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Karuk Tribe Leads Effort to Fight Racism and Climate Change with Fire

The day after Indigenous Peoples Day was celebrated worldwide, the indigenous-led Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (WKRP) announced it is organizing its annual Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (KTREX). though organizers said it will look very different from past years.

“Organizers believe this is all the more urgent as the United States (and the World) reckon with the hard truths of how hundreds of years of ecological injustices have shaped our present threat of increasingly severe catastrophic wildfire in the West,” according to a press release from the WKRP and the Karuk Tribe.

“This event occurs each fall and builds local capacity to utilize lower intensity prescribed fire as a fuels-reduction tool,” the partnership stated. “Although KTREX has only been happening for the last six years, Karuk (and other Indigenous People have been using prescribed fire since time immemorial. Burning is a cultural and spiritual practice that serves numerous vital functions to the natural resources on which Karuk People depend. For example, frequent burning increases the quality and quantity of basketry materials, acorn crops, fish and wildlife habitat, and ensures the community’s safety during wildfire season by reducing fuels.”

“With the invasion of European settlers and the establishment of the Forest Service as the supreme authority over Karuk land, many of these practices were criminalized, and Karuk People have been killed or jailed for trying to carry on their traditions. This, along with intensive timber extraction for the past 70 years, has converted patchworks of diverse, fire-resilient habitats with regular burning into over-crowded Douglas fir plantations with dense fuels, creating the perfect setup for catastrophic fires,” the partnership said.

Bill Tripp, Director of Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources, said, “The use of fire is our responsibility as Karuk People to our lands, waters, plants and animals. It is a birthright we have never ceded. Putting fire back into the hands of our people is a major step toward justice for our people and the environment.”

“While previous years have drawn participants from around the world, this year, KTREX planners are taking COVID-19 precautions into consideration by having only local participants.This wildfire season has also been devastating to our local communities, as many have lost their homes or been forced to evacuate and watch much of their natural resources torch completely,” the release stated.

For this reason, instead of trying to force all of the prescribed fire into a two-week event managed by a Type 3 incident management team, local crews will be conducting prescribed burns over the course of the entire fall as windows allow, according to Tripp.

in an essay published in the UK Guardian on September 16, Tripp wrote that the solution to the devastating West Coast wildfires “is to burn like our Indigenous ancestors have for millennia.”

”As wildfires rage across California, it saddens me that Indigenous peoples’ millennia-long practice of cultural burning has been ignored in favor of fire suppression,” wrote Tripp. “But it breaks my heart, that regardless of our attempts to retain our cultural heritage and manage our homelands in a manner consistent with our Indigenous customs, the Slater fire is burning down the homes of our tribal members, our tribal staff and our community.”

On the same day that the essay was published, the Tribe declared a state of emergency in the wake of the deadly Slater Fire that has burned many homes of Karuk Tribe members in the Klamath River community of Happy Camp.

Will Harling, Director of the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council, posed the question to the Forks of Salmon and Happy Camp communities at recent public meetings for the Red Salmon Complex and the Slater Fire: “Even after all the smoke we have had to breathe this summer and all the tragedy, do you think it’s a good idea to try and get ahead of future wildfires with prescribed fire this Fall when conditions allow?”

“Nearly all local folks at these meetings supported the use of fire to help prevent future catastrophe. Their patience with and support of our efforts has been key to our organizations’ work,” noted Harling.

Harling said this is a move towards a more ideal form of fire management that past TREXs have been working towards — allowing local people to remain flexible and seize the best burn windows when they arise.

“If we can burn throughout the entire fall, not only will we be able to protect and manage more land, but we will also be more nimble and able to maximize the benefits of burning to communities and ecosystems,“ said Vikki Preston, regular participant in KTREX and local Karuk/Yurok woman.

“Building up local capacity to face the global climate crisis is perhaps the most effective method of surviving and adapting to the rapidly changing world. Cooperative stewardship that focuses not only on environmental causes but also social and racial inequities is going to be required to build this momentum. Organizers hope that collaboratives such as the WKRP can help teach other communities around the world innovative solutions for living with fire as it makes its way back onto the landscape,” the partnership concluded.

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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