The Karuk Tribe fights a growing wildfire threat and a lack of funding

Surrounded by forests they often can’t manage without breaking the law, California tribes struggle to protect themselves from wildfires.


Lisa Hillman, program director for the Píkyav Field Institute, writes grants for community firefighting.
Laurence Du Sault for High Country News

Deep in California’s Six Rivers National Forest, a satisfying “crack” breaks the early morning silence as Lisa Hillman snaps a dead branch from a bush. Behind her, apple trees line up like children before recess. On the ground, there’s barely a dead leaf. Clouds hang low in the mountains.

A Karuk tribal member and program director for the Píkyav Field Institute, a unit of the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) dedicated to environmental education, Hillman often devotes her mornings to gardening. When wildfires ignite, she says, dry vegetation becomes deadly fuel.

With drier forests and rising temperatures due to climate change, the Karuk and other tribal nations face more frequent — and more violent — wildfires. But with no direct funding from the federal government, tribes have few options: Compete with each other for grants, or break the law by relying on the traditional practice of prescribed burns to protect their homes.

“They used to call us the ‘incendiary Indians,’ ” Hillman said. “But it’s the responsible thing to do.” 

In 2014, about 3,000 firefighters battled the Happy Camp Complex Fire, which swept through the nearby Klamath National Forest, burning more than 132,000 acres and destroying eight buildings and residences. The year before, 450 firefighters worked to contain a 650-acre wildfire that destroyed a Karuk elder's home. But in the remote town of Orleans, home to Hillman and many Karuk tribal members, the DNR’s fire unit is composed of fewer than 20 volunteers. The resulting lack of manpower forces locals to take on the task of wildfire management.

“You can’t expect that someone is going to take care of you here,” Hillman said. “You’ve got to do it yourself.”

The Karuks more than 1 million acres of tribal territory, which spans two states, four counties and two national forests, is subject to the authority of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation, and Environmental Protection Agency, among others. Navigating this complicated web of jurisdiction is made even harder by funding problems. Of all the states, California has the largest emergency assistance budget — $1.4 billion for fiscal year 2018, more than two-thirds of it from federal funds — yet none of that money goes directly to the 106 tribal nations within the state's boundaries. More than 20 percent of Native Americans in the U.S. live in areas highly prone to wildfires, areas insurers often refuse to cover, but less than 18 percent of tribes in the country have fire departments.

The living room of the Hillman home in Orleans, California. The wooden structure was built in an area at high risk for wildfires, and the family hasn't been able to insure it.
Laurence Du Sault for High Country News

THE SMELL OF OLD WOOD AND SMOKED SALMON fills the Hillmans’ home. Children run circles around the dining room table, a massive piece of furniture carved from a thick reddish wood. In the kitchen, Lisa Hillman’s husband, Leaf, puts the finishing touches on his famed clam chowder.

Thirty years ago, Leaf built the Karuk’s Department of Natural Resources. The DNR is responsible for land management, fire mitigation, emergency response and natural resource administration for the tribe. It keeps afloat through grants managed by Lisa.

“Lisa’s become a professional grant writer,” Leaf said between bites of caramelized fish. “Building the programs, finding the money, fighting the fire,” Leaf said, “the same 30 people do that.”

Protecting the tribe’s land and citizens from wildfires has always been, at its core, a family affair.

Last year, the Píkyav Institute, in conjunction with the University of California, Berkeley, received a $1.2 million Agriculture and Food research grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “So, I’m writing a cookbook!” Lisa says, pointing to kitchen shelves filled with homemade jams. The grant project, which will analyze cultural ecosystems, aims at informing land management decisions at the federal, state and local levels. But that money barely scratches the surface; Lisa counts 10 projects she manages simultaneously, and the Hillmans say they still struggle to keep people employed at the DNR. Grants are competitive, their renewal unpredictable, and the application process can take months.

Leaf Hillman, director for the Karuk Department of Natural Resources, started the department three decades ago.
Laurence Du Sault for High Country News

“You’re making a gamble,” Leaf says. “You’re spending valuable, limited resources, and your chances are often astronomically low.” 

In the 1850s, the Karuk became one of 18 tribes in California to sign treaties with the federal government establishing reservations for the use of tribal members. However, Congress never ratified those treaties, leaving the Karuk's ancestral territory, including the agreed-upon reservations, to be divided between the state and federal authorities. The tribe was left effectively landless.

Currently, 30 out of 109 tribes in California have a land base of less than 10 acres. Almost half have less than 100 acres, and another 81 tribes are still seeking federal recognition. Bureau of Indian Affairs grants are allocated in proportion to a tribe's land base. In 2018, the Karuk Tribe received $200,000 in funding from the BIA, and after indirect costs were deducted, the money was barely enough to fund two full-time positions. Of 573 recognized tribal nations, less than 5 percent receive sufficient funding from agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Meanwhile, no tribal nation in the Golden State has the taxing authority to fund efforts like the Karuk Department of Natural Resources.

“I don’t think tribes in remote areas can handle it,” said Michael DeSpain, natural resource director for the Miwok Tribe. Between 2010 and 2016, DeSpain sat on FEMA’s panel for reviewing tribal grants. “Most of the time,” he said, “tribes don’t get any funding.”

A recent study in PloS One found that, compared to other ethnic communities, Native Americans are more likely to live in areas with both the highest potential for wildfires and the lowest capacity for effective response and recovery. Income, education, access to transportation and other social services impact vulnerability to wildfires, said Ian Davies, the study’s author. “Communities in Northern California … fall in high-vulnerability areas, particularly because of their low income,” Davies said. Native Americans have the highest poverty rate in the country — 26.8 percent, compared to a national rate of 14.6 percent

Cal Fire firefighters practice prescribed burns in Red Bluff, California. Over 160 miles away in Orleans, residents must rely solely on a small force of volunteer firefighters to protect their land and property.
Laurence Du Sault for High Country News

More than 700,000 Native Americans live in the Golden State, and the Karuk Tribe boasts more than 4,000 members. In the U.S., only 100 out of 573 tribes have fire departments. “Some of them are really vulnerable because they have no program,” DeSpain said. “They’re not prepared. They’re on their own.”

While Cal Fire and the Forest Service use prescribed burns for prevention, a 1911 federal law made it illegal for non-state or federal agencies to burn public land. To engage in traditional burning, the Karuk Tribe has to spend its limited resources negotiating individual agreements with the several agencies that have jurisdictional power over their land. When agreements are lacking, tribal members end up burning under cover of night.

“(The tribe) may be liable for setting a fire to the land, even if it was totally ecological and beneficial,” said Don Hankins, professor of geography and planning at California State University, Chico, and a descendant of the Miwok Tribe. “From a self-determination side, tribes shouldn't have to follow those standards.”

To make matters worse, insurers increasingly refuse to renew policy and cover properties located in extremely fire-prone areas. The Hillmans say they couldn’t find insurers for their wooden house, and other Native American homeowners also lack insurance because of rising premium rates and denied renewals. Rebuilding after a fire could prove impossible for many. For the Hillmans and other Karuk tribal members, their often-outlawed fire mitigation efforts and the DNR’s poorly funded firefighting forces are perhaps the only protection against losing it all.

Lisa Hillman walks around her home, surrounded by forest, where the traditional fire-mitigation practice of controlled burning is illegal without special permit.
Laurence Du Sault for High Country News

ON HIGHWAY 96, the Department of Natural Resources’ pickup flies by patches of burnt trees that stick out of the red soil. Leaf Hillman points to five men standing outside the DNR’s one-level building. Chook Chook, one of his sons, wears a large basketball jersey that matches the DNR’s cerulean roof tiles and heavy black boots. Chook Chook is a land steward for the tribe, a job that requires him to teach partners like the U.S. Forest Service how to thoughtfully manage the land. “You have to look at the ground, you have to see what’s around you, the vegetation,” said Hillman. “He’s teaching them how to think critically. He’s teaching them how to read the landscape.” He also has to be careful not to cross jurisdictional boundaries, Hillman adds, so the team doesn’t tread in areas that can get them in trouble.

In the coming days, Chook Chook and other land stewards will join up with the Somes Bar Integrated Fire Management Project, a Karuk initiative in cooperation with state and federal agencies that will oversee the prescribed burning of 5,570 acres in the Six Rivers National Forest. Anything outside that area, though, tribal members may have to take care of clandestinely. “We’re raising our kids to be criminals,” said Lisa Hillman. “And that’s the only way if they’re going to be raised appropriately.” 

The Hillmans say that increasingly violent wildfires have brought more attention to alternative practices like prescribed burns, but projects are too few and the costs too high. In the meantime, Lisa and Leaf Hillman and other Karuk tribal members are busy applying for funding, writing reports, negotiating agreements — and waiting for the next fire.

“It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when,’ ” Leaf said. “And we should be out there burning right now.”

A lone chimney is all that remains of a home burned down years ago in Orleans.
Laurence Du Sault for High Country News

Laurence Du Sault is a reporter from Canada. She is currently based on the West Coast earning her master's degree at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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