Into Reclaiming Fire to Save the Forest
Archival Recording: I don't want anybody to get hurt. Heads up, thanks.
Trymaine Lee: It's hard to comprehend the magnitude and impact of the wildfires burning across California, Oregon, Washington, and other Western states.
Archival Recording: An eerie morning all over the Bay Area as people woke up to an orange sky, decay, smoke, and ash.
Female Voice: It's dark, it's orange.
Female Voice #2: Looks a little apocalyptic and little frightening.
Archival Recording: The bad air we've experienced the past three weeks is harmful to everyone.
Female Voice #3: I've noticed your throat seems a little bit sore or like a headache, so we try to minimize how much time we're outside.
Lee: In just a few weeks, millions of acres have burned. Thousands of homes and structures have been destroyed. Dozens of people have died, and more are still missing as rescue workers search through rubble.
Archival Recording: This is what search teams are up against, debris fields that don't just stretch blocks, but entire cities. The family that lives in this home made it out alive, but many of their neighbors may not have been so lucky.
Lee: The specific causes of this year's fires are varied. Dry lightning storms, trees falling on power lines, even the explosion of colored smoke from a family's gender reveal party. Climate change is a major reason why these fires continue to get bigger, more frequent, and more destructive. But there's something else. Years of suppressing wildfires has led to an overgrowth of brush in forests, which means more fuel for the flames when fires do break out. It wasn't always this way.
Margo Robbins: A hundred and fifty years ago, all that brush did not exist. It was always maintained to be healthy and in balance.
Lee: The land was kept in balance with fire. For centuries, Native tribes like the Yuroks in Northern California let carefully controlled, prescribed burns to clear brush, helping the forest ecosystem and leaving wildfires with less fuel. But European colonists and eventually state government banned these practices. What had been an important part of the Yuroks' culture and way they took care of the land was forced underground and nearly died out.
Robbins: I don't really have much memory of prescribed burns, because they've been outlawed for so long. (MUSIC)
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today how indigenous people are reclaiming their traditions of burning the land and helping the environment in the process.
Robbins: To think that these wildfires are just gonna miraculously go away is delusional. We need to do something to decrease their impact, and prescribed burns is the answer.
Lee: Margo Robbins is one of the leaders of this movement. She's a member of the Yurok Tribe and the president of the Cultural Fire Management Council.
Robbins: We began as a group of community members whose goal is to bring fire back to the land.
Lee: Margo lives on the Yurok Reservation, which hugs a 44-mile stretch of the Klamath River in Northern California, close to the Oregon border. It's pristine country with steep valleys, towering redwoods, and the mighty river rushing from the Klamath Mountains to the rugged coast of the Pacific Ocean.
Robbins: It is definitely beautiful and amazing.
Lee: But today, there are two major wildfires burning nearby, and Margo's view from her home looks a lot different.
Robbins: What I do see when I look out my window is massive amounts of smoke, so I can't even see across the river on some days, because the smoke is so bad. And to be honest, I have never seen a big wildfire except on television. And we hope to keep it that way.
For thousands of years, Native people used fire as a land management tool and also in ceremony. But our people burned every year, not the same place, but different places, so that the land was a mosaic of fire-treated land. And it was smaller burns, low-intensity burns I should say. And so that's what we do. We are bringing fire back to the ecosystem to its rightful place.
Lee: You know, to a lotta people, especially now in the midst of these wildfires, that might sound terrifying. The idea of intentionally burning things, for those who are not aware of the practice, it might sound like somethin' scary.
Robbins: Well, you know, people have been taught to fear fire for more than 100 years. It was hammered into the public's mind that fire is bad, fire is scary, and that's why we're at where we're at today. Because of exclusion of fire from the forest, we have all this brush, and it is just fuel for when a fire does start.
Our people have a relationship with fire that goes back to the very beginning of time. Fire is a spirit. Just like we have a spirit, fire is a spirit also. And fire was given to us as humans to use as a tool to keep the land and the animals and the water and the people healthy.
So traditionally, it was not viewed as a way to just burn brush and reduce fuel. It was viewed as a way to make the plants more healthy and produce more food sources, or to produce healthy basket-weavin' materials, or to produce plentiful plants to make string and rope, those kinds of things. The berries that we pick, like huckleberries, they also benefit from fire.
Because with fire exclusion, the canopy will become closed, and no sunlight reaches the floor of the forest. And those berries need to have sunlight in order to be big and healthy and juicy. And also we use fire to lift up prayer. We lift up our prayers with smoke, and they're answered by fire, because fire keeps the land in balance.
Lee: So generations and generations ago, this, you know, very old practice of planned and prescribed burns, what did it actually look like back then?
Robbins: So the hunters, when they would be up on the mountain hunting and they look at the environment and they see different environmental cues that tells them it's time to put fire on the land, as they walk back down off the hill, they will set fire.
And they don't have to worry about it escapin' and turnin' into a forest fire, because there's not brush every place. Because every family, every tribe is takin' care of their land with fire. And so it goes, you know, maybe down to the creek, and then it stops, (NOISE) or it goes down to the bottom of the hill and then it stops. And so fire was used often. (MUSIC)
Lee: But when white colonizers first from Spain came to the Yuroks' land, they dismissed the tribe's knowledge of the forest and declared that prescribed burns were dangerous and destructive. In 1850, before it was even a state, the California legislature passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. One of the sections banned Native people from starting fires in grasslands.
Robbins: The people who came into this area from other countries didn't understand the use of fire and were, in fact, afraid of it. So they actually killed Native people who were trying to take care of the land with fire. And then after that era passed, then they made laws against it where they imprisoned people for starting fires. And we have actually had a couple members of our community go to prison.
Lee: How much of it do you think was out of real fear of the fire or stripping the people of traditions?
Robbins: The genocide I believe was committed primarily because people were seeking the land. They wanted the land, and Native people were here occupying the land. And they didn't even consider us human. And so to them, it was nothing. They, you know, we had a price on our head. The government paid people for Native scalps.
It's terrible, and personally I don't even like to think about that part of our history, because it is so horrific. Nobody livin' today is responsible for those things, but people are responsible for passing laws and enforcin' policies that continue to commit genocide on our people.
You know, when you make a law that does not allow us to practice our religion or eat our traditional foods or continue our traditional lifeways, that's genocide. You know, if we want to use fire, we have to have permission from either the state or the Bureau of Indian Affairs, either federal or state permission. And we're a sovereign tribe. That should not be the way it is.
Lee: Was there a moment when the tide shifted where they said, "Oh my goodness, we were wrong, they were right?"
Robbins: That took place a few years ago, and it was because of relationships built between Native people, fire practitioners, and Cal Fire, the head of Cal Fire. You know, we sat in meetings with them talkin' about the need to be able to use fire. And of course, these wildfires you can't ignore, you know, that something needs to be done about them.
And so the state and federal governments have come to realize the dire error of excluding fire from the forest, and there is a big push to reinstate prescribed burns on a much bigger scale. And so the Forest Service and Cal Fire actually have mandates to do a certain number of acres of prescribed burns. And so the tide has changed, and people are realizing that controlled burns are necessary.
Lee: You know, I've spent some time reporting on Native American communities. And one thing I heard over and over again is that there is still a deep mistrust between tribal communities, tribal governments, and state and local officials, and vice versa.
Sometimes it's hostile, especially from the government side to the people. And I wonder how critical mending those wounds, right, and bridging those gaps, how important that is, in terms of coming to a good place on something like fire management.
Robbins: It is really, I think, pretty critical to make an effort to build those relationships and establish some level of trust. I know for us, when we first started burning and Cal Fire grudgingly gave us a permit and then they would come and watchdog us, the minute we put smoke in the air, they'd have their airplane flyin' over us.
And we'd look up and see it and think, "Gee, I wonder how much it costs for them to fly that plane. If they would only give us that much money to do our controlled burns, how great would that be?" But over time, it took a few years, and now Cal Fire comes and burns with us.
Robbins: So it's really been an amazing difference, that relationship building that went from mistrust and dislike to, "Hey, there's Cal Fire," (LAUGH) you know, and we're all happy to see each other. And it has definitely increased our ability to use fire. (MUSIC)
Lee: After the break, Margo describes what these prescribed burns look like today. Stick with us. (ADVERTISEMENT) We're back with Margo Robbins. You know, these prescribed burns as you describe them seem to be steeped in so much tradition and obvious history and knowledge of the land, and the relationship and respect for the land and the fire. What does it actually look like? Start us off from the beginning of the day. How does this play out?
Robbins: Okay, so for a TREX burn, TREX is so amazing. I love TREX.
Lee: Great name. (LAUGH)
Robbins: Short for training exchange. So we have all of our firefighters come, and they're camping right there either outside the community hall or inside the gym. And so we have breakfast provided for everybody around 7:00. And then at 8:00, everybody needs to be fire ready.
They have on their Nomex. They have their helmet, their goggles, all those things. And then we circle up for a morning briefing. We make sure that everybody has the same channel on their radios. Everybody knows their responsibility and who they're responsible for. And then we get into the fire engines and go to the fire where we have another briefing. (LAUGH)
Lee: Meetings on meetings on meetings.
Robbins: Yeah. (LAUGH) It's, like, come on, let's just light some. And we have another short briefing, and then people set up. They run the hoses down the fire line. We have engines at the top and engines at the bottom of the unit that we're burning.
They talk about the firing patterns, and we use drip torches to light the fire. We always start at the top of the slope, and people walk across slope dropping fuel onto the land, and then it will burn up to the line. And then once that first eight or ten-foot strip is black, they drop down and drop another line of fuel.
And then that fuel burns up to where it was black up above. So it's a pretty intricate operation. We have somebody getting information on the weather and sharing it out over the radio to make sure that we're staying in within the written prescription. And so we're constantly monitoring that as well.
Lee: That sounds so official.
Robbins: It's very official. It is conducted like an incident, like a wildfire incident, except for this isn't a wildfire. This is a prescribed burn. But everybody's all, you know, "10-4" and "Copy that." (LAUGH)
Lee: Now how different is that from, you know, a family burn of a couple acres or a community burn?
Robbins: Oh. A family burn is, like, "Hey, it looks like today's a good day to burn." And so we make sure that we have plenty of water on hand, and we go out, dig some line, meaning you have to cut brush, like, six-foot wide around the area you intend on burning.
And then you just place your people so that they're on all sides of the burn, and you start lighting from the top. We do burns with all ages of people. I was out there with my sister and my adult nephew and a couple of my kids and my grandkids as young as three years old helping and learning to do fire.
Lee: It seems so steeped in tradition, and obviously, for practical purposes, right, to burn the brush. But is it tied to anything ceremonial? Is it tied to also something more than just actually practically taking care of the land?
Robbins: There are some fire traditions that are tied to ceremony, but I'm not at liberty to share those.
Lee: Yes, ma'am. So Margo, if a family is doin' a family burn and things get outta control, you know, who's liable? What does the law say?
Robbins: In California, the land owner is liable if they start a fire and it escapes. And so they're liable not only for the costs of putting out the fire, but also any damage it may do to other property owners.
Lee: How often does that actually happen?
Robbins: Well, it's never happened to us. And prescribed burns can be done in a very controlled manner, with not a very high percentage of escapes. There have been some escapes of controlled burns, but it is not anything like the wildfires we are experiencing.
And you know, some people, they don't like the smoke from prescribed burns. And it's true. When you do a prescribed burn, you're puttin' up smoke. But it's a limited amount of smoke. It's nothing like what we're experiencin' from wildfires. And so to think that these wildfires are just gonna miraculously go away is delusional. We need to do something to decrease their impact, and prescribed burns is the answer.
Lee: You know, President Donald Trump, you know, on one hand he's repealed a lot of environmental protections that have not been good for this country, right. On the other hand, he says, you know, these wildfires, it's because of forest management, right? Is he on to something? (LAUGH)
Robbins: Excuse me. If you stop the sentence right there about forest management, yes, he is. But rakes are not gonna do the trick. He obviously has not been into the real country. But yes, forest management is problematic. And in fact, Cal Fire and the Forest Service are introducing legislation to allow more prescribed burns to take place, and to improve forest management. And so it has been very problematic. It is actually one of the major causes for these large forest fires that we're experiencing is all the fuel on the ground.
Lee: If there were better prescribed burning practices, and if it was more widespread, do you think that fires such as we're seeing right now might be avoided?
Robbins: I don't think they will ever be completely avoided, because you can't stop the lightning. And in our area, lightning has started most of the fires. However, if there was not as much fuel on the ground, they wouldn't get so big and wild and out of control.
So I think that the more that we are able to disabuse people of the idea that fire is bad, and the more we are able to put it back into the hands of the people and not just the government agencies, the more successful we will be at keeping these wildfires to a minimum level with minimal damage.
Lee: But I wonder, how does prescribed burning work hand in hand with combating climate change? Is there a connection here?
Robbins: There is definitely a connection on several levels. One is that these massive wildfires are definitely contributing to climate change, all the smoke they're puttin' up into the air. And so when we do prescribed burns, there's just a limited amount of smoke that we put up in the air, because they're low-intensity burns.
And so they're also a preventative to wildfire. So prescribed burns are avoiding wildfire emissions, which as we ramp up the number of acres treated with prescribed burns, it's going to impact the climate change. Another thing is the biochar that's left on the ground after a prescribed burn, that sequesters carbon, which also plays into the climate change equation. So it is definitely a positive factor.
Lee: Have you actually seen the land improved?
Robbins: Oh yes. It is such an amazing difference to look at the places that we burned compared to the ones that we haven't. The places that haven't burned, the animals can't even walk through there, maybe, like, wood rats and mice but that's it. And the places that we burned, there have been deer in all those places.
You know, we went a lotta years without really hardly seein' any deer on our Reservation. But now our young men don't really have to leave the Reservation to hunt, because the deer have returned to those places that we burned. We see the acorns that we're gathering are almost all good ones. The medicinal teas are plentiful and healthy. It's an amazing difference. I wish you could come and see it sometime.
Lee: No, I'd love to. Obviously, COVID has us all kind of hemmed up a little bit, but I'd love to get out there.
Robbins: It's beautiful. You'd definitely enjoy it.
Lee: You know, Margo, I came across this photo, and it's of your daughter holding your grandchild at a burn. And it's one of the most beautiful things I've seen. There is, like, a line of fire snaking behind her, and she's holding this baby. And it kind of brings together that idea of tradition and family and respect for fire and also, you know, the land. But when you see that picture, what does it represent?
Robbins: I just love that picture. You know, when you even just mention it, I see it in my mind, and it makes me smile. And I think back to that day of the burn. And we had already, you know, burned across the top and the sides, and we were down at the road lighting from the bottom. And all the people that drove by on the road, they were givin' us yells and hoots and hollers and, "Hurrah, good job."
And my daughter stopped with her baby, who is obviously very, very young. And she got out, and she was all happy. And we was huggin'. And it's so awesome, you know, to know that the next generations are gonna pick up where we left off. I have other pictures of her lighting fire with Baby on a carrier in a pack in her front. And they're puttin' fire on the land, and there's no doubt in my mind that when I'm long gone, they'll be carryin' on this tradition. (MUSIC)
Lee: Margo, thank you so much for your time. I think in these tough times where there's so much loss and so much fear and concern, I think you guys are providing some insight into maybe a way that we can stem some of it. So thank you very much for everything. We really appreciate it.
Robbins: Thank you so much. I really appreciate this opportunity to get the good word out there.
Lee: Margo Robbins is a Yurok tribal member and the president of the Cultural Fire Management Council. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Monday.