Native American Burning And California's Wildfire Strategy : Short Wave Fire has always been part of California's landscape. But long before the vast blazes of recent years, Native American tribes held controlled burns that cleared out underbrush, encouraged new plant growth, and helped manage wildfires. It's a tradition that disappeared with the arrival of Western settlers. NPR climate correspondent Lauren Sommer explains how tribal leaders are trying to restore the practice by partnering up with state officials who are starting to see cultural burns as a way to help bring extreme wildfires under control.

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Managing Wildfire Through Cultural Burning

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MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE...


SOFIA: ...From NPR.


Hey, everybody. Emily Kwong here with NPR climate correspondent Lauren Sommer. Hey, Lauren.


KWONG: So in California, where you are, this week, the state set a record for the most acres burned in any fire season - more than 2 million acres so far. And in an average fire season in California, around 300,000 acres burn. So things are bad.

SOMMER: Yeah, it definitely is. I mean, I'm in the Bay Area. And when I woke up this morning, the sky is completely full of smoke...

KWONG: Oh, wow.

SOMMER: ...Because there's three huge fires burning all around this whole area. But, you know, today, I'm actually not here to talk about those kind of destructive fires. I'm here to talk about good fire.

KWONG: Good fire, OK.

SOMMER: This kind of fire - it actually has an incredibly long history and one that was erased for many decades. And I got to see it in the Sierra Nevada foothills.


RON GOODE: Good morning.

SOMMER: Around 60 people, you know, gathered in this oak woodland. And this was back in February. And everyone was standing in a big circle.


GOODE: So what we're doing out here is restoring life.

SOMMER: That's Ron Goode. He's tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono. He brought this group together from tribes around Northern California for this two-day ceremony to do what's known as cultural burning, basically setting low-grade fires on the landscape.


GOODE: We don't put fire on the ground and not know how it's going to turn out. That's what makes it cultural burning - because we cultivate.

KWONG: So cultural burning - these aren't like the big wildfires you see on the news at all.

SOMMER: No, these kind of fires - they're controlled and they're low to the ground. They basically clean up the overgrown brush that would be the fuel for those really big fires. Native American tribes burned hundreds of thousands of acres this way in cultural burns. You know, they used to at least.

KWONG: Right, used to before settler colonialism arrived and many tribes were forcibly removed from their land.

SOMMER: Exactly, which is why this ceremony is really interesting, because Goode invited people from the state and federal government. You know, those are the entities that largely banned cultural burning a century ago. But California has since realized there's no way to reduce the risk of extreme wildfires without using this good fire on the landscape, including cultural burns. So they're starting to work together.

But first, Bill Leonard, who's tribal chairman of the Southern Sierra Miwuk, needs to give a blessing.


BILL LEONARD: (Chanting in non-English language).

KWONG: Today on the show, how Native American tribes are trying to restore traditional burning on the lands where they once lived and how these burns may help California get a handle on destructive wildfires in the future. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


KWONG: So, Lauren, you were telling us about how in February, you were heading out with a group of tribes from Northern California conducting a cultural burn - very cool. But first, tell me how cultural burns are different from, say, controlled or prescribed burns, something I know the Forest Service does.

SOMMER: Yeah, the Forest Service and, you know, other fire agencies - they set controlled fires, too. And that's for the vegetation. They want to get rid of it so that there's not too much that builds up because overgrown vegetation can make fires more extreme.

KWONG: Right.

SOMMER: Cultural burning - it does that, too. But the tribes also do it to encourage certain plants to grow. Like, the first thing the team did that day was actually harvest.


SOMMER: Yeah. They headed out to some tall bushes. They're sourberries, which is also known as three-leaf sumac. And, you know, this was late winter, so there were these long, spindly branches that were totally bare of leaves.


RAY GUTTERIEZ: So my mom is a basket weaver.

SOMMER: That's where I met Ray Gutteriez.

GUTTERIEZ: I'm Ray Gutteriez. Mono Yokut (ph) - (non-English language spoken) Ray Gutteriez, (non-English language spoken) Wuksachi Mono. So I'm Wuksachi Mono.

SOMMER: He's clipping the longest, straightest branches, which are used in traditional basket weaving. And then after being harvested, the plant is burned to encourage more growth like that.


GUTTERIEZ: All of our basket material needs to be tended to in some way, so they need to be burned. And then next year, we'll probably have sticks that are 6-, 7-feet-tall in one year.

GOODE: Fire in the hole.


KWONG: So does the fire burn the plant completely?

SOMMER: Yeah, like completely to the ground. And it really actually happens pretty fast. But the rootstock stays alive so, you know, after the spring rains come, the plant will re-sprout.

KWONG: Got it. And the harvest can kind of happen again.


KWONG: And I know some plants in California - they're kind of used to being burned regularly.

SOMMER: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think a lot of people forget this, but they're adapted to regular fires. I mean, historically, those are both naturally caused fires - you know, by lightning - and then there were fires set by tribes. And, you know, Ron says they burned like this for millennia, you know, to encourage plant growth, also to shape the landscape, to attract certain game - for a lot of reasons.


GOODE: When I was a kid, I learned from my mother. But my mother got in trouble when she burned because the fire department, you know, didn't want her doing what we're doing today.

SOMMER: As you probably know, white settlers had a very different take on fire.


GOODE: They came with their concepts of being afraid of fire. They didn't understand fire in the sense of the tool that it could be to create and what it did to help generate and rejuvenate the land.

SOMMER: And, you know, let's not forget there's a bigger history here. When white settlers arrived in California in the 1800s, there was an intentional and violent campaign to destroy their tribal culture.

KWONG: Yeah.

SOMMER: I spoke to Beth Rose Middleton Manning about that. She's professor of Native American studies at UC Davis. And she brought her students that day to be part of the ceremony.


BETH ROSE MIDDLETON MANNING: There was actually a bounty on California Indian people. The governor had announced a war of extermination. So you have all that history, and it really fostered removal - settler ownership of indigenous lands.

SOMMER: So tribal burning basically stopped. And then fast-forward a couple decades to the early 1900s, and that's when the federal government began an era of fire suppression.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: Please be careful with fire.

KWONG: That's the whole Smokey the Bear era, right?



UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: Make sure your fire is dead out.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: Remember; only you can prevent forest fires.

KWONG: Yeah, it's just interesting that the legacy of this idea, that fire is always something that's bad and that has to be put out, continued from settler colonialism onwards.

SOMMER: Yeah, definitely. I mean, up until the 1970s, you know, the Forest Service had this rule they called the 10 a.m. rule. It was basically that all fires should be put out by 10 a.m. the next day. But all that suppression, you know, it caused a lot of vegetation to build up in California. The forests became denser, and that set the stage for extreme destructive fires. So fire managers have realized, you know, that has to change. And they started embracing prescribed burns. And now we're slowly being open to cultural burning, too.

KWONG: So that brings us to today, where Western states are grappling with how to manage wildfire season. And you're going to talk about how cultural burns kind of fit into that.

SOMMER: Right. And so Ron and other tribal leaders have been trying to restore cultural burning for a while and, you know, not just teaching the concepts to people, but actually bringing people out to the land to practice it. And that's not easy to do when the land is no longer legally theirs, as Beth Rose described to me.


MIDDLETON MANNING: I think it's really important that we don't think about traditional burning as what information can we learn from Native people about how they care for the land and then exclude people and move on with non-Natives managing the land, but that Native people are at the forefront and are leading.

KWONG: OK, so this event is maybe a way to do that.

SOMMER: Yeah, which is why Ron invited, you know, these government officials to participate and kind of get their hands dirty during this ceremony - you know, like Jennifer Montgomery. She directs California's Forest Management Task Force. So it's her job to figure out how to deal with all these overgrown forests. And, you know, she was there helping light this fire in a big grassy field using a drip torch.


JENNIFER MONTGOMERY: That was super empowering. I mean, I think every woman should get a chance to use a drip torch.

KWONG: Is that like a flamethrower or something?

SOMMER: Not quite. It's basically like a watering can-lighter thing that basically spills out fire instead of water.

KWONG: That's pretty cool still.

SOMMER: Yeah, yeah. I mean, by the time she was done, there was this kind of giant line of fire that kind of spread out pretty quickly across this entire field. But remember; you know, this was February, winter, so it - the fire burned itself out pretty quickly, and then all that dried brush is just gone.


MONTGOMERY: It's an opportunity for me to really see how effective cultural fire can be in addressing the issues we have around uncontrolled wildfire. The work that we did today - if a fire comes through there, it will drop down to the ground. And frankly, it may, given the right circumstances, just stop the fire entirely on its own.

KWONG: That is a big shift in thinking from the government's historical stance.

SOMMER: Yeah. And, I mean, California has a goal to reduce the vegetation on half a million acres. And the federal government has the same goal for their land. So this is, you know, a million acres total.


SOMMER: And they're nowhere near that at this point.

KWONG: OK. So you've basically got the government, which has a lot of land and needs a lot of work to be done, and then tribes, who have little access to their own ancestral lands and want to be doing more of this, and they're working in a kind of partnership.

SOMMER: Yeah, they're working on kind of forming it at least at this point. I mean, a few other California tribes, the Yurok and the Karuk, they have agreements with the Forest Service to manage land with cultural fire. And some of that is public land. You know, but there's still a long way to go. And in a lot of California counties, you actually need a special permit to do this because, you know, air officials don't want a lot of smoke in the air on days when there's already concerns about air quality. So some counties have created a special tribal burn permit to make it easier for them. But, you know, some haven't.

KWONG: So going back to Ron Goode, the tribal chairman - just given everything his tribe has been through, what is his outlook these days and looking into the future?

SOMMER: He told me no matter what you're facing, all you can do is work on your own backyard. And his backyard goes across four counties, as he says. So that's what Ron has spent his life doing is trying to spread this knowledge.

GOODE: I can teach from the book or I can teach in the classroom or I can show you videos, but, hey, let me take you out on the land and let you do it, let you really see and find out what it's all about, right?


GOODE: Oh, there's no better teaching than that.

SOMMER: And when he said that, it was the very end of the day. You know, the sun was setting and I was - I caught up with him as he was looking out across, you know, that field, which was totally black and burnt, and it was still kind of smoking a little bit.


GOODE: I'm excited. I'm elated because I'm looking around at what we've done, what we've accomplished, how beautiful the land is looking. And it is. It is.

SOMMER: Not everyone would see that, I think. But that's what he's trying to change.


KWONG: Lauren, thanks so much for taking us along with you to see this and experience this.

SOMMER: Thanks, Emily.

KWONG: This episode was produced by Brent Baughman, fact-checked by Rebecca Ramirez and edited by Viet Le. I'm Emily Kwong. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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