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  • Writer's pictureEleanor Terner

Why the U.S. Should Turn to Natives for Fire-Management

This article provides insight to those looking into the future after a year with more forest fires than any other in recent history, asking, “what can be done?”

Artwork by Jessica Kamman

Millions of residents across the West Coast encountered first-hand one of the most devastating side effects of climate change: forest fires. Not only were these fires more frequent than in previous years, but 8.3 million acres were burned compared to 4.4 million acres in 2019, meaning they were hotter and longer-lasting. With climate change changing weather patterns to have hotter and drier seasons, this trend will likely continue into the future.

So, what should the U.S. government do to manage these future fires? The answer, not surprisingly, lies in the traditions of the Native Americans who lived and successfully managed these forests thousands of years before the U.S. government came to be. The method of “controlled burning” or “prescribed burning” has been practiced by many tribes in California, such as the Chumash, Karuk, Hupa, Miwok, and Yurok tribes, until it was suppressed upon the arrival of Western settlers. A blanket ban called “the 10am policy” was established in California during the 1930s in an effort to put out all fires before 10am the day after they started. The National Forest Service, fire departments, and police all suppressed the practice of controlled burning by Native Americans and effectively banned its practice.

Photo by Alexandria Hootnick. Two Yurok tribe members start a controlled burn with traditionally-used wormwood in the Klamath mountains of northern California.

Unlike the general stigma Western settlers brought with them that fire is harmful, fire is seen by Natives as a type of medicine for nature that is delivered through controlled burning. Fire allows the chance for new life to grow, allowing for long-term healthier plant life and soil to develop when overgrowth is burned away. If this medicine is withheld, and forests are allowed to grow without controlled burns, an overdose occurs and large and uncontrollable fires overwhelm the ecosystems when fire is introduced. Because controlled burns are banned in many states, and not commonly practiced in all states, many forests are left with the excess underbrush that causes large forest fires to grow quickly.

Photo by Andy Nelson for The Reister-Gaurd showing burned-out vehicles outside a shop in Nimrod, Oregon on September 10, 2020.

The unfiltered image shown above represents what thousands of residents in Portland, Oregon, faced mid-September when fires devastated the normally clean-air state. Air quality indexes (AQIs) are general guides to a region's air quality, with 0-50 denoting good air, 150-200 being unhealthy, and with different advisements/warnings for each number range. For two weeks in September, Portland had the worst air quality out of any major city in the world. Close to 700,000 people living in Oregon experienced hazardous 500-1000 AQI for more than a week in September. Exposure to the fine particles in the smoke can lead to health issues ranging from irritated eyes and coughing, to more serious issues such as lung and heart disease. A mask one could use for Covid-19, or an average house filter, would not filter the harmful particles found at these levels.

Forest fires are a positive feedback phenomenon; their smoke releases carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere, intensifying climate change through the greenhouse effect, and in turn leading to drier climates which make forest fires more likely. This means that more forest fires now lead to more forest fires in the future. The fires this year released an estimated 91 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. According to data from the Global Carbon Atlas, that output is equivalent to the annual emissions of countries like Chile or Greece.

There is a bright side, however. The practice of allowing and implementing controlled burns is partly underway. California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a series of fire bills last year that put funding toward fire-management efforts, and a goal of treating one million acres of forests annually for the next two decades was reached with the U.S. Forest Service. Unfortunately, there is still not any clear legislation funding or implementing controlled burning at the scale it requires to be most effective. The Little Hoover Commission, an oversight agency in California, recommends that 1.1 million acres must be cleaned using prescribed burning or similar methods to avoid fires at the devastating scale seen in recent years. Right now only a fraction of what the commission recommends is being implemented (in the tens of thousands of acres) annually.

Due to the consequences of these record-setting fires, it’s vital that an effective form of fire management is implemented. In order to do this, the U.S. government should adopt legislation allowing and implementing practices that Native tribes have advocated for. Registered voters should research their legislatures' policies on fire-management, and seek to understand what these policies mean for the environment.

If there is hope in avoiding the forest fires we are seeing becoming commonplace, clear implementation and funding of controlled burning should be established.

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