Native approach to controlled burns has multiple benefits

Antique Native American Karuk/Yurok tribe woven basket from the Klamath River/Northern California area. (Credit: Getty Images)

Using traditional techniques as a part of fire suppression could help revitalize American Indian cultures, economies, and livelihoods—and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, a new study suggests.

Researchers say the findings could inform plans to incorporate the cultural burning practices into forest management across an area one and a half times the size of Rhode Island.

Traditional baby baskets of Northern California’s Yurok and Karuk tribes made out of hazelnut shrub stems cost more than a new iPhone XS. They come at a premium not only because skilled weavers handcraft them, but also because the stems required to make them only grow in forest understory areas experiencing a type of controlled burn tribes once practiced but has been suppressed for more than a century.

“We must have fire in order to continue the traditions of our people,” says Margo Robbins, a Yurok basket weaver and director of the Yurok Cultural Fire Management Council who advised the researchers. “There is such a thing as good fire.”

“Burning connects many tribal members to an ancestral practice that they know has immense ecological and social benefit especially in the aftermath of industrial timber activity and ongoing economic austerity,” says lead study author Tony Marks-Block, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Stanford University who worked with Lisa Curran, professor in environmental anthropology.

two firefighters, one in foreground uses red canister device to set fire to a shrub
Traditional tribal fire treatments can increase production of high-quality raw materials for baskets while reducing the danger of uncontrolled wildfires. (Credit: Tony Marks-Block)

Cultural burns

The study, published in Forest Ecology and Management, replicates Yurok and Karuk fire treatments that involve cutting and burning hazelnut shrub stems. The approach increases the production of high-quality stems (straight, unbranched, and free of insect marks or bark blemishes) needed to make culturally significant items such as baby baskets and fish traps up to 10-fold compared with untreated shrubs.

Previous studies have shown that repeated prescribed burning reduces fuel for wildfires, thus reducing their intensity and size in seasonally dry forests such as the one the researchers studied in the Klamath Basin area near the border with Oregon.

This study was part of a larger exploration of prescribed burns being carried out by Stanford and US Forest Service researchers who collaborated with the Yurok and Karuk tribes to evaluate traditional fire management treatments. Together, they worked with a consortium of federal and state agencies and nongovernmental organizations across 5,570 acres in the Klamath Basin.

The consortium has proposed expanding these “cultural burns”—which have been greatly constrained throughout the tribes’ ancestral lands—across more than 1 million acres of federal and tribal lands that are currently managed with techniques including less targeted controlled burns or brush removal.

Tribes traditionally burned specific plants or landscapes as a way of generating materials or spurring food production, as opposed to modern prescribed burns that are less likely to take these considerations into account.

‘Fires with a purpose’

The authors argue that increasing the number of cultural burns could ease food insecurity among American Indian communities in the region. Traditional food sources have declined precipitously due in part to the suppression of prescribed burns that kill acorn-eating pests and promote deer populations by creating beneficial habitat and increasing plants’ nutritional content.

“This study was founded upon tribal knowledge and cultural practices,” says coauthor Frank Lake, a research ecologist with the US Forest Service and a Karuk descendant with Yurok family. “Because of that, it can help us in formulating the best available science to guide fuels and fire management that demonstrate the benefit to tribal communities and society for reducing the risk of wildfires.”

It would be easy and efficient to include traditional American Indian prescribed burning practices in existing forest management strategies, the authors write. For example, federal fire managers could incorporate hazelnut shrub propane torching and pile burning into their fuel reduction plans to meet cultural needs.

Managers would need to consult and collaborate with local tribes to plan these activities so that the basketry stems could be gathered post-treatment. Larger-scale pile burning treatments typically occur over a few days and require routine monitoring by forestry technicians to ensure they do not escape or harm nearby trees. As these burn, it would be easy for a technician to simultaneously use a propane torch to top-kill nearby hazelnut shrubs. This would not require a significant increase in personnel hours.

“These are fires with a purpose, says Curran, who is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “Now that science has quantified and documented the effectiveness of these practices, fire managers and scientists have the information they need to collaborate with tribes to implement them on a large scale.”

The National Science Foundation, the US Joint Fire Science Program, Stanford’s anthropology department, the Stanford Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education’s Diversity, Dissertation Research Opportunity, and the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences Community Engagement funded the work.

Source: Stanford University