PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — For Indigenous tribes in the Pacific Northwest, fire has always been a part of the landscape.
Klamath Tribal Council Chairman Don Gentry says his ancestors learned that low-intensity fires caused by lightning storms helped regenerate plant species and thin out excess growth in the forests.
So tribes like the Klamath started to use fire as a tool to not only stimulate plant growth, but manage the forests by clearing out the excess flammable plants that make the forests prime for more wildfires.
“We lived with the fire. We used fire,” Gentry said. “Those were the conditions that our people lived under for years.”
But when European American settlers came to the West, they intervened to stop deliberate burning practices and began implementing fire suppression techniques in the early 1900s.
While the intent may have been to protect the forests, it was also about protecting corporate interests, said David Lewis, historian and professor of anthropology and Native studies at Oregon State University.
“When corporate landowners and timber barons started controlling national policy in this way of preserving the land — or preserving timber for logging — I think that’s when everything went wrong,” Lewis said.
These land management practices were not only impractical, Lewis and other critics say they just delayed, and ultimately worsened, the inevitable.
Climate change and extreme droughts have been the dominating conversation as the reason for the recent massive fire seasons in Oregon and other Western states, but land management also needs to be part of that discussion, Lewis said.
Many experts now argue that adopting Indigenous land management practices, like controlled burns, is needed now more than ever.
Controlled burns prove effective
Two recent examples of deliberate burning practices actually quelling a so-called megafire were evident this summer, as the Bootleg Fire scorched huge portions of Klamath and Lake counties.
The lighting-caused fire burned more than 413,000 acres, destroying 408 buildings and 342 vehicles. It also burned through 25% of the Klamath Tribes’ federally recognized land, Gentry said.
But when the fire reached the Sycan Marsh Preserve in the upper reaches of the Klamath Basin, the fire actually slowed down. The same thing happened at the Black Hills Ecosystem Restoration.
Both of these areas were treated with deliberate burns over the past six years, said Steve Rondeau, natural resources director for the Klamath Tribes. He said the tribes partnered with the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit, and the U.S. Forest Service to bring back pre-colonial land management practices to the areas.
Rondeau said the tribes have been working with researchers for decades to learn more about the ecology of historical forests.
“We started to figure out that the forests, historical forests, had a different complexity, and that complexity affects the way that the landscape functions,” Rondeau said. “A big part of that is fire.”
Rondeau said that historically, when forests were replanted after massive wildfires, they were planted in a “spatially uniform way.” But forests don’t naturally grow that way.
“So, what happens when you do that is you build this continuous line of fuel, across the landscape,” he said, “whereas in a historical forest, you had spaces in between groups of trees.”
Rondeau said he also noticed stark differences in the landscape where prescribed fires did and didn’t happen. When he drove through the Black Hills of the Fremont-Winema National Forest after the Bootleg Fire, he saw something quite astonishing.
“One side of the road got a (prescribed) burn, and the other side didn’t,” he said. “The difference was a blackened forest versus a green forest.”
U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokesperson Morgan Rubanow said there was another success story earlier this summer near Grants Pass, where three human-caused wildfires were ignited.
“The area had been previously treated in 2007 to remove small trees and shrubs that function as surface and ladder fuels, or vegetation that spans from the forest floor into the treetops, providing a ladder for fire to easily climb,” she said. “The 14-year-old treatment was effective in moderating fire behavior and contributed to the overall success of suppression efforts on three separate occasions.”
Fire knowledge gap
BLM officials say they are aware of the proven benefits of prescribed burns, and they conduct thousands of acres of prescribed burns every year in Oregon and Washington.
“Fire has always been part of the environment and is essential to healthy ecological systems across the West,” Rubanow said. “These ecosystems support varied natural fire regimes, characterized by the frequency and severity of natural wildfires.”
But the West is still far behind when it comes to controlled burns.
Southern states are decades ahead of the curve, with 70% of all controlled burning in the country occurring in the Southeast, National Public Radio reported last month, citing a University of Idaho study.
Despite the known benefits of deliberate fires, Western states like Oregon are struggling to expand the burns due to record-dry conditions.
In August, federal regulators temporarily banned controlled burns, concerned that they could spread out of control and ignite wildfires of their own.
But there is also a “generational gap” in fire knowledge in the West, University of California fire adviser Lenya Quinn-Davidson told NPR last month.
Rondeau agreed. He thinks the West may be slow to recognize the importance of these practices because megafires are a relatively new phenomenon here. Propelled by a changing climate, wildfire seasons have increased in intensity, with earlier, later, bigger and more numerous fires setting new records with alarming regularity.
“It seems like, in our society, we’re reactive to these things,” Rondeau said. “We have something that comes through, like a destructive fire, and may call it an emergency. But really, the emergency is that we’re not out there protecting our landscapes before this happens.”
It’s also important to understand the history of how Western forests even go to this point, Rondeau said, which he said started with the timber industry.
“It wasn’t only to suppress fire so that we could affect Aboriginal cultures and remove them from the landscape, to force assimilation,” he said. “But it was also because fires are perceived to burn forest resources that can be utilized.”
Lewis said that while it’s good that scholars and government agencies are finally starting to realize the necessity of deliberate burns, tribes need to be more involved in the process.
“Some scholars will say, ‘Well, we should be prescribing burns,’ and then they don’t reference where they got those ideas,” Lewis said. “The problem is that by removing the culture, you don’t really know why you’re doing it. Tribes did it to renew the whole environment around them, because they were in a relationship with the land. If we take that cultural piece out, it becomes another sort of corporate, almost capitalistic venture again.”
Rubanow said the BLM is actively seeking out tribal expertise to better inform them on burning practices.
“BLM managers and partners throughout Oregon and Washington are actively engaging tribal leadership in project development, to incorporate knowledge passed down through several generations of Indigenous land stewards into prescribed burning,” she said.
But Rondeau said tribes need to be more than just consultants in the process. He thinks they should be given the resources to manage their own ancestral lands.
“In terms of progress in the region and solving some of these longstanding issues … we have ideas,” Rondeau said. “We want to get out there and make a difference.”
Although he’s not satisfied with the tribal role in the process of wildfire management, Rondeau said he’s proud of the work the Klamath Tribes have accomplished with the government and other partners.
He hopes the tragedy of the Bootleg Fire can also be a success story on allowing tribes to be more involved in deliberate burnings — and, perhaps, to be able to make their own choices about managing the land their ancestors tended for generations.
“It’s not necessarily that we are in a position to go back to the way things were, during our ancestral times,” Rondeau said. “But we are in a position that we can use some of those lessons drawn from the way our ancestors lived on our landscape, and we’re able to do it with fire.”
The Portland Tribune is a news partner of KOIN 6 News.