[News] Indigenous solutions to California’s capitalist conflagrations

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Sat Oct 24 10:57:54 EDT 2020

Online | Indigenous solutions to California’s capitalist conflagrations
Tony Marks-Block - October 23, 2020
[image: Prescribed fire on the Yurok Reservation, California]

California is experiencing yet another year of calamitous conflagrations
producing human fatalities, home destruction, and hazardous air quality
that could be prevented by radically restructuring land management to
prioritize Indigenous approaches and objectives. Political sound bites pit
climate change against forest management as the source of the disaster.
Republicans emphasize the claim that California’s forests need more
management to reduce woody fuels that encourage fire spread, but their
management rhetoric masks their ulterior motives to thin forests
in support of the timber industry, and their record of limiting federal
funding for forest restoration. On the other hand, California Democrats
emphasize the effects of climate change to critique Republican denialism,
and they also recognize that changes to forest management are necessary.

Not surprisingly, neither the State of California nor the Federal
government discuss the effects of colonialism or capitalist timber
extraction on the wildfire crisis. Indigenous-set, prescribed fires
attenuated the spread of wildfire by reducing woody fuels across
California. Industrial timber extraction and fire suppression have
contributed to unprecedented fuel accumulations. Today, Indigenous Tribes
and organizations are leading efforts to revive prescribed fire and restore
yet their solutions are not being supported at a necessary scale. Without a
long-term commitment to supporting Indigenous initiatives and sovereignty,
we will continue to see explosive fire growth amplified by unprecedented
temperatures and drought.

*Indigenous Fire and Colonialism*

California ecosystems are fire-adapted, and Indigenous cultures are
“We rely on fire to maintain our basketry materials, medicinal plants,
acorn trees and hunting grounds,” says Elizabeth Azzuz, Yurok Tribal
member, and leader in the Cultural Fire Management Council

Preceding colonialism, Indigenous cultures applied fire at a large scale
and at high frequency (e.g., every 2 – 5years) to eliminate fungal and
insect infestations in acorns <https://escholarship.org/uc/item/02r7x8r6>,
which are historically at the foundation of their diet. They burned to
enhance the production of basketry materials
<https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378112719306826> and
berries, and to improve forage for deer and elk. By burning woody fuel
accumulations, California Indians not only improved their ability to see
and move across the landscape, but they also reduced the ability of
unintentional fires to spread rapidly and intensely. This is a core tenet
of Indigenous and Western fire science: where there is limited and
discontinuous fuel, fires spread more slowly and at lower intensities, if
at all.

Western foresters who shaped California and Federal fire policy in the
early 20th century arrogantly believed they could exclude fire from the
landscape to protect standing timber, and support timber regeneration to
sustain timber yields for American empire[1]. They used white supremacist
narratives to denigrate Indigenous fire practices. Indigenous burning
practices were derisively called ‘Paiute burning’ by US Forest Service
leaders to discourage settler adoption of prescribed burning, and to
promote fire exclusion policies. In 1920, Henry Graves, the second US
Forest Service Chief, contended that Indigenous burning for forest
protection was a fallacy, and “far from consistent with the[ir] relatively
low stage of cultural development”[2].

The so-called superiority of capitalist timber management justified
Indigenous land appropriation and fostered timber monocultures that were
reliant on pesticides to kill unwanted, or “unproductive” species[3]. Tree
densities in timber plantations increased fuel loads and destroyed the
biodiversity stewarded by Indigenous cultures.

*Lack of Funding and Sprawl are a Dangerous Mix*

Federal and state governments now belatedly acknowledge that prescribed
fire is a necessary tool to mitigate wildfire spread and to restore
ecological communities, but have never invested to implement frequent
prescribed burning at a sufficient scale. Federal budgets before 2020
routinely allocated funds meant for prescribed fire and other forest
restoration to pay for suppression instead. Decades of fire suppression
invested in an industrial complex with huge expenditures in equipment
(e.g., planes, fire vehicles) and a reliance on prison labor
to protect the expansion of homes in what is called the Wildland Urban
Interface (WUI).

The WUI is an expansive term that describes areas where human
(infra)structures are constructed within fire-adapted ecosystems. In parts
of California the WUI is an unwieldy matrix of homes
designed without basic fire protections that expanded when capitalists and
county governments realized that cut-over timberlands were more lucrative
as subdivisions[4]. The WUI relies on a privatized electrical infrastructure
that has become dilapidated and is one of many new sources of unintentional
fire starts. This infrastructure supports vacation homes as well as
low-income housing that attracts people trying to find respite from
housing crisis
and the ecological alienation produced by urban life. Absentee property
ownership, limited funds, and new land uses focused on recreation and
tourism make the coordination of prescribed fire and other fuel reduction
methods onerous.

One solution to sprawl is to discourage post-fire re-building
in the WUI, but county revenue structures and the real estate industry do
not favor such re-zoning and planning
In the absence of major planning reforms, there are successful
examples of mitigating
wildfire in the WUI
that can be replicated. Indigenous groups are at the forefront of these
efforts using prescribed fire, and their longstanding land tenure in
California shows that policies to prevent re-building could re-produce

*Indigenous Leadership Can Help Restore Positive Fire Relationships*

In the Klamath basin of Northwest California, Karuk and Yurok Tribal
members are leading a regional resurgence of prescribed burning
to revitalize Indigenous culture, maintain spiritual practices, and to
protect homes. They recognize that the scale of the problem requires
extensive partnerships. Karuk wildland fire leader Herman Albers states
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mby72d2Vz30> that there are “two million
acres that we want to treat and restore and we can’t do it alone. If we are
trying to do it ourselves it’s going to take too much time”.

Karuk and Yurok Tribal members have maintained small-scale prescribed
cultural burning through the years, retaining their expertise in fire
science despite its criminalization, and choosing to risk fines and
imprisonment to ensure ancestral fire knowledge was passed on. In recent
decades, Indigenous basket weavers and other cultural practitioners have
pressured the Forest Service and other land managers to maintain prescribed
burning to enhance ecocultural resources. Since 2013, the Karuk Tribe has
initiated a partnership <https://www.wkrp.network/> with the Forest Service
and environmental NGOs to expand prescribed fire throughout their ancestral
territory. They use federal funds for wildfire risk reduction to provide
dozens of jobs for Tribal and community members to plan and implement
prescribed fire.

This initiative is an example of a “caretaking economy” that could be
supported by the Red Deal
proposed by the Red Nation across Indian country. Jackie Fielder
an Indigenous socialist California senate candidate, recently highlighted
the Karuk initiative <https://jackieforsenate.com/wildfires> as a model for
supporting Indigenous sovereignty, economic development and fire resilience
throughout California. She would like the state to develop a plan with
Tribal leadership to “expand [Indigenous] land management practices beyond
the boundaries of tribal lands, [create] a jobs program for tribal members
and non-tribal members, and necessary funding or policy changes to make
that possible”.

Yurok Tribal members are also taking advantage of new funds and land
to expand prescribed fire through the Tribe’s wildland fire department and
a grassroots entity called the Cultural Fire Management Council
<http://culturalfire.org/>. The Council supports cooperative and family-led
burning through collective resources and equipment to reduce overhead costs
and bureaucratic processes associated with government-sponsored burning.
This cooperative burn model is also being replicated by non-native rural
land owners throughout California in counties like Humboldt
<https://humcopba.net/>, Plumas
<https://www.plumasfiresafe.org/plumas-underburn-co-op.html> and Sonoma
<https://calpba.org/good-fire-alliance>, and is influenced by successful
prescribed burn associations in the American Mid-West. It augments efforts
to increase fire professionals by training community members to safely burn
on their own to increase fire resilience.

Indigenous peoples remain disproportionately affected
by wildfire destruction, as evidenced by the recent destruction caused by
the Slater Fire
in Happy Camp, California, where the Karuk Tribe is headquartered. Decades
of prescribed fire planning around the town and Tribal lands were never
implemented at scale due to extensive state and federal bureaucracy, and
insufficient funding. Governance and resources should be transferred to
those communities who have spent decades planning for wildfire, to prevent
future disaster. Ongoing demands for Tribal sovereignty and land
restitution, paired with the development of a new prescribed fire
workforce, can begin to heal this land from the conflagrations produced by
250 years of colonialism and capitalist exploitation. “We need to renew our
relationship with fire,” says Karuk leader Chook-Chook Hillman
“the clock is ticking”.

[1] Hudson, M., 2011. *Fire management in the American West: forest
politics and the rise of megafires*. University Press of Colorado.

[2] Graves, H. S. (1920). The torch in the timber. *Sunset*, *44*(4),
37–40, 80–90.

[3] Huntsinger, L., & McCaffrey, S. 1995. A forest for the trees: Forest
management and the Yurok environment, 1850 to 1994. *American Indian
Culture and Research Journal*, *19*(4), 155–192.

[4] Duane, T.P., 1999. *Shaping the Sierra: Nature, culture, and conflict
in the changing West*. University of California Press.
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