Good Fire: Indigenous Cultural Burns Renew Life

Bill Tripp, Deputy-Director of Eco-Cultural Revitalization for the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources, is a forest management specialist and the lead author of the Karuk Eco-Cultural Resource Management Plan and co-author of the Karuk Climate Adaptation Plan. His work involves developing partnerships and strategic action plans to enable large landscape collaborative management throughout Karuk Aboriginal Territory and beyond. Bill is featured in the film the INHABITANTS: An Indigenous Perspective which follows five Native American tribes as they adapt to today’s climate crisis by restoring their ancient relationships with the land. Bill Tripp was interviewed by Arty Mangan of Bioneers.

ARTY MANGAN: Bill, what watershed do you live in and what is it like there?

BILL TRIPP: I live in the Klamath River Basin near the confluence of the Salmon River. It is extremely rural and mountainous terrain with a primarily forested setting surrounded, for the most part, by multiple wilderness areas.

ARTY: Would you explain the Karuk concept of pikyav?

BILL: In the Karuk language, pikyav means “to fix it.” When we say we’re practicing pikyav, it means that in our lives and work we’re striving to fix the world and make it a better place. In the context of our world renewal ceremonies, which we refer to as pikyávish, we enact our ceremonial practices in a way that they’ve been done for millennia, and work with the spirit beings of this place to help renew the world and to remind ourselves of who we need to be in order to fix it.

ARTY: The Karuk have a tradition of using fire to manage the forest. How do you view fire and what is your relationship to fire?

BILL: Fire is that which renews life. A lot of people have been conditioned to look at it as a threat and something that’s scary, something to avoid, whereas in my worldview, that’s not necessarily the case. If you can’t learn to live with fire and learn how to work with what it is and what it does to help maintain all the things needed for survival in a place like this, then basically you’re working against it, and if enough time goes by, it will work against you. Things in nature have a tendency to win.

We’ve always used fire in this place so we can have food, medicine, basket materials and a whole suite of other things. We can use it to fashion boats and keep ourselves warm and cook food. Fire is central to human culture in general. Many factions of society have been removed from it, but it’s painstakingly obvious that removing the relationship of people with fire from the forest has led to a situation that makes it hard to live in places where fire thrives.

ARTY: I have heard the terms “prescribed burn” and “cultural burning.” Is there a difference?

BILL: When talking about prescribed fire, people would say that you need to have a burn plan and a burn box and that you have to go through certain trainings. All of that professional development structure is built around having justifications to cover yourself in the event of liability if something goes wrong; whereas cultural burning isn’t based on some arbitrary practices that people constructed. Cultural burning is a practice developed by people who have been in a place a very long time, who know their surroundings intimately and know that you need to do specific things at specific times for a reason, so when it’s time, you just go do it. It’s a cultural norm. It’s something that happens at regular cycles based on a consistent application of standard principles.

ARTY: Are there certain times of the year that you would not do cultural burns?

BILL: Every place is different. The biophysical settings of each place are different. In Karuk culture, the only time of the year we wouldn’t use fire for anything but heating and cooking would be when the birds come back and start to build their nests to a time in mid-to-late June, when Pleiades appears  again in the morning sky. Lightning has a tendency to start fires at that time. That’s really the only time of year, culturally, that Karuk people didn’t use fire, except for heating and cooking. We didn’t just go start fires in the middle of summer for any random reason, but if there was a lightning strike or something going on out there, in order to keep things from building up a head of steam and aligning with wind shifts and whatnot, it would be a time to go out and put a point of fire in a strategic spot so things can burn out by the time that wind shifts.

There were a number of things like that that were traditionally done to keep the fire away from the villages. For the most part, within two miles of a village, there would be burning intensely in the fall and early spring so that most of the fuel would be consumed and wildfires couldn’t come down right into the village. But it would depend on what kind of resource you’re burning for and what kind of vegetation you’re working with. You can go out into a black oak woodland and burn that after five or six days of sun in February. You can go out after a day of sun in February and burn buckbrush, so that very volatile fuel would be gone in the summer. With two days of sun, you can burn the top inch of pine needles and you can reinforce the edge of your manzanita stands with a backline by doing that. You can go into different vegetative assemblies and burn at times when nothing else is going to burn. By burning “mobile” types of fuels such as buckbrush, pine and black oak leaves in the spring, you create features that can stop fires in the fall, so in the fall when we burn, for example, a tan-oak stand on the other side of the ridge, the fire will be contained.

ARTY: Cultural burns prevent major fires and keep fires out of settled areas, but are there other purposes to them as well?

BILL: Yeah. A lot of people assume that Indigenous Peoples only burn next to their villages, but they also managed hunting grounds farther away. A lot of hunting grounds are further away, and a lot of the foods were gathered and processed up in the high country in the summer, which is when the lightning happens. Burning off places up there  great benefits for large ungulates and contributes quite nicely to the food web ecology. There’s a plethora of species in those fire-adapted environments.

There are also a lot of invasive grass species around these days, and native grasslands are getting encroached upon. Dry grass is very receptive to inverse when a wind-driven fire is occurring. If you go into grassy areas at the end of June, when there is still high humidity at night, you can wait for the sun to leave the river and then light the fire and guide that fire around through the grassland. Once you start getting into 10, 11, 12 at night, nothing will burn anymore. A lot of the bigger woods are too wet to burn completely, and the grasses just burn away fast and then go out. The fire can’t go on day-after-day-after-day because those grasses will just suck up that moisture at night to the point where they won’t burn anymore. What you’re left with is a place that’s completely void of fuel for the rest of the summer, and there are other native plants that need that fire at that time of year, and they benefit from that fire and then stay green further throughout the summer.

ARTY: You obviously have a very deep knowledge of fire. How did you learn it, and has this traditional knowledge been unbroken, or was there a time when people weren’t able to burn because of laws that prohibited it?

BILL: Laws are laws. People created those laws for one reason or another, but not everybody paid attention to the law. Out here, people kept burning and still burn. They don’t burn at the scale that they should be burning, but they make sure to do some of the burning that needs to be done.

And if you ask me, there are some gray areas in the law. I’d like someone to show me on the books right now today where it’s illegal for Indigenous Peoples to implement cultural burning practices. I don’t think that intent is anywhere in the law. Maybe there was in the Act for the Governance and Protection of the Indians back in 1850, which was blatantly tied to racist origins. I’m sure people today would question the relevance of that law.

People assumed cultural burning was illegal, but continuous use and occupancy is a real thing. We still use fire. We still occupy our original homelands. We still utilize the resources that are out here in our aboriginal homelands and we simply wouldn’t survive out here if we didn’t, but these days the laws would make it pretty much impossible to do it. You can burn at this time of year, they say, but you can’t burn at night. Well, if the right conditions don’t come in until about an hour before sunset, it looks like I’m not going to be able to do anything if I’m going to sit here and follow the law made by somebody who doesn’t understand. So, I don’t follow laws. I do it when I know that traditional law says it’s time to do it. Last I checked, there needed to be a treaty before any rights could be taken. All our rights to do these things are retained. There are laws that say you shouldn’t do it, but there are also laws that say we have every right to do it. So, I guess it’s all subject to interpretation.

ARTY: How old were you when you first became involved in cultural burns?

BILL: I was 4 years old. My grandma gave me some stick matches and told me to burn a line in the black oak leaves from one point to another point and then turned around and went back in the house. It was one of those days where the very top layer of the leaves was dry, but the bottom layer wasn’t, and it was hard to get a fire to move from one leaf to the next leaf. I had to rearrange the way the leaves lay. After lighting each individual leaf, I was running out of matches. I was only a quarter of the way finished with the job.

I recognized that I was going to have to do something different because my current trajectory was not going to get me to my goal. I couldn’t just simply light every leaf, but if I lit one leaf and had that connected to 30 or 40 other leaves that were in a line, then the fire would move from leaf to leaf. With a little piece of cardboard, I could fan it and the wind would blow it from leaf to leaf. So, on a micro scale, I learned about the factors that influence fire behavior. I ended up using all those matches, but I did what she asked me to do. That was my grandma’s way to measure whether or not she was going to teach me something about fire, and so she did. By the time I was 8 years old, I was burning things that were little bit drier, out of the shade that would carry the fire by itself a little bit better. I learned when to recognize when it was safe and when it wasn’t, and what time of day to do it.

ARTY: When you do a cultural burn, how does that affect the salmon?

BILL: It can affect salmon in a lot of different ways; it depends on the wind and what type of cultural burning you’re doing. We have world renewal ceremonies and specific ceremonial burning practices that are supposed to occur on or around the full moon in August and the new moon in September. We do a landscape-scale burn on Black Mountain in August. It’s done at times of northeast wind events, but it’s done on the leeward side of the slope from the wind, so it’s sheltered by the mountain. If you’re doing an annual burn, there’s only so much fuel that can grow up in a year, but any kind of brush and plants that are re-sprouting could get scorched by the burn if there’s wind blowing through the fuel that is available, so it’s a fuel-limited system that actually needs wind at that point to be effective. That scorches off all the small plants that are growing up and that are using surface water. It creates smoke that can reduce the solar insulation that heats the water and the river, and it creates particulates that cloud up the holes in the leaves and needles that trees use to breathe. It reduces their efficiency and evapotranspiration. They still pump water up to the surface level of soil at night, as trees normally do so they have something to use during the day. So, they’ll pull the water up at night and distribute it into the surface soils. But during the day if there’s smoke, evaporation and transpiration are reduced. When that happens, more water stays in the soil that can then runoff into the streams. That can increase the flow in the streams. The increased flow combined with the reduced water temperature can be enough to move your main river temperatures from lethal to stressful, and even to the point of being safe for fish to enter the stream and begin to run much earlier than they otherwise would.

ARTY:  What is the Karuk practice or ceremony of “calling the salmon up the river?” 

BILL: During the world renewal ceremony, our medicine man does a belly flop at the mouth of Camp Creek. When the medicine man does that belly flop, it’s supposed to make a big, loud noise, which represents the lightning and thunder. The splash is supposed to create ripples that go down the river from the mouth of Camp Creek. But how do you translate that action and the prayer that’s made in that action into a biophysical reality? The medicine man does that belly flop based on an indicator that someone at the top of the mountain is also keying in on. At the exact same time that belly flop takes place a fire is lit at the top of the mountain. The fire that burns the top part of that watershed creates a pulse that happens day-to-day. Trees pull water up, but they don’t use it, so the water flows off. That creates a diurnal fluctuation shift ever so slightly in that watershed in Camp Creek, and that’s enough to send a signal or a ripple, if you will, on a 24-hour time scale, down the Klamath River from Camp Creek to the estuary where the salmon are.

ARTY: Which is a about a hundred miles away, right?

BILL: It’s quite a few miles away. A lot of times the sandbar seals off the estuary from the ocean at the mouth of the Klamath River, and so fish don’t even have access. Even a little fluctuation and flow has a tendency to eat away at sand, even if it’s ever so slight. That would theoretically help to chew its way through the sandbar to give the salmon access before the rains come; it also changes that temperature and flow regime enough to where salmon can feel comfortable coming into the river, hence calling them into the river.

ARTY: Setting the conditions that welcome the salmon.

BILL: Yes, and then that’s backed up by the next burn a few weeks later at the new moon in September. After that is when fire is coming back into the hands of the people for the most part, and a lot more burning in the tan oaks and those types of areas really start to scale back up again as we move into fall.

ARTY: What is the relationship between the Karuk and salmon?

BILL: Salmon is a staple food for us. It’s one of the healthiest fats a person can take in. It’s brain food. It’s one of the best food sources that we have. All of our ceremonies revolve around it to one degree or another. We have acorns and we have salmon, everything else is a bonus. Those two things can sustain life into perpetuity. Those are the two things that are supposed to be primary components of our diet. We don’t have access to them like we should. We have a serious problem with things like adult-onset diabetes and heart disease and other diet and lifestyle-related problems because our access has been altered by colonial society.

ARTY: How are the salmon runs doing in the Klamath River?

BILL: Salmon runs are not doing very well. I’ve always wanted to believe in my heart that we would never see what we are looking at with climate change. But I know deep down that a lot of species are in peril right now, and it’s going to get worse if we don’t do something about it, and salmon is not just a staple for humans. The nutrient density that they supply to the entire forest system is phenomenal. You can’t imagine it by looking at the run you see today, but if you can imagine a time when a river was just black with fish for months on end. There were a lot of bears and a lot of other animals taking those nutrients up the hill.

ARTY: When you were a kid, did you see runs like that?

BILL: There were a few years when I saw runs that gave me the visual I needed to be able to actually imagine what everyone told me it was like even a few decades earlier, but I’ve only seen the river completely black with fish two or three times in my life. But older folks said then that that was nothing compared to what it once was.

If we can restore watersheds and restore some of these processes that create the conditions for species to survive, there’s nothing that says that places can’t be repopulated by salmon.

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