For thousands of years before contact with Europeans, the Karuk people, like many Native American tribes, tended their land with fire, keeping an ecological balance among plants, animals, river, and forest.
Situated along the Klamath River, in Humboldt and Siskyou counties, the Karuk are now struggling to renew their way of life.
Today, nearly 98% of the tribe's ancestral land is controlled by the U.S. Forest Service. The landscape is overgrown with timber and undermanaged. Out-of-control wildfires have repeatedly decimated the area, a consequence of disallowing native people to wield the tool of intentional burning, say advocates of the practice.
Scot Steinbring has seen first-hand the results of what happens when wildfire meets an overgrown forest in the area inhabited by the Karuk.
In September 2020, as the Slater Fire torched hillsides, Steinbring, the fire management officer for the tribe, was decidedly overmatched.
"In 35 years of being in the fire service," he said, "I had never witnessed anything like that here."
Driven by fierce winds, the fire tore through forests and houses. But because lots of other fires in the state were doing the same, other fire jurisdictions had precious little backup to spare.
"I remember getting on the radio and going, does everybody know outside what’s going on here?" Steinbring said. "I mean, we’re losing houses and they’re like, 'We’re sorry, there’s not enough resources. It’s not a priority.'"
Near a road in the town of Happy Camp, where the fire roared down a hillside and destroyed homes on land belonging to the tribal trust, Will Harling was also firefighting.
His assessment of the situation: "There was just no chance."
Saved by Fire
He indicated a spot across the street where the home of another local firefighter once stood. As the Slater Fire approached, the man frantically tried to pump his pool to wet down the house in a last-ditch effort to save it.
"I remember we were down there," Harling said, pointing down the hill, "engaged at the fire’s edge, and he drove back up here through the flames and came back out five minutes later, just tears streaming down his face. 'It’s all gone, it’s all gone.'"
The rural community of Happy Camp, population about 850, lost a staggering 200 homes and two lives during the Slater Fire. About half of the families in the community, many of them Karuk, lost their homes.
"The sad thing is we had started 20 years ago preparing for this fire," Harling said. "We knew it was going to come.”
Harling directs the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, a nonprofit dedicated to ecologically restoring the area. He says it wasn’t just the wind working against the small band of firefighters that day. Decades of suppressing fires had left the forests overgrown and primed to burn.
"The time to do this work is five, ten years before that fire comes,” he said. "Do the fuels-work, follow it up with prescribed fire, get the fuels in a condition where we can actually save homes and not be in the state where we have to just fall back and watch everything burn."
How to Fix the Problem
Local nonprofits and federal and tribal governments know what would make the situation better, because the Karuk kept these forests healthy for thousands of years with prescribed burns.
"Tribal knowledge carried on in this place and it teaches us how us humans are meant to be in a place," Harling says.
But native burning, used primarily to increase food supply but also to deprive the land of fuel in anticipation of a wildfire, has been outlawed or suppressed since at least the middle of the 1800s.
In its first couple of years of statehood, California spent at least two million dollars in state funds to exterminate native people. Miners and white settlers didn’t understand the role fire played in the ecosystem. They stopped, and even shot, Karuk people who lit fires.
Also in the 1850s, the Karuk negotiated a treaty with the federal government. Under pressure from the California governor, Congress refused to ratify it, leaving the tribe without the treaty’s protections, lands and rights.
That legacy is still with the tribe.
"Karuk people being stripped from their relationship with fire has had profound effects," said Bill Tripp, director of the Department of Natural Resources for the Karuk. "It's effectively still pushing us out of our ability to live in our aboriginal homelands. And it continues to function in a manner of systematic colonization."
Re-establishing this traditional relationship with fire, the Karuk say, is the key to revitalizing the area. That’s true economically, they say, with good jobs to be had in fire and forest management in an area that’s otherwise struggling. It’s also true ecologically: Controlled fire supports salmon, elk, forage plants and the systems they are enmeshed with. And it’s true culturally and spiritually, says Tripp.
"We had a culturally founded fire regime in place on our landscape at one time, and we have an opportunity to put that back into place."
Tripp is part of a community along the Klamath working to increase traditional burning practices on the Six Rivers and Klamath national forests. Effectively, everyone interested in the health of forests in the area agrees the land needs more management. Yet prescribed fire advocates describe frustration at the slow pace of progress.
Steinbring, who has state and federal burn boss qualifications, says the tribe has identified priority projects and received grants to carry them out.
"I’m thinking to myself, well, NGOs, the tribes, we all have the funding to do this kind of implementation work. We’re coming to the table asking, can we do it? And we’re getting shunned. And that’s the frustrating part."
The problem lies in how the collaboration has gone -- so far -- between the partners: the tribe, the non-profits and the U.S. government.
"We wanted a level of collaboration where we were all in it together," Harling said. "And you know, the people who control fire in California aren’t ready to share that power and that decision-making."
Tripp spells it out: "When it comes to burning, itself, we can’t get past this idea that the agency is the only one that can light a fire out there in the forest."
“The agency” is the one that controls most aboriginal Karuk land -- the U.S. Forest Service.
Mike Appling, who as a fire management officer for the Klamath National Forest, agrees: Working together hasn’t been simple.
"You know, it’s a challenge," Appling says. "I think it’s just a matter of putting our heads together and sitting down and figuring out how to be effective together. Because we do need to do more."
Barriers Maintaining the Status Quo
The barriers here are deeply systemic, even with shared values of wanting to protect the forest and the people around it. Appling agrees the land does need more prescribed burns, but says the National Forest's ability to act is constrained by the responsibilities of the agency overall.
"It's a tough blend," he says, "when you've got 42 million people in the state of California today and a bunch of mixed ownerships and such and a number of different contributing factors."
One of those factors is that the Forest Service is fundamentally not in the business of lighting prescribed fires to prevent destructive blazes in the future. Core to its mission is putting fires out, as well as managing timber sales.
"These resources that we have are all funded to be available to suppress fires," says Appling. "Oftentimes, 11 months out of the year, there are suppression needs in other parts of the state."
During the last few years in late fall -- normally a good time for burning -- Appling has seen Forest Service management put holds on intentional burns because the necessary equipment is on standby for emergency response.
"They put us at our drawdown, and we have to have our engines available," he said, "and by available that means not committed to a prescribed burn."
A second contributing factor: liability. The Forest Service doesn’t bear legal responsibility if a wildfire takes out vast swaths of forest. But if a controlled burn gets out of hand -- which is very rare, but still a risk -- the agency can take the blame.
Harling says that’s the wrong way to look at it.
"Not managing fuels correctly is the criminal act," he says. "And really, it’s what came down to all these homes burning down."
He says the incentives all work against the proven concept of prescribed fires.
Start a fire to protect the land and people often complain about smoke in the air. Put out a fire and people celebrate you as a hero.
"That’s where the money is, that’s where the promotions are, and that’s where the liability isn’t," Harling said.
Until very recently, fire managers at the Six Rivers and Klamath National Forests have interpreted existing agreements between the Karuk and the U.S. Forest Service to say that a tribal burn boss must be overseen by a Forest Service burn boss. There isn’t always someone available, so this policy has repeatedly stalled approved burn projects.
Appling knows this has been a point of frustration for members of the tribe.
After some meetings in recent months, the Forest Service changed its position. Officials now agree it islegal for a federally-qualified tribal burn boss to supervise planned fires in the Klamath and Six Rivers -- without the presence of a Forest Service burn boss.Appling says the agency hopes to work with the tribe to increase opportunities for planned burns.
He agrees there are still issues: Forest Service approval, liability, and resources that have to be on standby for emergencies.
And a past that stymied collaboration weighs heavily.
Steinbring says it’s been frustrating that his credentials weren’t recognized as equal to someone with the same credentials who works for the Forest Service. In other areas of the state, as well as the U.S., fire management agreements allow qualified burn bosses from one agency to share responsibility and burn on land managed by a different federal agency.
"Okay," Steinbring says, "so is the tribe not being recognized as a federal agency? Because according to my readings, they are."
Jeremy Bailey with The Nature Conservancy has helped forge these fire management agreements under a program known as Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges or TREX.
"We use these agreements all over the country and in many instances we are able to support each other, getting lots of additional good fire on the ground," Bailey said. "For some reason along the Klamath river, that is not the dynamic we are experiencing."
Bringing Fire to Private Land
The Forest Service says it wants to increase collaboration with the Karuk. If that does happen, it could look like a fire management project at Somes Bar, near the town of Orleans.
The project, stretching over 5,600 acres, is on a mix of private inholdings and National Forest land.
"This is our promise to the community -- we’re going to get it right here," Harling says of the Somes Bar initiative.
On a shady mountain road where sparse sunlight slants through to settle in patches on the forest floor, Harling points out a huge tan oak, the bulging base of its trunk a sign of living through a multitude of fires.
"It's here because it was managed for five generations, of Karuk women lighting fires in this very spot. And if you think about all the food that that one tree could produce, it's enough to feed a family for the wintertime with acorns."
More elk are using the area, as seasonal grasses have returned. This project replicates the traditional fire regime, one that has continually rejuvenated the land. The project is also providing jobs to tribal workers instead of out-of-town contractors.
Harling hears the sound of chainsaws in the distance. He says it’s a tribal brushing crew funded by grants.
Bailey, from the Nature Conservancy, says the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership is accomplishing technically challenging burns in steep and overgrown territory.
"It's really a leader in the country, and a leader in the world of prescribed fire," he said. "These are burns that you would only want the most professional, highest quality fire practitioners to accomplish, and they’re doing it. They’re doing it year in and year out."
But until there's real change, these Klamath River communities are living with high risk.
"What we're actually able to accomplish on the ground is just a minute fraction of what we need to be doing," says Tripp.
That’s why people like Tripp, Harling and Steinbring continue to push for change at the Forest Service.
Being as Steinbring put it, "basically a thorn in their consistent daily lives to push them to get there."
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