Indigenous Fire Stewardship in the American West

by Percy Zimering

In recent years, the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Western United States of America has been increasing at an alarming rate. Changes to the most acceptable forms of fire and forest management are one factor that has led to larger and more destructive wildfires, which can be a danger to human communities as well as the environment and biodiversity. Out of California’s 10 largest wildfires, eight have occurred after 2017. Additionally, smoke from wildfires causes poor air quality; smoke can lead to health problems such as lung damage, heart disease, and cognitive decline. The effect is not limited to the original location of the wildfire; smoke is being carried thousands of miles, increasing air pollution throughout the country, even thousands of miles away. In Boston, there has been a 50% increase in smoke exposure in the last decade, not only from local fires, but also from smog being carried from other locations. In 2018, there were 30,000 more hospitalizations for heart and lung diseases than there were in 2016, which was a less destructive fire year (Dangerous Smoke). Indigenous Fire Stewardship (IFS), the intentional use of fire by Indigenous people and tribes, can open up possible solutions to the pressing issue of wildfires in the Western USA, but its practices have historically been suppressed. Promoting IFS and the integration of traditional ecological knowledge regarding fire into current forest management practices can lead to further protection of communities, ecosystems, and cultural traditions.

Wildfire in California – Bureau of Land Management, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Many regions of the American West are fire-dependent ecosystems, or ecosystems that have historically included fire, whether man-made or natural. Because species have evolved in the presence of fire, it is a necessary part of the ecosystem’s biological processes. Chook-Chook Hillman, a project leader for Eco-Cultural Revitalization and Stewardship from the Karuk tribe, describes the increase in wildfires as an “unnatural disaster” caused by the criminalization of Indigenous methods of fire management. Although some think of humans as separate from the ecosystem, Hillman argues that “humans are a naturally occurring element in nature, so if you take humans out of the equation, and our use of fire, then you have an unnatural situation” (How Tribal Members are Shaping the Federal Government’s Wildfire Strategy). Prescribed burning was once ubiquitous in California and other regions in the American West, but western settlement promoted fire suppression and prevented the practice of prescribed burning. The removal of Indigenous methods of fire management has led to overgrowth of vegetation, which causes more severe and dangerous wildfires.

“Humans are a naturally occurring element in nature, so if you take humans out of the equation, and our use of fire, then you have an unnatural situation.”

Chook-Chook Hillman

What is prescribed burning?

Prescribed burning is the practice of intentionally setting controlled fires to manage the environment. Unlike wildfires, they are managed and have specific objectives. Until the 19th century, Indigenous tribes regularly used prescribed fire to drive game, manage land, and manage the risk of harmful wildfires. The long-time use of fire created an ecological relationship between humans and the environment. Frequent small fires recycle nutrients and prevent non-native vegetation from taking over, promoting the survival of native plants (Native Fire). Prescribed burning has deep roots and is a practice that is included in Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), or knowledge that is passed down over a long period of time, typically through interpersonal relationships and cultural exchanges (Bussey 98). Crystal A. Kolden, a professor of forest, rangeland, and fire sciences at the University of Idaho, describes prescribed burning as “the best available science” for mitigating wildfire risk (Kolden 1). Currently, suppression is the default reaction to wildfires, but it can be costly and harmful. Fire suppression has left Western forests susceptible to disease, pests, and large crown wildfires (The Teakettle Experiment).

2019 Cedar Central Prescribed Burn – National Park Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While prescribed burning was commonplace for centuries, it was suppressed through policies, land dispossession, and genocide of Indigenous people that arose in this region the 19th century, when the USA was expanding westward (Marks-Block et al, “Facilitating Prescribed Fire” 3). It was explicitly outlawed in California’s Act for the Government and Protection of Indians in 1850, which imposed a fine or other punishment on anyone who set the land on fire (Johnston-Dodds et al 29). Fire suppression was associated with the protection of property; in the early 1900s, fires spread and harmed homes, leading to outcry and promotion of fire suppression (The Teakettle Experiment). This was further supported by the timber industry, which raised concerns about profits lost from fires, and believed that fire had to be completely eliminated from the landscape to continue producing revenue (Marks-Block et al, “Facilitating Prescribed Fire” 3). The Weeks Act of 1911 emphasized the use of fire suppression by giving the Forest Service- which favored the swift extinguishing of wildfires- authority over fire management. Punishment for practicing prescribed burning was severe, ranging from imprisonment to hanging. There was a saying that “the only way to stop Indians from burning is to take a shot” (How Tribal Members are Shaping the Federal Government’s Wildfire Strategy).  Although some around this time advocated for light burning to reduce fuel loads in forests, the Forest Service generally opposed it- but in the 1970s, the National Park Service and Forest Service enacted policy reforms to allow prescribed fires under certain conditions (Busenberg). 

Fire Suppression vs Prescribed Burning

The decline in the use of prescribed fire has had long-lasting effects on tribes’ ability to maintain cultural practices that require fire. The disruption of fire-dependent ecosystems has led to depopulation of plants and animals that are integral to Indigenous communities, such as the California Hazelnut, whose stems are used in the Karuk and Yurok tribes for basket weaving. Baskets created from hazel are used for many purposes including child-rearing, food harvesting, storage, and use in ceremonies. Maggie Peters, a Yurok basket weaver, shared that “[hazel] baskets are in high demand by northwest California Indian families who want their children to begin their lives in a cultural way” (Marks-block et al, “Revitalized Karuk and Yurok Cultural Burning” 3). Burning hazel produces stems that are pliable but also sturdy, which is ideal for basket weaving. Bear grass, a plant that is used in baskets as well as ceremonial dresses, also must be burned before use. Until fire use was increased in recent years, traditional food sources and weaving materials were limited, hindering traditional cultural practices (Robbins). One controlled study found that prescribed burning led to a rapid increase in the presence of hazel shrubs only one season post-burn. Density of hazel shrubs was higher in areas that were regularly burned- plots that were burned three or more times from 1989 to 2019 had 1.86 times more shrubs than the control group. Based on their findings, they concluded that increasing tribal sovereignty over fire management would improve the health of the ecosystem and the socioeconomic well-being of tribes (Marks-block et al, “Revitalized Karuk and Yurok Cultural Burning” 3-8). 

Yurok Baskets – NPS-Photo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There is some negative public perception of prescribed burning, partly due to its history of criminalization and settler-colonist ideas about forest management. Additionally, there are concerns that the fire will damage property or forests, or that the fire will lose control, such as in the such as Cerro Grande Fire in 2000, which consumed 235 homes and covered 19,000 hectares. However, it is rare for a prescribed burn to lose control (Kolden 2). On the other hand, prescribed fire has a large amount of evidence supporting its efficacy in promoting biodiversity and mitigating the severity of wildfires. The Teakettle Experiment is an interdisciplinary collaboration of forest managers and scientists that investigated the effects of prescribed fire and forest thinning on restoring forest health. The research took place in California’s Death Valley. It was found that light, controlled burns could reduce fuel loads, which would limit the impact of wildfires. Moderate thinning of the forests’ understory followed by light prescribed fire brought the forest closest to 1865 conditions (The Teakettle Experiment).

While wildfires have escalated in the Western USA, they have greatly decreased in the Southeastern states, which have legal protections for the use of prescribed fire, as well as a less negative public perception of the practice. Annual prescribed fire has increased by an average of 5% per year, but most of it- 70% of the total increase- is in the Southeastern US Geographic Area, while other regions- including the Southwest and California- have instead decreased its use. Although the US National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy identified prescribed fire as the most cost-effective solution, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was the only federal agency to have a major increase in its use, possibly because of increased self-governance of tribes (Kolden 1-4). The lack of use of prescribed fire in the West and Southwest regions of the United States, compared to the Southeast, is likely a risk factor for severe wildfires, but increased funding and promotion of IFS could lead to an improvement. In one survey, the majority of fire managers reported that interagency partnerships- such as the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership in Karuk territory- were beneficial for overcoming lack of funding and equipment limitations, and described these partnerships as one of the most effective actions to increase prescribed and cultural fire area (Marks-Block et al, “Facilitating Prescribed Fire” 10).

Reviving Indigenous Fire Stewardship

One way that the use of prescribed fire is being restored is through partnerships between Indigenous tribes and conservation organizations, such as Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges (TREX), which is led by The Nature Conservancy’s North America Fire Initiative. TREX aims to incorporate many voices, including federal and state governments, private landowners, academics, nonprofit organizations, and tribes, such as the Yurok and Klamath people. Some goals of TREX include training professional fire managers, monitoring effects of fire, and creating local networks and burn teams (“Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges”). Margo Robbins, the Executive Director of Cultural Fire Management Council of the Yurok Tribe, describes how the tribe’s partnership with TREX has helped them to continue cultural practices and protect cultural resources: “Restoration of the land, and preservation of our culture is a number one priority for people living on the Yurok Reservation … This is the task that The Nature Conservancy and TREX enable us to embark on. So far we have burned close to 300 acres. This year, for the first time in my lifetime, we had enough hazel sticks for everyone to gather as much as they needed.” Robbins reports that the re-emergence of prescribed burning has allowed for the next generation to learn traditional practices such as weaving, and has encouraged the return of animals such as deer, whose hides are used for making tools, bows, and ceremonial dance regalia for the Yurok people (Robbins). 

Fire-dependent communities such as the Karuk and Yurok tribes in California advocate for decentralized and Indigenous-led prescribed burning for revival of culture and sovereignty. The Indigenous Peoples Burning Network (IPBN) is an inter-tribal grassroots organization with the goal of supporting family-based burning for fuel reduction and revitalization of small-scale fire cultural practices. Efforts have been effective in Yurok territory where tribal members have property or allotments, but not in Karuk territory because there are fewer lands under Indigenous jurisdiction- much of the forestland in the region is managed by Forest Service (Marks-Block et al, “Facilitating Prescribed Fire” 14-15). Supporting Indigenous Fire Stewardship supports resurgence of traditional practices, protects human communities, and promotes biodiversity. IFS also promotes the strengthening of social networks and community health. Not all prescribed burning is included in IFS; Hoffman notes that “using fire as a tool for ecosystem restoration is distinct from Indigenous peoples’ knowledge of and reliance on fire, which is grounded in worldviews, beliefs, and understandings that have been passed down through generations.” Unlike prescribed burns performed by ecologists, increased biodiversity is not the only goal of IFS, but rather an effect of a cultural practice (Hoffman et al 1-4). While practices included in TEK are often contrasted with Western Scientific Ecological Knowledge (WSEK), the two forms of knowledge are not at cross purposes; the well-being of the land and the people who live on it can benefit from integrating TEK and WSEK, which requires collaboration between tribal and non-tribal land management professionals (Bussey, 106). Promoting IFS is a valuable goal both because it revives important cultural practices and because it can aid in conservation efforts. Collaboration between tribes and ecologists, in addition to supporting resurgence, may be the path to reducing wildfire severity and frequency in the Western USA, protecting countless communities and ecosystems.

Works Cited

  • Bowen, Janice et al. The Teakettle Experiment. San Francisco, CA: Video Project, 2009. Film.
  • Busenberg, George. “Wildfire Management in the United States: The Evolution of a Policy Failure.” Review of Policy Research, vol. 21, no. 2, 2004, pp. 145–156., doi:10.1111/j.1541-1338.2004.00066.x.
  • Bussey, John; Davenport, Mae A.; Emery, Marla R.; Carroll, Clint. 2016. “A Lot of It Comes from the Heart”: The Nature and Integration of Ecological Knowledge in Tribal and Nontribal Forest Management. Journal of Forestry. 114(2): 97-107.
  • Dangerous Smoke from West Coast Wildfires is Affecting the Whole Country. New York Public Radio, New York City, 2021. ProQuest, 
  • Hoffman, Kira M et al. “Conservation of Earth’s Biodiversity Is Embedded in Indigenous Fire Stewardship.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS 118.32 (2021): 1–. Web.
  • How Tribal Members are Shaping the Federal Government’s Wildfire Strategy. New York Public Radio, New York City, 2020. ProQuest, 
  • Kolden, Crystal. “We’re Not Doing Enough Prescribed Fire in the Western United States to Mitigate Wildfire Risk.” Fire (Basel, Switzerland) 2.2 (2019): 30–. Web. 
  • Johnston-Dodds, Kimberly, and John L. Burton. Early California Laws and Policies Related to California Indians. California State Library, California Research Bureau, 2002.
  • Marks-Block, Tony, and William Tripp. “Facilitating Prescribed Fire in Northern California through Indigenous Governance and Interagency Partnerships.” Fire (Basel, Switzerland) 4.3 (2021): 37–. Web.
  • —,“Revitalized Karuk and Yurok Cultural Burning to Enhance California Hazelnut for Basketweaving in Northwestern California, USA.” Fire Ecology, vol. 17, no. 1, 2021, doi:10.1186/s42408-021-00092-6.
  • Native Fire : prescribed fire through traditional ecological knowledge. Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, 2019. Film. 
  • “Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges – Conservation Gateway.” Conservation Gateway – The Nature Conservancy, Feb. 2019,
  • Robbins, Margo. “What TREX Has Meant to One Fire Adapted Culture.” Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, 28 June 2016, Accessed 28 Apr. 2023.

About the Author

Percy Zimering is a freshman at the College of William & Mary pursuing a degree in Environmental Science and Integrative Conservation, and is interested in working in wildlife conservation in the future.

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