‘Fire is Medicine’

November 22, 2019

For millennia, native people have used flames to protect the land. The US government outlawed the process for a century before recognizing its value.

When Rick O’Rourke walks with fire, the drip torch is an extension of his body. The mix of diesel and gasoline arcs up and out from the little wick at the end of the red metal can, landing on the ground as he takes bite after bite out of the dry vegetation in the shadow of the firs and oaks.

“Some people are like gunslingers and some people are like artists who paint with fire,” he says. “I’m a little bit of both.”

This is the kind of land management O’Rourke grew up with on the Yurok reservation in the Klamath mountains of northern California. Now, lighting the forest on fire to save it – and his tribe’s culture along with it – has become his life’s work, as fire and fuels manager of the Yurok Cultural Fire Management Council. On this day, he’s working the drip torch alongside a few dozen cultural practitioners from tribes across the US, and firefighters from around the world.

He draws the can back and forth across the green, turning it red and then black. The lines of little flames creep along the forest floor, ebbing and growing with the contours of the land.

This fire will chew out the underbrush and lick the moss off the trees. It will blister the hazel stalks and coax strong new shoots that will be gathered and woven into baskets for babies and caps for traditional dancers, and it will tease the tan oak acorns to drop. It will burn the invasive plants that suck up the rain, letting more clean, cool water flow through the black, into the watershed and down the Klamath river for the salmon.

Soon all that black will be dotted with bear grass and huckleberries pushing up for the sunlight and down for the water they couldn’t reach when they were crowded out by tall scotch broom and dense twists of blackberries and the ever-encroaching fir trees. Even sooner, animals will flock here to roll in the ash, a California dust bath.

For more than 13,000 years, the Yurok, Karuk, Hupa, Miwok, Chumash and hundreds of other tribes across California and the world used small intentional burns to renew local food, medicinal and cultural resources, create habitat for animals, and reduce the risk of larger, more dangerous wild fires.

This is “good fire”, traditional practitioners and firefighters would say.

For most of the last 100 years in California, however, government agencies have considered fire the enemy – a dangerous, destructive element to suppress and exclude from the land. Traditional ecological knowledge and landscape stewardship were sidelined in favor of wholesale firefighting, and a kind of land management that looked like natural conservation but left the ground choked with vegetation ready to burn. As the climate crisis creates hotter, drier, more volatile weather, that fuel has helped drive larger wildfires faster and further across the west.

Our first agreement with our creator was to tend the land. It was taken away from us, and now we’re trying to reclaim it

Rick O’Rourke, Yurok fire manager

After decades suppressing small and gigantic fires alike, California is slowly embarking on a course correction. Alongside huge expenditures on firefighting staff and gear, the state is making new investments in prescribed burning. But who gets to decide where that fire goes, what it burns, why it burns – who is the steward of a natural element – remains contentious. These native people are trying to revitalize their right to indigenous cultural burning, a practice that was criminalized long before California became a state, before their culture dies out.

“Our first agreement with our creator was to tend the land,” says O’Rourke, 52, resting for a moment on a log in the green, lit drip torch still in hand. “It was taken away from us, and now we’re trying to reclaim it.”

How the US waged war on fire

The Spanish were the first California colonizers to prevent indigenous people from burning the land. In 1850, the US government passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which outlawed intentional burning in California even before it was a state.

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