Cultural fire is good fire, and California needs more of it

Indigenous land stewards say cultural fires are key to building a fire-resilient landscape.


When it comes to climate change mitigation, using fire in scientific ways in order to minimize wildfire damage may seem like an unlikely solution. And yet it is a long-standing Indigenous tradition that not only helps create healthier, more fire-resilient landscapes, it also renews soil nutrients and reinforces plant diversity. That why it’s often known as “good fire.”

For years, Indigenous fire stewards and academics have worked together to protect California’s native landscape from the impacts of climate change through the use of cultural approaches like good fire. In August, that collaboration — dubbed the Collaborative of Native Nations for Climate Transformation and Stewardship (CNNCTS) — received $7.1 million from the state government. This funding will allow the organization to learn more about how invasive species affect flora and to study how cultural fire can build a more fire-resilient landscape. CNNCTS will work with the Native Coast Action Network (NCAN), an Indigenous women-led nonprofit focused on culture and the environment, with $200,000 of the total funding going to Indigenous fire-stewardship training.

Materials from a convening for the Chumash Good Fire Project this summer.
Courtesy photo

Teresa Romero, an enrolled member of the Coastal Band of Chumash and the NCAN board president, said that the Native Coast Action Network will collaborate with Climate Science Alliance, another organization that also wants to make use of Indigenous ecological knowledge to protect the environment. The network’s partnership with CNNCTS will help expand the Climate Science Alliance’s Tribal Working Group by providing more training focused on central California and encouraging more collaboration with partners and Indigenous groups in the Los Angeles area.

Cultural burns are similar to — but not quite the same as — prescribed burns; they are rooted in Indigenous ecological knowledge, and they differ from prescribed burns in their unique approach to the landscape. For Romero, cultural fire is “good fire.”

High Country News spoke to Romero about Indigenous fire stewardship practices and how using good fire now can decrease the damage caused by more extreme wildfires later on. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Teresa Romero, an enrolled member of the Coastal Band of Chumash and the Native Coast Action Network board president.
Courtesy photo

High Country News: What does fire stewardship mean to you?

Teresa Romero: When I think of fire stewardship, I think about habitat. When I go out onto a landscape and look at habitat, I think about whats going to benefit from fire, and its usually not the same as a Western approach to applying fire. According to Chumash traditional knowledge and what we know about the plants, the best nutrient food plants need fire to really propagate. Thats whats really forefront here, because it helps build a resilient landscape. It also becomes a food sovereignty issue for us. We already have a difficult time having access to traditional foods. If we cant tend to them in these traditional ways, theyre really just going to disappear.

HCN: What are fire’s good qualities?

TR: It creates resiliency by burning on a regular basis because youre not going to have these severe fire events on the landscape and in the community. There are people here who are really afraid of fire because of the devastation that has occurred from these intense, terrible fires. But had a fire been put on the landscape on regular intervals, the risk probably would have been lower. From my perspective, our plants will be more resilient because theyre being burned. Chumash people were burning at intervals in different areas to create food for themselves. With climate change, I anticipate that as it gets warmer and we have less rain and more severe rain when we do have rain, its going to impact our plants in a very negative way. And fire, I think, can help make the plants resilient in those ways from climate events.

Participants in the Chumash Good Fire Project process acorns for food. “According to Chumash traditional knowledge and what we know about the plants, the best nutrient food plants need fire to really propagate,” said Romero.
Courtesy photo

HCN: What are some of the Western practices you see that don’t necessarily line up with the Indigenous take of being a fire steward?

TR: One concern is about having fire breaks for safety issues because if you dont have a good place to have a fire break, theyre concerned about fire getting away. That has really impacted where we can burn. I do understand safety issues, because were in a high-risk area, but I think there are ways to put fire on the ground that are lower-risk, too. There are also concerns — like the possible chemicals that are used in the process of putting out fires — that have come up in dialogue with community members. Even when firefighters are out on the landscape fighting a fire, theyre really affecting resources that are potentially traditional resources, and theyre being exposed to toxins that would normally not have occurred a couple of hundred years ago.

HCN: So how does the opportunity of the Native Climate Action award assist with your efforts of increasing fire stewardship in the area?

TR: The biggest part is to be able to make it equitable for those who are doing the training. This is a difficult concept outside of tribal and Indigenous communities. Most of the people that participate have to have work or take (time) away from work to participate in this activity, and theyre not being compensated for it. This is a way to really make it equitable for them to actually participate by allowing honorariums for the training.

HCN: What has disconnected Indigenous people of Southern California from enacting their traditional practices of taking care of the land with fire?

TR: Colonization here was absolutely devastating. The mission system in California devastated the community here in terms of trauma and disease that impacted families and communities. What a lot of people dont understand about California is who controls the land has changed three times. When the Spanish arrived, then there was a transition to Mexican control of California, and then California became a U.S. state. With each of those changes, there were impacts to tribes in California; there was loss of land. As people made their way up into California, they came right through our area to get up north. There were a lot of what I would call transactions that occurred with land that really took land away and just stole. In our area, there are currently 13 different Chumash bands. Theres only one federally recognized Chumash Tribe with a very low enrollment and thats important to acknowledge here, too. There isnt a federally recognized tribe from the coast in San Diego, northward all the way to Sonoma County. I like to tell people theres a reason for that. Thats the prime real estate in California. All the Indigenous communities in that range along the coast lost control over their land. And were still here.

The Thomas Fire burns through Los Padres National Forest, California on December 8, 2017.
Noah Berger/AP Photo

HCN: How have wildfires affected the land in your area?

TR: Its been devastating here. We had the debris flow following the Thomas Fire. I was very emotionally impacted by that debris flow because it heavily impacted where my familys from. Boulders the size of houses came through after the fire. It was a week, two weeks, after the fire had come through, and people died because of the debris flow. Those are heavy impacts that have occurred here. Then, on the other side of that, I have seen plants come back that have never been seen on the landscape before because nobody knew they were there. And in some cases, wiping out the invasives that were there. But it took such a hot, intense fire to make that happen.

HCN: How can Californians at large participate in bringing back good fire techniques?

TR: There are a lot of really great people and conservation districts all up and down the state of California working on fire resilience and resiliency planning, so I think those are the people to connect with, locally and regionally. Theres a body of knowledge there and a lot of those folks are also working with tribal communities on getting fire on the ground. Its about creating relationships with Native communities, conservation partners and research in universities and the local community. And then, I think, as were doing this work, its about sharing what were learning forward with the local community.

Shana Lombard is a High Country News intern. An enrolled member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, she lives in Grayland, Washington.

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