For the tribes, the “good fire” is the key to the restoration of nature and men

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WEITCHPEC, Calif .– Elizabeth Azzuz stood in prayer on a northern California mountain, holding a torch of wormwood branches, the fuel her Native American ancestors used to burn brushwood in thick forests.

“Guide our hands as we bring fire back to the earth,” she intoned before lighting leaves and needles lining the slope above the Klamath River.

For several days in October, about 80 acres (32.4 hectares) in the Yurok reserve were set ablaze as part of a program that teaches ancient land-handling techniques by fire.

It was among the many “cultural burns” authorized in recent years by state and federal agencies that had long banned them – a sign of changing attitudes towards forest fire prevention. Research is increasingly confirming that low-intensity burns can reduce risk by consuming fuels.

Wildfires have blackened nearly 6,000 square miles (15,540 square kilometers) in California over the past two years. Dozens have died; thousands of homes have been lost.

But for the Yurok, Karuk and Hupa in the central Klamath region, the cultural fire is about reclaiming a way of life suppressed with the arrival of white settlers.

The hunter-gatherer way of life of the tribes was devastated by the fire bans that the tribes had used for thousands of years to stimulate the growth of acorn trees, freeing up space for deer and stalks. hazelnut used for baskets.

“Fire is a tool left by the Creator to restore our environment and the health of our people,” said Azzuz, secretary of the board of directors of the Cultural Fire Management Council, which promotes burning on Yurok ancestral lands. “Fire is life for us.

Merv George, a former chairman of the Hoopa Valley tribe who now oversees the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, said officials who once viewed native burners as “arsonists” realize a new approach is needed.

Two national forests – Six Rivers and Klamath – created a landscape restoration partnership in 2014 with the Karuk tribe and nonprofits that approved intentional burns.

Activists from Yurok, Karuk and Hupa and The Nature Conservancy then created the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network, whose training is burning that has drawn participants from across the United States and other countries.

“It’s really exciting and gives me a lot of hope that the tide is changing,” said Margo Robbins, basket maker and director of the fire management board. “We have revived our language, our dances, and now, by bringing back the fire, we will restore the earth. “

This month’s fire involved more than 30 crew members who prepared intensively – searching the area, positioning fire hoses and water tanks.

As Azzuz finished his ceremonial prayer, the wormwood that coaxed the first flames was replaced by modern “drip torches” – gasoline and diesel cans with nozzles and wicks. Team members moved quickly along a dirt road, projecting scorching fuel droplets.

Smoke flew out. Flames crackled. The tangled foliage was reduced to ashes, while the larger oaks, madrones and evergreens were largely spared.

Jose Luis Dulce, a firefighter in his native Spain and Ecuador, hopes to help revive indigenous techniques in Europe and South America. Stoney Timmons has said his tribe – the Robinson Rancheria Pomo Indians of California – are keen to hold their own training session next year.

Robert McConnell Jr. spent years with the Forest Service’s forest firefighting crews, attacking from helicopters and driving bulldozers. Now a prescribed burn specialist with the Six Rivers National Forest, he works with fire rather than against it.

“It’s encoded in my DNA,” he said. “It’s like there’s a spark in my eye when I see fire hit the ground.”

When Yurok’s Forestry Manager Dawn Blake helped light up the hill, she felt a connection to her grandmother, who wove baskets and started fires in the area long ago.

“We’ve been talking and begging to do this for so long, just spinning our wheels,” said Blake, 49. “It’s like we’ve finally been heard.”

But the tribes want to go beyond training exercises and “family burns” on small plots. They are pushing to operate in the vast territories occupied by their ancestors.

“My ultimate goal is to restore all of this land to its natural state,” said Blaine McKinnon, battalion commander for the Yurok Fire Department.

Relations with federal and state authorities have improved. But cultural fires officials say promises of cooperation are not always kept by local officials, who fear dismissal if the fires get out of hand.

Craig Tolmie, deputy chief director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the agency was trying to balance tribal desires for more fire with opposition from a nervous public.

“People have been really traumatized and shocked by the last two seasons of the fire,” said Tolmie.

Under the state’s new laws, tribal burners and frontline regulators will work more closely, he said. One measure requires his department to appoint a cultural burn bond. Another makes it easier to obtain liability insurance for prescribed burns.

Still, Tolmie argued that many areas should first be “pretreated” with mechanical grinding and tree thinning to reduce decades of accumulated debris.

Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist at the John Muir Project at the Earth Island Institute in California, says regulators “try to extort tribes” by subordinating cultural burns to logging.

Tribes should be empowered to manage prescribed burns while Cal Fire and the Forest Service focus on forest fire suppression, said Bill Tripp, director of natural resources for the Karuk Tribe.

The Mid-Klamath area is ideal for an educational center where cultural burners could “guide us into a new era of living with fire,” said Tripp.

Tribes are uniquely positioned to train younger generations in stewardship-oriented fire management, said Scott Stephens, professor of environmental policy at the University of California, Berkeley. “We would need thousands of people to do this burn to scale it up on a significant scale,” he said.

Talon Davis, 27, a member of the Yurok crew, welcomed the opportunity to “show the world what a good fire is.”

“This is how we are supposed to take care of Mother Earth,” he said. “Put the fire back on the ground, rebalance our house. “

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Associated Press reporter Gillian Flaccus contributed to this story.

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Follow John Flesher on Twitter: @JohnFlesher

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The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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