. Important plants for these cultures historically included blue wild rye that was used for basketry and forked oak stump sprouts that were used to make cradles, he said.

More than 200 miles away, the Amah Mutsun tribe near Santa Cruz is also once again starting to use cultural burns. Valentin Lopez, the tribe’s chairman, says fire serves many purposes for his people, including killing insects in the ground and purifying the trees.

“Because then whenever that smoke goes up into the trees, it’s smudging the trees,” Lopez said. “It’s blessing the trees and cleansing the trees.”

The tribe’s members consider fire a tool that allows them to care for the natural environment, which Lopez says they have a responsibility to do. “Creator gave us that obligation. You know, our evidence must last seven generations,” he said.

Lopez also believes that the issues around climate change, which is increasing the length of the fire season in California, must be dealt with by indigenous people.

“We totally firmly believe that and we are working hard to take our position to provide that leadership,” Lopez said. “And it’s not going to be indigenous knowledge only; it’s going to be blending the sciences with the indigenous knowledge, but it must be indigenous-led. But those fires, you know, I mean they’re so, they’re so important and they just creep along.”