In Margo Robbins’s home, the first thing you notice is family: portraits of children and grandchildren in a crowded display on the wall. The second thing you notice is accomplishment: lines of academic and athletic trophies from those children and grandchildren. The third thing is baskets—Robbins is a Yurok basket-weaver, part of a tradition in her northern Californian nation that stretches back centuries upon centuries.
What you don’t see is that her home is one of the nerve centers of a cultural and political struggle that has been slowly changing the North American West. Her living room is where she co-founded the Indigenous Peoples Burn Network, a growing collaboration of Native nations, partnered with nonprofit organizations, academic researchers, and government agencies. It’s focused on a single goal: setting forests on fire.
In Robbins’s part of the forest, the ancestral homeland of the Yurok, she has been training teams of fire-lighters. They wear bright yellow flame-retardant Nomex suits and carry torches that drip burning petroleum. Under her watchful eye, they spread lines of flame beneath the trees.
Her message is simple: You can too fight fire with fire. “There’s good fire and bad fire,” she told me during a recent visit. “And the good fire prevents the bad.”
As the world knows, the North American West—and especially California—has a fire problem. Almost every year for the past decade, wildfire has roared through western lands, consuming forests, incinerating homes, drowning huge areas in choking smoke, often for weeks on end. In 2017 burns blackened a record 15,666 square miles. This year has been worse: 16,654 square miles, an area twice the size of New Jersey. Containing those fires cost $3.6 billion and required tens of thousands of firefighters to be flown in from as far away as Australia.
Five of California’s six biggest known wildfires occurred in 2020. Conflagrations in the northern part of the state turned almost 10,000 buildings to ash. Cities a hundred miles from the flames were filled with smoke so thick that the sun turned into a faint orange smear. (How will California prevent more mega-wildfire disasters?)
The cause of the problem is no secret. For more than a century, western land managers have fought forest fires to the last ember. The effort was successful. Wildfire in the West has been, by historical standards, very rare.
Inconveniently for firefighters, forests are living organisms. Underbrush grows as fast as it can. Trees drop leaves, needles, branches. Living and dead foliage piles into drifts—exceedingly flammable drifts. In hot, dry weather, the slightest spark can set off this mass of vegetation. If fires are prevented, the burnable material builds up, becoming ever more prone to explosive ignition. Climate change, which has brought more hot, dry, windy days, is steadily raising the threat. Connoisseurs of unintended consequences will appreciate the irony that practices intended to reduce fire damage instead have increased it dramatically. Every year, more of the West burns.
What if the answer is putting Margo Robbins in charge? Could cadres of Indigenous fire-lighters and those inspired by them help save western forests?
California 'wanted us gone'
Incident No. CA-KNF-007035 was not especially big by today’s standards. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, it ignited on September 8 and burned 157,270 acres before it was contained on November 16 at a cost of $55 million. NIFC tables show that it burned 440 “structures,” most of them in the small town of Happy Camp, in far northern California.
Before the fire was suppressed, photographer Kiliii Yüyan and I got permission from firefighters to visit Happy Camp. There we learned that “structures” is government-speak for, mainly, “people’s homes.” In town we met Kathy McCovey, Joe Jerry, and Erin and Leeon Hillman—all Karuk. (The Karuk are neighbors to Robbins’s Yurok.) All but Jerry had lost their structures to the fire.
We drove north from the untouched village center to the incinerated area. At the edge of the fire, the trees and undergrowth were intact, but the forest was monochrome—every leaf and needle in sight had turned gray-brown. Then we got to the burn itself, and there were no more leaves and all the houses along the road had turned to ash.
McCovey, Jerry, and the Hillmans were composed as Yüyan made their pictures, but it required little imagination to picture their feelings. Every home is a storehouse of memories and dreams. Our hosts were walking through the ruins of irreplaceable personal libraries. Leeon Hillman had a barn where he made bows and arrows and clothes and ornaments for Karuk ceremonies. His weapons and regalia were a heap of burned fabric and blackened obsidian and flint.
In her yard Kathy McCovey scattered acorns she had collected—a gesture toward rebuilding. Some of the nuts landed with a metallic tinkle. Patches of ground were covered with solidified pools of melted aluminum that had once been siding.
For McCovey and the Hillmans, the sight was especially bitter. The fire was the product of choices they and other Indigenous people have been fighting for more than a century.
When the United States took over California in 1850, after winning it in the Mexican-American War, the state had 300-plus Indigenous nations, the Karuk and Yurok among them. In the next two years the U.S. signed 18 treaties with 134 Native societies. The others were ignored. The signatory nations agreed to give up roughly 90 percent of their land, about seven-eighths of the state, in return for 7.4 million acres of reservations.
“That wasn’t enough for California,” the Karuk elder Leaf Hillman told me. “California wanted every inch of our land. … It wanted us gone.” The U.S. Senate, caving in to the state, not only refused to ratify the treaties, it concealed their existence for the next half-century. California simply seized the land, and the new state government sponsored death squads that massacred thousands of Indigenous people.
The Karuk and Yurok both live on the Klamath River, which wanders from southern Oregon through the northern California mountains to the Pacific. (The river also passes through the homeland of a third nation, the Hoopa.) Most of this tribal land eventually came to be managed by the U.S. Forest Service as national forest. The agency was supposed to wring the maximum amount of timber from the land. But most of its budget—and its attention—went to preventing fire, which its researchers saw as wasteful and dangerous. In its zeal, the Forest Service enacted a “10 a.m.” policy: Every fire that sprang up on one day had to be controlled by 10 a.m. the next day.
The anti-flame campaign profoundly altered the American environment. Wildfire had been common in western forests. Much or most of that burning was due to the area’s first humans, who torched away the undergrowth that fueled future fires before it could build to dangerous levels. Thousands of years of controlled, targeted combustion created a landscape that was a patchwork of new and old burns—meadows, berry patches, park-like woodland, and so on. As these flames ceased, a new kind of forest emerged: a nearly fire-free ecosystem that was unlike anything that had existed since the end of the Ice Age.
McCovey is a retired Forest Service anthropologist. With Jerry, she belongs to a Karuk fire-lighting brigade. For years they had been begging the Forest Service to let them burn the brush on the slopes around their homes. If you don’t let us burn, they had warned, there will be a catastrophic fire.
“Whoops,” McCovey said.
When something—lightning, a campfire, a downed utility line, a spark from a tool hitting a rock—sets the forest debris on fire, the flames climb the “fuel ladder” to shrubbery and young trees, then jump to the crowns of the older trees, creating a high wall of flame that can be caught by the wind. “We’re going to have to get these trees out,” she said, pointing to the mass of fire-blasted fir around us. “If they don’t, in five years it will burn again and be worse.” (Here's how wildfires get started—and how to stop them.)
To McCovey, the problem was not just that the new forests were flammable. It was that they were “a food desert for animals and people.” The Forest Service and western state governments, like her ancestors, had managed the forest—had, in effect, farmed it. But the Forest Service and the states had farmed the forest to produce a single commodity: timber. McCovey’s ancestors had farmed the landscape for many reasons.
They burned young trees and brush to create and maintain meadows that would attract deer and elk. They burned undergrowth to beat back shrubs that would overwhelm berry plants. They burned oak stands to create smoke that would kill weevils and moths, which can infest acorns used for flour. They burned leaf litter to kill biting insects and clear pathways for travel and flush out game during hunts. They burned mountaintops to link themselves to the spiritual forces that they believed govern the world.
Similar flames rose across the West. In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, annual bouts of fall fire created veldts, typically 10 to 20 acres in size, of nearly pure camas lily, which have tasty roots that Kalapuya families gathered and stored for winter. Regular firing opened Idaho’s Snake River valley and built a river of grass that connected Wyoming to Washington State, enticing bison from the plains into the Pacific Northwest. In the upland Southwest, low fires during wet periods cleared the ground for summer-growing amaranth and lambsquarters, which produce starchy seeds to make a kind of bread. So constant was Indigenous burning in the northern Rockies that a variety of lodgepole pine evolved to have cones with scales glued shut by a sticky goo. Only when fire raises the air temperatures above about 115 degrees does the resin melt, permitting the seeds to fall onto newly cleared land. And so on, and so on.
Before Europeans arrived, University of California-Berkeley researchers have estimated 4.4 million to 11.8 million acres of California burned every year—up to an eighth of the state. Even in the much wetter Pacific Northwest, according to a 2019 study, Native torches annually set fire to as much as 1.6 million acres. When scientists look at the stumps of ancient trees in the Colorado foothills, they see the char from long-ago fires in the tree rings—a tidal ebb and flow of flame that came to an abrupt halt in 1860, when gold-seeking U.S. colonists poured into the state.
Black trees, green forests
“My first time burning was when I was four,” Yurok fire leader Elizabeth Azzuz told me. Her grandfather explained to her the many roles of good fire. “I was burning orchards around eight or so, usually with an elder watching and supervising.” Most people, she said, have little idea of the difference between human-controlled fire and uncontrolled wildfire. The smoke in her fires is low to the ground. Set in cool, humid conditions, the fires put themselves out.
Azzuz and her friend Margo Robbins are basket weavers, which meant that they were most interested, personally speaking, in using fire to make strands of California hazelnut. Left to its own devices, Robbins explained, hazelnut grows into a straggly, shrubby tree. But if young plants are burned in the fall, straight shoots come up in the spring. “It’s like fire changes the DNA in the plant,” she said. “The sticks are different—straighter and stronger.”
These supple new stems, soaked in water, are ideal basket material. The resulting baskets, patterned in tan, black, or sienna, are woven so tightly that some can hold water. Baskets to carry things, baskets for cooking, baskets for ceremonies, baskets to trap eels, baskets to cradle children: All are twined from the stems of burned hazel. And all are emblems of Yurok culture, as fine-threaded carpets are in Iran, or strikingly colored kente cloth is in Ghana. When the burning stopped, it got harder for artists like Margo Robbins to make the baskets they wanted.
In 2014 Robbins had had enough. Something about the ever-increasing risk of fire and her anger at what had been done to her culture, the prospect of her children’s babies being raised without a traditional basket cradle, and her own forceful personality came together. She decided with some friends to reintroduce fire into the woods. With support from the Nature Conservancy, Robbins and Azzuz co-organized the Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange. Twice a year since then, they have been training fire-lighters.
These efforts coincided with a surge of interest in burning both from other Native nations and non-Native groups. For people like Robbins and Azzuz, fire was more than just precaution—it was a chance to recreate a landscape that had sustained their culture and values. For non-Natives, it derived from a quiet intellectual revolution in forestry.
Beginning in the 1960s, a growing number of foresters became convinced that their discipline had made a mistake. Native American flame had shaped the landscape for so long, these foresters came to believe, that it had become essential to its health. Fire was a tool to be used for the common good rather than a disease to be eliminated.
Many old-line foresters, trained with Bambi-style images of deadly wildfires, resisted this new view. So did many environmentalists. “Emotionally,” Sierra Club co-founder David Brower admitted, “I just can’t handle blackened trees.”
But the scientific evidence kept piling up—more than 4,200 studies and reports, according to a recent count. “By 1978 the great bunker of the 10 a.m. policy, the Forest Service, had surrendered,” wrote fire historian Stephen J. Pyne. “It was shifting from a policy of universal fire suppression to one of selective fire by prescription.” Other federal and state agencies joined in. The goal now: blackening trees to keep forests green.
Despite all the science and half a century of official promises, those Indigenous-style fires didn’t happen—or, rather, not enough of them did. In 2015, a scientific team divided the West into 27 “ecoregions” and found “fire deficits” in 21 of them. In the 32 years between the beginning of 1984 and the end of 2015, researchers concluded last year, fires of every sort burned an average of 123,552 acres annually in Oregon and Washington, “an order of magnitude less” than the pre-European level.
California is especially lacking. Its official forest plan, written in 2018, argues that burning a minimum of “approximately 500,000 acres per year” would be required to make “an ecologically meaningful difference.” Last year, the latest for which statistics are available, California burned 51,744 acres—barely 10 percent of the minimum.
“Something obviously needs to change,” Bill Tripp, a nationally recognized Karuk fire expert, told me. He has an idea of what it should be.
The day after the November election, Frank Lake wanted to burn some of his land. Not as a political statement—he just wanted to take advantage of good weather to protect his home from wildfire and kill the conifer seedlings that compete with the black oak trees from which he harvests acorns—a type of burn he has done three times in the past six years. He intended to clear a protective buffer about 350 feet long and 80 feet wide: two-thirds of an acre. Because Lake had burned the area before, the fuel load was light: a thin scatter of leaves and twigs.
Lake had waited till the forecast predicted favorable conditions: cool and windless, dry enough for the leaves to catch fire but with rain coming soon. He made some phone calls and tried to obtain the necessary permit from Cal Fire, the California state fire agency.
The permit came with a kicker. For all burns under 15 acres, Lake told me, Cal Fire required “twelve Firefighter Type 2 personnel, a Burn Boss Type 2, a certain kind of water truck—a small fire truck, essentially—and one to two thousand gallons of extra water capacity.”
A member of both the Yurok and Karuk communities, Lake is a Forest Service ecologist who has taught firefighting for 20-plus years. His Ph.D. research involved tracking the results of forest thinning, fuel reduction, and experimental burns in different settings. He knows how to hire certified firefighters and burn bosses. But the going rate for a private burn boss is as much as $1,500 per day, and there are only a few of them in the state. (California is about to launch a program to increase their number.) But even if he could find a burn boss, Lake couldn’t imagine asking all these people to supervise an hour-long fire. He could have tried to negotiate with Cal Fire for conditions he considered more reasonable, but that would take him past the good weather. “So I just gave up,” Lake said. “I didn’t protect my land.” It was, in his view, a missed opportunity to do a small, good thing.
To burn safely, fire-lighters must be able to react nimbly to changing weather conditions. Yet fire decisions are made by a bureaucracy ruled by what Lake dryly calls “liability aversion.” Officials believe, with some justification, that they will be blamed, fired, or sued if a burn goes wrong and not rewarded if it goes right. Unsurprisingly, they require elaborate precautions that create bottlenecks and drive up costs.
If a raging wildfire threatens a neighborhood, Lake said, firefighters can burn a hundred-acre patch to create a protective firewall. No authorization needed—they just go to work. Even if the firefighters' actions damage houses, or causes harmful smoke, there’s no litigation.
But if people want to burn that same area preventively, to stop wildfires before they start, an entire regulatory apparatus swings into motion, according to Lenya Quinn-Davidson, fire advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council. On U.S. government land such as national forests, burns must follow federal standards. For every planned fire, those standards require an extensive environmental compliance process and many specific documents outlining the burn plan. Burn crews must be certified. For a Firefighter Type 2, that takes 32 hours of coursework; for a Burn Boss Type 2, it’s usually 10 years of experience.
“The bureaucracy is daunting,” she said. “Everyone wrestles with it.”
In California, would-be burners on private land must have an annual air-quality permit and a smoke-management plan. “You have to outline desired burning conditions, wind directions, and map sensitive receptors—schools, hospitals, airports—within a 20-mile radius,” Quinn-Davidson said. “You also have to estimate emissions. Your average person doesn’t know how to figure that out. They come to me and say, ‘How in the world will I know how many emissions will be released?’ ” And if the burn is between May 1 and the day the fire season is officially declared to be over, she said, “you have to get a whole other permit from Cal Fire.” (This was the permit that Frank Lake was trying to obtain.) Cal Fire, Quinn-Davidson said, “essentially makes you go back up to federal standards.” Little wonder so little burning takes place.
The contrast with the Southeast is stark. From 1998 to 2018, according to figures compiled by University of Idaho forester Crystal Kolden, the South treated twice as much land with prescribed fire as the rest of the nation. In the South, Quinn-Davidson told me, attitudes toward fire are different. “Burning is recognized as something ordinary people can do with experience,” she said. “It is not a professionalized task for people with certificates but a local property right.” And instead of making burners liable for any problems, no matter their cause, some Southern states have laws holding burners liable only if they are grossly negligent. In these more favorable situations, local fire crews have the authority and incentive to quickly take advantage of preventive-burn opportunities. As a result, Twitter is not filled with scary photographs of catastrophic fires in Alabama.
“It may sound strange coming from somebody in California,” Quinn-Davidson said, laughing, “but they’re way ahead of us in the Southeast.” Public understanding and acceptance of prescribed fire generally is growing in the West, she and others believe. But there is not yet a mechanism to translate this increased understanding into more actual burning.
In much of the West, Native societies—the largest reservoir of fire-savvy people in the region—could take over this role. The U.S. pays billions of dollars each year to fly tens of thousands of firefighters from as far away as Canada and Australia to fight fires in the West. Why not pay Indigenous communities a fraction of that to create preventive and cultural fire? They already are doing it when allowed—the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Kolden found, is the sole federal agency “to substantially increase prescribed fire use” on land within its purview. Why not put Margo Robbins and Elizabeth Azzuz in charge of their area? Why not give significant authority over other areas to community groups who have learned from Indigenous burners? “My thought is, why don’t we focus on local job opportunities that restore fire instead of hiring more firefighter crews from out of state to fight them?” Quinn-Davidson asked.
Prescribed burns can cause damage, because these are human endeavors, and humans make mistakes. In 2000, a preventive fire in New Mexico consumed 235 houses. But intentionally set fires have a remarkably good record. A study of 6,373 prescribed burns published this past February found that just 112 spread beyond their boundaries, and that almost all of these “escapes” were confined to a few acres. For vaccines, the government has established a fund that helps people who suffer the rare bad reactions. Quinn-Davidson suggests a similar compensatory mechanism could be set up for prescribed burns.
“There is a tremendous body of expertise here, and it should be used,” Tripp told me. Like Azzuz, he had been burning since he was a toddler. As the wildfires in the West have increased, so has his anger and exasperation. From his point of view, Native people with deep knowledge of place have been struggling to persuade unwieldy bureaucracies to allow them to do something that would benefit all.
“Beyond that,” Tripp said, “this is our land. We’ve never given it up. We want to take care of it. And as far as I am concerned, it’s our right to do that.”
“We should be able to lead after all those thousands of years of being here,” Karuk fisherman and activist Ron Reed told me. “All the tribes have the technical ability to do that, but the bigger society won’t allow that because it would put everything on its head. ‘Going back to Native Americans? What’re you thinking of?’ ”
A week before, in early November, Reed, his son Jason, and his grandchildren Jacinda and Jaden had burned a friend’s property. Before the first flame, Reed said, his brother and sister “prayed for the family and the future and our culture.” Then three generations of Reeds went out with drip torches, laying lines of low fire. The flames ambled through the leaves. By the end of the day, the family had safeguarded 10 acres, and the burned land was so cool that the kids were running around on it in sneakers.
The burn was informal, unpermitted, and designed for that particular place. But it was also, just maybe, a vision of the future.