As skies finally begin to clear following a week of smoke that can only be described as hellish, many Californians are probably thinking, how can we prevent this from happening again?
Yes, California, the U.S. and the world need to begin drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But, as SF Weekly recently reported, in terms of what the state can do to reduce the intensity of wildfires in the near term, the consensus is clear: California needs to burn off a lot more fuel in controlled fires.
A recently approved program to limit the environmental review process for prescribed burns and vegetation management will help, but money and labor remain major obstacles. California will need to get creative to actually achieve its fire management goals.
That’s where a new plan by San Francisco State Senate candidate Jackie Fielder could come in. Fielder, a lecturer at SF State and leader of the recent campaign for a public bank in the city, has proposed an Indigenous Wildland Fire Task Force that would give Indigenous tribes a more central role in wildfire prevention. Building off tribes’ millennia of experience with “cultural burns,” the plan would establish new opportunities for collaboration among researchers, state, local, and federal regulators, and Indigenous communities; expand cultural burns beyond existing tribal lands; and provide new leadership and job opportunities for Indigenous people and others.
“As an Indigenous person myself, I know that there are cultural practices that California tribes… have been practicing for a long time, including cultural burns,” Fielder, who is enrolled in the affiliated Hidatsa and Two Kettle Lakota tribes, said in a press conference on Tuesday. “And it’s about time that California understand how central these can be to ensuring that the wildfires we do see as a wildfire-adapted state are not as catastrophic to life here.”
While Fielder’s plan is still fairly short on specifics, it is based on the Karuk Climate Adaptation Plan, a 200 page document that lays out how increasing cultural burns can help the tribe prevent devastating wildfires, and increase tribal sovereignty over its land.
Bill Tripp, director of natural resources and environmental policy for the Karuk tribe, discussed how difficult it has been for tribes like his own to get people in power to understand the value of their burning practices. “Most people don’t recognize that Indigenous people belong as part of the land and part of the forests and ecosystems which they are from,” Tripp said at the press conference. “They have practices that can help resolve the problems we can see today.”
Tribes across California frequently ignited cultural burns in diverse ecosystems before colonization, according to a UC Berkeley study. Cultural burns were most prevalent in coastal and central California, where lightning strikes — the other common form of natural wildfire ignition — were less common. Yet, “human use of fire is considered anthropogenic, and therefore separate from nature,” Tripp said.
Fielder’s plan would begin to shift those conceptions by applying cultural burns in areas no longer under tribal sovereignty, but where these practices were historically integral to the functioning of the ecosystem.
Putting this plan into action could be a challenge, however. Fielder faces an uphill battle in her election campaign against incumbent Scott Wiener, who has recently been in the headlines as the subject of a right wing harassment and disinformation campaign related to his bill, SB 145. On the issue of wildfires, Wiener has been focused on shifting development patterns away from wildfire urban interface, where new housing construction has been concentrated for the past three decades, and into existing cities.
But for Fielder and Tripp, these issues transcend election cycles. “There’s still a long way to go to get elected officials to consider giving Indigenous people more authority, more resources, to do the work that you do no matter who’s in power, no matter who is leading an agency you’re working with,” Fielder said, addressing Tripp. “You are dealing with these problems through generations.”