Cultural burns: An indigenous solution to the forest fires of the Pacific Northwest

Environment | Forests

By Sam Bohlken-Hern, Freelance Writer

Published April 30th, 2022

While forest fires pose an immense threat to residents of the Pacific Northwest region of North America, an underutilized indigenous practice may offer a solution.

The warm months in the Pacific Northwest are a veritable treasure trove for nature enthusiasts. But as picturesque as the summers are, the past decade has remoulded this beauty into a bleak reminder of the trials climate change has in store.

In recent years, the Western USA and Canada have been struck with increasingly devastating wildfires. As wildfires raged all across the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia (BC), governments were forced to enact a state of emergency to respond to a series of devastating burns. As temperatures rise due to global warming and weather patterns become more volatile, it is estimated that these natural disasters will only become more frequent.

The 2021 Dixie Wildfire burned 963,309 acres of forest in California. | Calfire_Oficial / Flickr

While hiking a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, I clambered up over a ridge of Goat Rocks Wilderness in Washington state. Expecting the lookout to present an unmatched view of the sun setting over the mountains, I was instead faced with a direct view of the Schneider Springs Fire. A massive pillar of dark smoke erupted out of a valley only a few kilometres east of the trail, dwarfing the mountains that surrounded it.

Wildfires such as the Schneider Springs Fire can release enormous amounts of smoke into the atmosphere. When this smoke settles in the air near communities, air quality drops to dangerous levels.

‘In recent years, the Pacific Northwest has been struck with increasingly devastating wildfires.’

Throughout the fire seasons of 2020 and 2021, cities such as Vancouver, Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake City and San Francisco, ranked among the top major cities for air pollution globally due to excess quantities of fine particulate matter. These small polluting particles such as that from wildfire smoke, is the greatest environmental threat to human health in the United States.

With over 200 million acres of forest extending from California through British Columbia, each year firefighters rapidly become stretched thin. Fires raged near towns and disrupted road access and recreation opportunities.

The current scale of wildfire disruption in North America already appears apocalyptic to first-hand witnesses and those directly impacted and displaced, but scientists predict an even further increase at the hands of climate change.

Meteorologists have predicted for years that fossil fuel induced global warming will bring increased temperatures and less frequent rain to the region. If greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue to rise at current levels, the summers of the Pacific Northwest are predicted to receive 30% less rain by the end of the century. In recent years, these predictions have begun to seem certain.

Aerial view of Lytton BC after it was levelled by a wildfire. | Felton Davis / Flickr

In the summer of 2021, BC set several concerning records. Most of the province is rainforest, largely covered in ferns, mosses and plants accustomed to the moisture usually present there. However, most of BC spent the months of June and July with hardly any precipitation. The town of Lytton recorded Canada’s highest ever temperature, 49.6°C. The next day, 90% of the town was burnt to the ground in a wildfire.

In addition to damaging ecosystems and communities, fires also release billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. As GHG emissions rise, the carbon dioxide released from forest fires creates a positive feedback loop. This causes temperatures to continue rising and fires to become more frequent. It is estimated that wildfires contribute between 5 and 10 % of global carbon dioxide emissions annually.

‘The town of Lytton recorded Canada’s highest ever temperature, 49.6°C. The next day, 90% of the town was burnt to the ground in a wildfire.’

Finding solutions to such imposing natural disasters seems like a herculean feat. With such a massive land areaーhotter and drier summers approachingーprotecting the region will be a difficult and costly endeavour. However, indigenous peoples have offered a solution based on centuries of historical practice.

Indigenous communities along the Pacific Coast of North America previously utilized controlled burns, often referred to as ‘cultural burns,’ to protect the forests and enhance ecosystem services. Recent evidence suggests that these practices are indeed beneficial for both forest resilience and local communities.

After a series of fires burned 3 million acres of forest in 1910, The US Forest Service began rigorously suppressing fires to protect timber supplies. Through fire prevention education and the construction of roads and lookouts, the Forest Service attempted to keep all US forests fire-free. However, when a fire eventually catches within a heavily protected forest, it can quickly consume available fuel and grow past a controllable size.

The reason cultural burns can protect an ecosystem from fire is that they consume fuelーburning away the dried, loose understory that is the first to catch during a wildfire. When a forest is rigorously protected from fire, the way forests in North America have been protected for much of the 20th century, large amounts of dry plant material will build upon the forest floor.

Traditional basket weaving made from small branches collected after wildfires. | Calfire_Official / Flickr

Cultural burns prevent this by intentionally reducing the amount of available fuel in a forest in a series of small and safe fires. Additionally, these fires benefit indigenous communities by boosting local ecosystem services.

Basket weavers from the Karuk and Yurok tribes of California, use the shoots which grow after a fire, They also utilize cultural burns to produce pliable California hazelnut stems. Fire-cleared areas also provide environments for shrub and berry plants to thrive, creating food consumed by game animals and humans.

While it has not been empirically proven, many ecologists and indigenous stewards also believe that using cultural burns will improve native plant and animal biodiversity by destroying invasive species and allowing natural succession cycles to persist.

‘It is estimated that wildfires contribute between 5 and 10 % of global carbon dioxide emissions annually.’

While the benefits of cultural burns appear clear, indigenous practitioners are still often banned from utilizing their knowledge of this practice to protect the land. Throughout most of the 20th century, forestry services actively fought with indigenous groups to prevent cultural burns, leading to violence and death in some cases.

While the dark history of the suppression of indigenous knowledge and practices is unchangeable and unforgivable, the future can be one of collaboration and respect. By actively implementing indigenous protective techniques and seeking out the knowledge of indigenous stewards, cultural relations, our forests and the environment as a whole will benefit.

Featured Image: US Fish and Wildlife Service | Flickr

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