New study rates historical extent of cultural conflagration among California’s Karuk tribe as ‘difficult to understand’

Some tribal states in the United States have a long tradition of using forest fires for a number of purposes, such as subsistence, resource management, and ceremonial activities. A new paper in the journal Ecological Applications attempts to quantify the extent of one Northern California tribe’s use of cultural burning over the past few centuries.

Working with members of the Karuk tribe and their natural resources department, researchers used historical maps, ethnographies and the knowledge of the tribe members themselves to estimate their historical use of fire. On a roughly 650,000-hectare swath of the Karuk region, the authors found that nearly 7,000 fires were started annually, burning about 15% of that area.

“It’s an amount of fire that’s quite difficult to comprehend in the world we live in today,” said lead author Skye Greenler, who did the research for the paper as a doctoral candidate at Oregon State University. “That number of infections is unimaginable.”

Last year, a major federal commission recommended dramatically increasing the amount of beneficial fire, including cultural burning, to help address the wildfire crisis.

“Wildfire is a natural process and the use of fire is vital for both fire-adapted ecosystems and fire-adapted communities,” the report said. “Fires serve to reduce combustible materials that cause unwanted, high-intensity wildfires, reducing risks to communities and fire-adapted landscapes. Knowing these benefits, indigenous people have used fire for thousands of years to manage natural resources and as a core element of many cultural practices. Today, however, the widespread beneficial use of fire has been largely lost.”

Chris Dunn, an assistant professor at Oregon State University who co-authored the paper, said cultural burning offers “a really important solution” as land management agencies and communities across the West try to find a better way to deal with wildfires. to go.

“It really gives us a foundation of what could be, probably a foundation of what should be,” he said. “And at least an awareness that the world can be different and things can be done differently, and that we can move in that direction.”

Greenler said she would like to see the paper’s methodology replicated in other landscapes with long histories of cultural fires, but cautioned that tribal collaboration is essential and that “indigenous knowledge sovereignty must be central to the work.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a partnership between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations throughout region . Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Society for Public Broadcasting.