Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part article penned by Samantha Swank, a Linguistics and Spanish major at UC Davis with a minor in Professional Writing, Politics and Communication. The second part will print in Saturday’s Record-Bee.
Fire is a natural part of the California ecosystem, but you wouldn’t know it from all the unnaturally catastrophic wildfires that have left thousands homeless, killed dozens more, heavily polluted the air for hundreds of miles in several states, and cost taxpayers and insurance companies billions of dollars in damages.
But of all California counties, Lake County has perhaps suffered some of the most destruction. More than half of its land has burned since 2015.
Leora Treppa Diego, 69, a semi-retired member of the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake, said that wildfires have become the norm. Multiple evacuations from her home in Nice, California, have translated into weeks spent at campsites, hotels, and even the nearby Colusa Casino, which offered rooms to neighboring tribes when hotels had filled. “Since the 2015 fire,” Diego wrote, “I have loaded up my camping gear in my car and basically ride around with it just in case.”
Unease that wildfires are getting more severe and frequent is not just a feeling. According to CalFire data from this April, more than half of California’s largest recorded wildfires have occurred within the last 10 years. Six of them were in 2020, including the August Complex which burned over a million acres–the largest ever recorded.
Sherry Treppa, 60, an Executive Council Chairperson for the tribe since 2004, shared that 2018 was the worst wildfire year for her community. “It’s very, very hard to fight multiple fires in multiple areas,” she added, citing experience from tribal and nontribal family members who work as firefighters in CalFire and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). “To be fair, people are moving into areas that are more forested,” she said, “and you run the risk.”
Not much tribal property has been lost to fires, but significant money has been. “Putting people up in hotels, buying them the basics to live for a couple of weeks, shelter, etcetera,” she said, were all expensive yet necessary. Many of the banks that the tribe used to deliver money to members for essentials also shut down, meaning they couldn’t deposit checks or withdraw cash for weeks. And although funds from FEMA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and insurance covered much of the lost money from the months-long shutdown of their casino, other local businesses had no insurance to cover their losses.
But it’s the sheer speed of many wildfires that has been most distressing, Treppa said, as it gives so little time to relocate members to safer areas–particularly when thousands of evacuees from neighboring counties are competing for the same shelter.
It wasn’t always this way. When asked how the effects of wildfires on the tribe have changed since she took office, she said that although there have always been fires, “I don’t remember that they were every year and as impactful as they have been.”
Native Californian tribes, including the Habematolel, used to mitigate wildfire risk by conducting cultural burns, a type of controlled burn, which cleared out the brush and consequently eliminated highly flammable clusters of vegetation.
Beth Rose Middleton Manning, 41, a Professor and Department Chair of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis, instructs a class called “Keepers of the Flame” that teaches students about cultural burns.
“It’s not only about the application of fire, ” Manning explained, “but about fire, caring for the soil, then harvesting, then coming back and applying fire again.”
Although the burn process is unique to each tribe and event, she elaborated, prayer is often conducted before the burn and the ash mixed in with the soil. Later, members return and harvest what has regrown. “The cultural burning approach to me is more like gardening,” Manning said.
Prescribed fires, on the other hand, are also controlled burns but are “more like these broad treatments over larger ecosystems,” where ash is not mixed with soil and nobody comes back to harvest. But, Manning said, both are effective tools for combatting the overgrowth that feeds massive, rapid blazes.
So where are the burns?
A series of extensive land losses, caused by the forceful removal of natives from their lands through relocation and genocide; the revocation of federal recognition in the 1950s; and a tangle of sovereignty and local rules, have all contributed to the near elimination of these burns.
The Lake County Fire Safe Council acknowledges in its Wildfire Protection Plan that, “Many historical land practices gained from the indigenous communities, such as the use of fire as a management tool, are no longer practiced due to a minimal (or nonexistent) land base among these tribes.”
The Habematolel and other Lake County tribes know this well: their federal recognition was revoked in 1958 under the Rancheria Termination Act, and although they successfully restored their status following a 1979 lawsuit, many remained landless for years. The Habematolel didn’t own any land again until 2008, when they purchased about 11 acres.
Historically, California and the federal government have pursued policies that suppress cultural burns and other fires, said Jessica Morse, 39, the Deputy Secretary for Forest and Wildfire Resilience at California’s Natural Resource Agency.
Pre-contact, California tribes would regularly conduct these burns in locations that didn’t burn on their own, typically every 10, 15, or 30 years. But now, Morse said, “Some areas see no fires in 100 years.”
And without the smaller intentional fires, the brush grows so thick that sparks ignite and more often and burn much faster. Even though the same amount of land still burns each year now as did thousands of years ago—between 4 and 12 million acres—fires nowadays release enormous amounts of emissions that older, slower fires simply didn’t.
Geneva Thompson, 31, two weeks into the first position of its kind as Assistant Secretary for Tribal Affairs at California’s Natural Resource Agency, joined my call with Morse. Rather than any explicit ban on cultural burns, Thompson said, federal agencies such as the USFS pursued a general policy of fire suppression which—combined with the forcible removal of natives from their lands—made it impossible for tribes to continue these burns. Instead, she explained, “They were in survival mode.”
“It was a deliberate, conscious policy decision by the USFS to suppress fires,” Morse added, saying that in the 1910s Congress agreed to fund the USFS only if it adopted fire-suppressive protocols. And later, in the 1980s, California halted agricultural burns to combat excessive air pollution that lingered as acidic smog in the Central Valley.