Beyond a Tool, Fire is Culture
By Eric Bear
California’s in the midst of a wildfire crisis. Learning from the history, culture, and needs of the Karuk tribe is part of the solution.
From September 26th to October 7th, the first Indigenous women-led Women-in-Fire Training Exchange (WTREX) took place along the Salmon and Klamath rivers in Northern California. For 12 days, roughly 30 participants learned how to light prescribed burns with cultural objectives through practical experience. The program welcomed participants of any background but prioritized Indigenous women. At the helm, Karuk tribal women who come from a long lineage of burning instructed live fire lighting and class sessions. As a student of sustainability and environmental justice, I sat down with two Karuk women who instructed the WTREX: Aja Conrad and Vikki Preston.
The need for wildfire resilience in California is evident. Earlier this year, the McKinney Fire swallowed 60,138 acres in the Klamath region. Encouragingly, fire suppression funding has increased to prepare California to respond to fires. However, fire prevention requires a proactive measure called prescribed burning. To effectively reduce the risk of megafires and save lives, California needs to burn 20 million acres of land.
For centuries, Indigenous people have intentionally set smaller fires, called cultural burns, on landscapes to minimize wildfire fuel loads. When fires occur on previously burned land, they burn with less intensity. Ecologically, cultural burning restores health to the forest, animal, and human integrated system.
Beyond ecological benefits, former Karuk Director of Natural Resources Leaf Hillman insists “fire is a cultural resource,” because it holds sacred spiritual value vital to Karuk traditions. Karuk basket weaver Marge Houston recommends, “hazel has to be burned two years prior to picking.” Further, fire helps maintain strong basketry materials, shade fish in the rivers with smoke, and manage over three-quarters of traditional Karuk food, such as acorns.
Aja Conrad (above) is a Karuk tribal member, born and raised in the Klamath. Today, she is a mother, artist, small-business owner, and fire professional who helped craft the inaugural Indigenous WTREX. In our conversation, Aja’s story began with her grandparents, both Karuk. Her grandfather, forced to attend an Indian boarding school, met her grandmother, who endured the foster system during her upbringing.
Upon resettling in Somes Bar, CA, Aja’s grandparents were resolute: they would restore their ties to Karuk culture after displacement attempted to sever them. How? Through teaching cultural burning, empowering youth, and re-establishing their Karuk cultural identity. It follows, then, that Aja grew up observing her grandparents intentionally igniting the land. She found that “whole identity development comes from actually tending to your land, stewarding, doing your part in your place.”
Core to the Karuk worldview are the phrase pikyav, meaning “to fix the world,” and the notion that human stewardship is a critical component of ecosystems. “Growing up as a Karuk person in this place,” Aja explained, “feels like I’m doing my part, what’s expected of me, what’s right.”
Coupling lived experiences with degrees from UC Berkeley and the University of Oregon, Aja spearheads eco-cultural revitalization (cite) efforts — among them, carrying out and teaching cultural burning. “WTREX pulls all this together,” Aja exclaimed, seeing how it tied together tradition, family, youth education, and ecological resilience. Crucially, WTREX is an effort to change the culture of fire management altogether while providing opportunities for typically underrepresented practitioners to support and elevate one another.
Since the 1850s, however, European-American settler colonialism along the Klamath forced a regime of resource extraction. Mining, timber harvest, dam construction, and fire suppression are its ongoing legacy. In the wake of the Big Burn of 1910, the Weeks Act of 1911 outlawed cultural fire. Without it, vegetation overgrowth and fire suppression began. The cultural costs were all but invisible. Without fire, the Karuk people were deprived of access to their culture, ceremonies, and food resources. Poor health and nutrition, a lack of community cohesion, and an inability to retain tradition ensued. Karuk Tribal Leader Ron Reed shares, “when we don’t go back to places that we are used to, accustomed to, part of our lifestyle is curtailed dramatically.”
Coupled with Indian boarding schools, forced assimilation through landscape degradation and the criminalization of traditional burning threatens cultural identity and political sovereignty.
Today, CalFire struggles to carry out prescribed burn projects and report its progress, despite an inundation of government funding. Meanwhile, the Karuk tribe, with generations of fire lighting experience, must independently seek funding for their fuel reduction work. Having flexible funding, Aja explains, would give tribal land stewards autonomy in their landscape-level management decisions.
Next, Aja understands why there is red tape on prescribed burning: policies and procedures prevent mistakes. But while burning regulations slow down the process, the language and procedures should be demystified. If the tribes are clearly informed about the steps they must take to burn, they can plan to meet burn regulation requirements more effectively, Aja offers.
Finally, although a federally recognized tribe, the Karuk tribe does not have a federally designated reservation. Notably, 95% of their land is federally managed. Burning on tribal and tribal adjacent lands is inherently an issue of Tribal sovereignty. Aja demands the Karuk tribe have its own legally designated land and be recognized as a sovereign nation that can collaborate with the Forest Service and other agencies.
Lastly, prescribed burning is not the same as cultural burning. Because of this, the Karuk tribe calls upon federal land management to uphold Karuk knowledge sovereignty “due to the likelihood of cultural appropriation and misuse” of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Still, Karuk leaders believe meaningful collaboration is possible, one that recognizes the legitimacy of Karuk management practices and strengthens tribal sovereignty.
Vikki Preston (above), Cultural Resources Technician for the Karuk Department of Natural Resources and Indigenous WTREX instructor, sums up what is at stake, “to not be able to be out there with your family affects well-being, family dynamics, and cultural autonomy, so restoring fire is a huge piece of being able to give that sovereignty back.” In Aja Conrad’s eyes, Indigenous peoples — particularly women in fire, like those of WTREX — are done waiting for a seat at the table and ready to take matters (and fire) into their own hands. In turn, WTREX helps drive forward the Karuk fight for sovereignty, changing who is represented in fire management leadership, and centering Indigenous sovereignty so we can find our best collective path forward.
Eric Bear is a student at Stanford University studying Sustainability and Computer Science. A non-native born and raised in Golden, CO, he has taken a deep dive into forest restoration and wildfire resilience. Through this, he has formed a partnership with the Karuk Department of Natural Resources since February of 2022.