Watchlist: ‘To stop uncontrollable wildfires in California, look to this once-outlawed Indigenous practice’

06.14.2022 Kamiah Koch Watchlist


By Kamiah Koch

Social media/digital journalist

Summer is almost upon us, which means wildfire season is looming.

The Grand Ronde Tribe’s Silviculture and Fire Protection programs work throughout the year to prevent extensive widlfires. They do so through a traditional practice called “prescribed burns.”

Or, as a University of California’s Fig. 1 video calls them, “cultural burns.”

Fig. 1 is the university’s YouTube channel where experts answer various questions. This video was published in April 2022 and explains the history of cultural burns and why they work.

The video starts by comparing two photos of Yosemite Valley from 1872 and 2020. The mountains remain the same, but changes in the tree density and foliage below are obvious. Instead of thick forests we see today, the valley once had meadows and trees spread apart.

“The settlers assumed that this is just what nature looked like on its own,” the narrator of the video says. “But really they had walked into a garden that was thousands of years old and sustained by Native Americans.”

The video explains that fire is actually part of a healthy ecosystem. It “renews” the land by removing overgrown vegetation and releases new seeds, making room for new plants to grow.

However, as many aspects of Tribal history goes, colonization attempted to exterminate this practice.

The narrator states that by 1770, Spanish missionaries prohibited prescribed burns and when Tribes were forcefully removed from their homelands in the 1850s, burns in California were outlawed.

Wildfires became rampant, leading to the smoky summers we have today.  

Luckily, by 1970, the National Park Service realized its mistake and looked to the knowledge of Indigenous Tribes.

Ron Goode, chair of the North Fork Mono Tribe, is shown practicing cultural burns in California. The National Park Service now practices low-intensity fires.

“Your primary focus is ‘I’m burning for acreage and to reduce fuel load.’ That’s exactly what you do,” Goode says. “But then your land is not restored.”

Goode says the National Park Service’s burn and leave practice isn’t fulfilling engagement with the land. Native American traditions with cultural burns also involve raking the ashes back into the soil to start the process all over again. 

To see the rest of “To stop uncontrollable wildfires in California, look to this once-outlawed Indigenous practice” video you can go to or find the video linked in the Smoke Signals Watchlist playlist on our YouTube channel.