“Fear of fire is what brought us to this place we are at…We have to re-establish a positive relationship with fire. Fire suppression has failed. The more time goes on that we don’t put fire back on these landscapes at the time and at the scale that we need to, then it will do it, not on our terms.”
-Karuk ceremonial leader Leaf Hillman
Record wildfires in California have burned more than 4 million acres so far this year. The toxic air across the region, coupled with the pandemic, exacerbated health disparities in our communities. In northwestern California, the Karuk Tribe is leading efforts to decolonize fire management. However, on September 8, 2020, the Slater fire tragically destroyed almost 200 homes in Happy Camp, California, where the Karuk Tribe has its headquarters, and displaced hundreds of Karuk people.
The Karuk Tribe is working to restore prescribed cultural burning throughout their 1,646 square mile ancestral territory in California’s Mid-Klamath watershed. These intentional cultural burns enhance Indigenous foods and fibers, and limit the spread and intensity of wildfires by reducing understory brush and dead woody fuels. Tribal members historically applied cultural burns frequently (e.g., every 2 – 5 years) across the landscape, when weather and ecological conditions allowed for relative control of fire spread.
When the US Forest Service appropriated the majority of Karuk lands in 1905, the agency prohibited cultural burning and actively suppressed wildfires in the name of protecting timber for extraction. These capitalist priorities turned Karuk lands into tinderboxes, eliminated eco-cultural species, and negatively affected the health and livelihood of Karuk people. For years, the Karuk have pushed for the expansion of cultural burning in the Klamath National Forest, which surrounds Happy Camp, and sovereignty over fire and land management, but the US Forest Service did not approve or fund the burning that was necessary to prevent disaster. And as is often the case, Indigenous communities, and low-income communities of color are left scrambling to support each other in the wake of disaster, with insufficient support from the state.
The Karuk Tribe has asked people to support Karuk efforts to aid affected families. DONATE DIRECTLY TO THE KARUK TRIBE SLATER FIRE RELIEF FUND HERE.
Your support will allow the Tribe to provide for its community in this difficult time, and will show the Tribe that its commitment to transform fire management reverberates beyond its homeland. Please share.
Cultural Fire – Photo by Tony Marks-Block