Cultural managements

In California, tribal members and older protected from liability for controlled cultural burns

More than half a million native California people are now protected by a law that allows them to do better what they’ve always done: fight fire with fire.

From time immemorial, Indigenous peoples have managed their forests in hot, dry areas – like much of present-day California – by starting controlled burns, or intentional fires, which remove organic material that can be sources of fire. dangerous fuel from a forest floor.

January 1st of them New State laws came into force that limit the liability of private citizens and tribal members establishing controlled burns from having to pay damages, should the controlled fire spread into a forest fire.

While the laws do not necessarily change the behavior of many state residents, they minimize their potential financial risk.

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For more than 20 years, Don Hankins, a Plains Miwok fire expert and professor at California State University at Chico, has been lighting controlled fires in and around his neighborhood and on college grounds to mitigate the risks of Forest fire.

“Anytime I burned before this (law) existed, I always risked losing my personal property,” Hankins told Native News Online. “If, for example, there was a log that caught … and this fire … then creates a forest fire, I would still be responsible for lighting this fire and, before this law, I had to pay costs: extinction costs, loss of structures.

Now, the state allows individuals to reduce the risk of forest fires while revitalizing thousands of years of fire traditions.

‘Good fire’

US federal forest policy until the 1970s viewed fires as bad for the most part. In a 1918 letter from a California District Ranger to his supervisor in US National Parks, the Ranger wrote: “The Forest Service … has no more important duty to perform than to keep fires to a minimum.” .

The ranger noted that “the White and Indian renegades” have caused “a lot of damage” because of their shooting practices, and recommended that they be shot. “Every time you catch one sneaking through the bushes like a coyote, shoot it,” he wrote.

Today, new legislation marks a radical shift towards traditional knowledge.

With record fire seasons as the new normal, the state of California in 2020 has partnered with federal agencies to pledge to burn one million acres of forest land each year by 2025.

This action plan— Aimed at improving the health and resilience of the state’s forest landscapes — is ultimately what drove the state-sanctioned encouragement of controlled fires, or so-called fire.

Many states in the southeastern United States have long used controlled burn laws and lenient liability to control wildfires. From 1998 to 2018, 70% of all prescribed burns took place in the southeast, according to a forestry ministry to study. California’s Controlled Burning Action Plan is inspired by Floridathat burns 2.1 million acres per year between landowners and private agencies.

“Cultural competence”

The new laws provide specific allowances for cultural burning, the traditional practice of lighting controlled fires for access to hunting, ceremonial activities or specific plant regeneration to be used for basket weaving.

Hankins said that while cultural burning serves the same purpose as controlled burning, it also goes well beyond risk management and reverts to a fundamental Indigenous principle: connection to the land.

“What really matters, in my mind, is this idea of ​​cultural competence,” he said. “If you are a practitioner, like a weaver or a hunter, and you use fire to help you with these particular things, that is very unique. You set fire and keep coming back to that place to collect materials. plants, or to hunt or to provide that habitat so that you can hunt in a different area and the animals have that place that you burned for their welfare.

With the prescribed burns, he said, you are leaving.

A gap in the standards

In Southern California, on the nine thousand acres of La Jolla Indian Reservation, Fire Chief Wes Ruiz said that while the new legislation is helpful, it still creates additional red tape for members. of the tribe who seek to use fire in the traditional way. Ruiz is a retired “fire boss” or state-prescribed firefighter.

Now he runs a directed fire training program on the reserve.

“Back then you weren’t called the burn bosses, you just went out and you were taught over time when to burn stuff and where to burn stuff,” Ruiz told Native News Online. “We just have a title for that now. “

But since the reserve sits on federally owned land, the Office of Indian Affairs requires the tribe to have firefighting training and written burning plans in place before starting a fire.

“Anyone else can go to the nearest fire station and get a permit and burn on their own with little to no experience,” he said. “There is a big difference there, and a big gap. ”

Ruiz has said he will follow the rules to bring the fire back to the reserve, and hopes it gets easier on the road.

“What I’m working on is trying to get more prescribed reservation managers,” he said. “We’re just going to do it for now and hope things get easier.”

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About the Author

Jenna kunze
Author: Jenna kunzeE-mail: This e-mail address is protected from spam. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Jenna Kunze is a reporter for Native News Online and Tribal Business News. His signatures have been published in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Smithsonian Magazine and Anchorage Daily News. In 2020, she was one of 16 American journalists selected by the Pulitzer Center to cover the effects of climate change in the Arctic region of Alaska. Prior to that, she was a senior reporter for the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, Alaska. Kunze is based in New York.