Fire is Family: A Conversation with the Yurok Tribe’s Cultural Fire Management Council

“We send up our prayers with smoke, and they are answered by fire,” shares Margo Robbins, quoting a gentleman from her neighboring tribe. It’s a radical concept, but the view of fire as a natural, welcome and sacred part of living on land in California is core to the Yurok tribe, and many other Native tribes in the United States who co-existed with fire for millenia. Tribal members Elizabeth Azuz and Margo Robbins joined Farmer Campus’s Farmers Build Fire Resilience online course to share knowledge with producers learning to live with the repercussions of an intensifying wildfire season.  Both women grew up on the Yurok Reservation in Weitchpec, Northern California at the confluence of the Klamath and Trinity Rivers. Margo is also the co-founder and Executive Director of the Culture Management Council. And while our programming focuses on agriculture, these two women remind us, “You know, we are farmers and ranchers! Except we don’t plant the crops that we harvest, they’ve already been planted for us out in the wild and we just take care of them.”

The land they live on has become crowded and dense with brush due to the fire exclusion policies. These policies which discouraged burning turned their land “into a tinderbox,” and made it a high risk for wildfire. A few years ago, their community was approached by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative (BHCI) a “ten year, $1 billion comprehensive community initiative launched by The California Endowment in 2010 to transform fourteen of California’s communities most devastated by health inequities into places where all people have an opportunity to thrive.” BHCI hired an organizer to have the Yurok Tribe define for themselves what was the most important issue to focus on for the health of their community. In response, in the face of all other challenges, their community decided that bringing fire back to the land was the number one priority.

But the threats posed by wildfire was only a secondary reason for this prioritization. The first? To be able to use fire as a tool again, for things such as the burning of hazel shrubs for basket weaving, as their tribe had done for generations before fire suppression policies halted their traditions. With the backing of BHCI, the tribe began a local community organizing group and did their first seven acre burn together. After the inaugural burn however, they decided to form the Cultural Fire Management Council because as Margo says, “one burn is not enough.”

The beneficial outcomes of bringing fire back to the land didn’t stop there. Here, we catch up with Margo and Elizabeth about the impact and future of fire in their hands. This post is based off of a video interview for the Farmer Build Wildfire Resilience Online Course. Watch the video here.

Farmer Campus: Could you tell us about some of the impacts of your community bringing fire back to the land?

Elizabeth: Well, we started doing this for our basket weaving materials because our weavers really needed it for that. But I also run the Food Security Division of Cultural Fire so we do native traditional food gathering and the fires have really helped bring back some of our traditional plants, medicines, foods, teas and such. Bringing fire back to the land also produced some other unexpected outcomes, like the return of animals. People are seeing animals they haven’t seen in years. We also have a large population of our men who wanted the elk reintroduced into our section of the reservation and so now we do prairie restoration.

Margo: Before we started burning our young men would have to go off the reservation to find deer because there were no hospitable areas for them to find food and raise their babies. Since we’ve started burning and opened up the land, now every place we have burned we see deer all the time.

Elizabeth: Another unexpected outcome has been increased water flows and drainage in our creeks, and areas where at certain times of the year we know there’s going to be no water, there is water in those areas again. Burning up all that slash in the understory has allowed the water to seep back down into the water table.

 The land needs fire. It longs for it… it can’t feel the sun! It can’t breathe! 

Margo: Yeah, that was a really, really cool unexpected result of burning whole hillsides, is that you affect the watershed, and then not only is the water more plentiful, but the charcoal that we leave on the ground acts as a water purifier. So the water reaching the creeks and the river is cleaner and purer than it would normally be.

We actually work with the Yurok Tribe’s environmental program. Apparently the ash has been able to help purify some of the creeks, so they’re actually asking us to burn closer to the riparian areas for more purification!

Amazing, have there been other ecological benefits as well? 

Elizabeth: There are actually many plants here that are serotinous – requiring fire in order to release their seeds or in order to reproduce. There’s a group of men from another tribe that are actually gathering the cones of these trees, building huge fires, putting the cones in there to cause them to open, and then they’re taking them and going out and being able to plant. Those trees were literally going to go extinct, but because the fire came to the area, those seeds opened up and little trees started growing again.

Margo: Fire also helps to keep the different plant species where they belong. Fire is one of the tools that maintains prairie as prairie. A generation or two generations ago there was a regular cycle of burning and prairies was one place that they would burn almost annually, not only for it to produce new growth for nutritious food for the plants and the humans but also to kill new firs that are trying to grow up along the edges. And so the fir trees stay where they’re supposed to be (which is not on a prairie) – you don’t want your prairie turning into forests!

What do you think the barriers are to fire being used as a tool for healing the land? 

Elizabeth: I feel that peoples’ fears are what hinders them more than anything, which bothers me. For us, fire is part of who we are. It’s part of what we do. Just being able to spend time on the land and work with fire gives you a whole different perspective. Whereas you go into the city and you see all these people and they have no idea about nature, they see it on TV. They don’t actually go out and walk in it and see that there’s food there, there’s water there, there’s so many things you know, that make our world the amazing place it is..

Margo: Well, and a lot of the government agencies who have been put in charge of fire have been given the mission to extinguish all fires as quickly and efficiently as possible. In fact in their list of safety things it says to “Fight Fire Aggressively.” When the Forest Service guy read that at our prescribed burn training, I said, “We’re not here to fight fire, we’re here to light fire!” and so I respectfully changed that to “Light Fire Aggressively.

“We’re not here to fight fire, we’re here to light fire!

We want things to burn because the land needs fire. It has been excluded for so very long. The land longs for it, because it can’t feel the sun! It can’t breathe! Can you imagine trying to get a drink of water with all these layers and layers of fuel buildup on your face? Maybe finally a drip trickles into your mouth. But when we burn, all that stuff is gone and for the first time the land can feel the sun and it can drink in the water, and the animals and the people can walk across the land again. It’s this amazing thing.

The Fire Exclusion Policies are probably the major contributing factor to the wildfires, but even the government agencies have come to realize that they too, need to do prescribed burns, and to start thinking about managing fires instead of trying to aggressively attack them.

Fires are a part of nature, just like rain. It’s like that one guy said, “If you think you’re going to fight fire, it’s the same thing as thinking you’re going to fight the rain.”

Earlier you mentioned the quote “we send up our prayers with smoke and they’re answered by fire”, what does that mean to you?

That just really sums it up, you know. Our prayers are answered by fire in so many ways- not just not just physically by the things it produces – but also spiritually there’s something about it that spiritually connects you to the things around you. Because all things have a spirit. And there’s something about fire that makes that connection real.

Fire can be a destructive force but really, fire is about new life. You know, even after the raging wildfires that kill everything, within a few years a bunch of new life comes up. And so when we burn in the controlled way, that new life comes up but it comes up within a few months, it doesn’t take years and years. Within a few months, new life is coming up, and the native species are thriving. So it’s not about destruction, it’s about new life.

Your council seems to be having an incredible impact in terms of bringing fire back to the land. Are these teachings being shared on a broader scale?

Elizabeth: We are reaching out to other tribes and helping them to get their burning rights back. We now have the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network where we work with the Hoopa and Karuk tribe, which are the tribes nearest to us, but we’re also branching out across the United States, Australia and Canada. All have the same “hunger” for the restoration of our planet.

Margo: Fire is not just for Native Americans. We no longer own all this land. It is a mixture, a mosaic of many many different landowners and so if we all take the responsibility upon ourselves to reintroduce the land that we’re on to fire, that’s a huge support, that people become more and more familiar and comfortable with it.

And you know, everybody should have the right to burn! The average person should have the right to burn their own land, not only to keep it productive, but also for fire protection.

Elizabeth: In this people’s network we actually teach family based burning. We go out and teach families about how to put proper lines around their home, with proper distances and actually have them take a drip torch and ignite their fire – Margo’s done quite a few. Just the look on people’s faces and how happy they are is worth it all, learning to do it in a safe way.

Everybody should have the right to burn!

Margo: I even went out with my grandkids and it was just a little briar patch out in the yard we was burning, I was teaching them how to burn safely. It can be a little space it can be a big space, you know, but you have to learn how to prepare it properly.

Tell us more about the Training Exchanges (TREX) you’ve been involved with. 

Elizabeth: The training exchanges are popping up all over the United States. After our TREX, The Nature Conservancy that works with us traveled to various other states and spent a week with us, a week in the Klamath TREX with the Karuk tribe, and then turned around and went to New Mexico for two weeks and burned in the Spanish TREX. So it’s something that literally is moving across the United States and it’s being done in a way that people are being taught to lose that fear. If you have healthy respect for it, and you work with it instead of against it, you’ll have a whole completely different outcome.

Margo: There’s many other people, like Jared from Fire Forward, all over different parts of the country that are doing fire training exchanges. To join, you have to actually get your entry level firefighter qualifications, which you can get online as well as get some practice like putting in fire lines. But once people have that, then they can come to these training exchanges and get actual experience burning and be part of a burn team.

You can help put fire on the land. You’ll come to realize that fire doesn’t have to be some big scary thing. Done in the proper way that it can be done in controlled conditions and stay within the area that you want it to.

Elizabeth:  After our last burn that we did, I drove out into some of the units and I took pictures of before and after. And within two weeks of our burn we already had little sprouts. One of the young women who burns with us is an ethnobotanist, and had harvested some native seed there. So we went along and spread out all the ash and everything and replanted that area of the native seeds that she had gathered. So not only do we help regenerate our environment, basically with fire, but we also go back out in and replant native plants into those areas.

It’s the life cycle – We have an obligation to care for the land. It was given to us to care for, and it’s our responsibility to do that. Fire is family! 

Watch the video here.