For decades, the U.S. government evangelized fire suppression, most famously through Smokey Bear’s wildfire prevention campaign. But as climate change continues to exacerbate wildfire seasons and a growing body of scientific research supports using fire to fight fire, Indigenous groups in the Klamath Basin are reviving cultural burning practices that effectively controlled forest fires for centuries. National Geographic photographer Kiliii Yüyan introduces us to people bringing back this cultural practice and teaching the next generation how to use fire.
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ELI CHEN (HOST): What you’re hearing is the sound of grass burning in a dense forest in Northern California. It’s full of coniferous trees, brush, and shrubs.
KILIII YÜYAN (PHOTOGRAPHER): And tons of branches and tons of dried-out foliage, ’cause the area’s so dried up, thanks to the warming climate. You walk around, you can hear the crunching of the branches, crunching of leaves and everything. So it’s dry and hot.
CHEN: And there are a bunch of people here—the ones who set this spot on fire and Kiliii Yüyan, a National Geographic photographer, observing the scene.
YÜYAN: And as they’re walking around, dripping fire out of their torches, which basically look like giant oilcans, kind of the fire drips out and forms a thin little line. And they’re able to create these lines of fire, and the fire spreads downhill.
CHEN: Kiliii then watches the fire creep slowly, burning leaves and branches as it goes.
YÜYAN: Maybe the flames get as high as six feet at the maximum as they kind of climb up these bushes and these small trees and open up big areas in the forest underneath the main canopy.
CHEN: Some of the people leading the burn are members of the Yurok tribe, carrying out a tradition that’s been practiced for thousands of years here in their ancestral homeland. They’re training “firelighters” to carry on the tradition.
YÜYAN: They’re learning an important thing, which is how to heal the land. They’re learning how to have a relationship with fire and land again, and they’re starting to understand that that relationship with fire means that it’s not about mastery and control, but it’s about moving with nature.
CHEN: Even though the world around them is going up in flames, everyone is calm. They’re working with the fire, not against it.
YÜYAN: What you don’t see is all of this background knowledge that everyone has in their heads. Their mental maps, what was going on, was completely different than mine, right? ’Cause they’re looking at what’s going on and they know. They know exactly where that fire’s going. They have that entire landscape mapped out in their heads, and they know where that fire’s going and where it’s going to end. And where the fire’s going to be burned to by the end of the day.
CHEN: Yeah, yeah, and that speaks to, you know, the level of knowledge that these people who’ve been working with fire for millennia basically have had, right?
YÜYAN: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. ’Cause I know I grew up in an era when Smokey the Bear was all the rage, you know, with national parks, right? And Smokey the Bear was always the thing where Smokey was like, you know, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Like yeah, by burning (laughs).
I’m Eli Chen, and this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
This week, we’ll talk about fire. It’s not just that agent of destruction that Smokey kept warning us about. it’s also a necessary element that heals natural spaces, keeps wildfires at bay, and gives people and animals food and resources to live.
And we’ll learn about cultural burning—an Indigenous practice that the U.S. government suppressed for decades—and how climate change and increasingly disastrous wildfires in the West have made its revival critical to our future. More after the break.
But before we get on with the episode … thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, consider a National Geographic subscription, and get exclusive access to stories published daily, curated newsletters, and 130 years of archives. Subscribe today at natgeo.com/exploremore.
CHEN: Cultural burning is pretty straightforward. It’s lighting low-intensity fires, which burns up the fuels in the forest and helps living things there regenerate. And Kiliii says that the Karuk, Yurok, and Hoopa tribes in Northern California have been burning the land for 13,000 years.
YÜYAN: Like back in the day, I think estimates are that about eight million acres of California was burned every year in these cultural burns, these low-intensity burns. In fact, they’ve been doing it for so long that there are certain species of tree that … a lot of the pines there, for example, can’t germinate unless the cones are opened by fire. And you might think, oh, that’s because it’s evolved alongside wildfire, but that’s not really true if you think about it, a wildfire is so hot that when it comes through, it would burn up the cones and it would burn up the seeds as well. So it’s amazing to think about how long that’s been happening for.
CHEN: Cultural burns can change the environment in pretty dramatic ways …
YÜYAN: Basically the air turns this smoky, dark gray, and then the sun turns into this red thing, and it looks like the end of the world.
CHEN: … and that can have some fascinating effects on animals, like salmon. Salmon need cold water to migrate, and research suggests that the smoke from cultural burns may actually cool the rivers that they swim through.
YÜYAN: You’re talking about using the smoke from the cultural burns specifically to help the salmon on their trip up. It’s an amazing thing (laughs). I mean, it’s all another thing, everything’s interrelated, you know, so it’s hard when you start talking about these single-issue things, especially with Indigenous knowledge. It’s so holistic. Everything is related to everything else. The cultural burning’s related to the removal of the downs, saving the salmon, the fire, all of it’s all related. You know, reciprocal.
CHEN: For thousands of years, Indigenous people managed forests, land, and other natural resources in the Americas and developed what’s known as traditional ecological knowledge. Then European settlers arrived—and Kiliii says that, initially, they weren’t opposed to cultural burns.
YÜYAN: People even way back when in the 1800s and 1700s actually knew that Indians were burning, and a lot of them actually saw the wisdom in doing that kind of burning.
CHEN: Nonetheless, Europe had a cooler and wetter climate that didn’t really depend on fire the way areas of the American West or Australia do. And as settlers moved west, they and their descendants became concerned about fires damaging their homes, farms, and businesses. That, along with the forced removal of Native American tribes from their ancestral homelands, led to a decline in cultural burning activity in the 19th century.
Then in the early 20th century, there was a major event that really became the turning point for how Americans viewed fire. The Great Fire of 1910—also known as the Big Blowup or the Devil’s Broom fireburned over three million acres of the Rockies, killing 78 firefighters.
The U.S. Forest Service had just been formed just a few years prior—in 1905. The agency received a lot of attention for how it responded to the Great Fire of 1910 and emphatically pursued a policy of fire suppression.
YÜYAN: Officially, the Forest Service stance became to avoid burning, avoid doing that kind of burning precisely because the Indians were doing it.
CHEN: Burns of all kinds, including cultural burns, were suppressed in law and culture. Like in 1944, when the U.S. Forest Service created the mascot Smokey Bear to promote forest fire prevention.
CHEN: You know, I had read that campaign is the longest running American public service announcement. It’s really fascinating how long that messaging has sort of been pervasive in our society.
YÜYAN: Yeah, I think that Smokey the Bear is a funny kind of relic of a bunch of things. You know, it started out with a sort of racist notion that the Indians were doing something and thus we shouldn’t do it. But, you know, I think even more than that, that there’s sort of a deep-seated cultural bias among Westerners in general, I would say, is a fear of fire. Fire is this big, scary thing. Even Europeans almost certainly used cultural burning at some point in time, but they forgot, and then it became a scary thing.
CHEN: To be clear, it’s not that people who invented Smokey were necessarily thinking about cultural burns. It’s more that Smokey reflected this larger fear of fire among the American public.
FRANK LAKE (ECOLOGIST): And also, you have Smokey the Bear and very much an educational paradigm of, you know, only you can prevent wildfires. And so much of that wildfire narrative has been at the expense of Indigenous people’s cultures and being able to use fire.
CHEN: That’s Frank Lake, an ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service who studies climate change, wildland fire, ethnoecology, and traditional ecological knowledge. He actually worked on the study looking at how cultural burns might affect salmon. And he’s a member of the Karuk and Yurok communities.
LAKE: So I grew up a lot around that tension between the federal government and local tribes, around environmental and resource management, around the effects of fire, exclusion of fire suppression, and heard the stories of our people used to burn a lot more. We’re dependent upon fire for healthy wildlife, like the deer and elk we would hunt. The connection between water is sacred, and by burning, you’re reducing the plants or the trees that use up the water.
CHEN: I take it that most people maybe of your generation or older have not seen very many cultural burns. Is that right?
LAKE: That’s correct.
CHEN: Coming up after the break, we’ll get into how one wildfire devastated a Karuk community and meet a woman who’s leading the way in training the next generation of firelighters.
CHEN: Over the years that cultural burning has been suppressed, wildfires have become more frequent and destructive. In the 1990s wildfires burned an average of 3.3 million acres a year. That rate more than doubled in the 2010s, during which wildfires burned an average of 7.5 million acres a year. Many of these impacted areas are in California, and they often hit communities where Native people live.
LAKE: You also have the tribes here who lived with some of the highest, densest levels of smoke and emissions, where you had severe air quality days that were so bad that they had to develop a new chart for relating how dangerous and how thick the smoke was. Imagine being an elder with emphysema or other heart and lung complications. And now you have a power outage. You can’t run the air purifier. You don’t have air-conditioning. You’re breathing smoke. You’re a disadvantaged, low-income family, so you can’t be smoke refugees and go out to the coast or get a hotel someplace else. You have to stay here and eat it.
CHEN: In the fall of 2020 Kiliii went to Happy Camp, a town with many Karuk residents. It had just been devastated by the Slater wildfire, which burned nearly 200 homes, many of which belonged to Karuk families.
YÜYAN: I mean, even massive trees were completely torched, you know, were burned to cinders, and structures were only just metal, standing. There were tons of vehicles that were just pulled off the side of the road, that there was nothing left. Yeah, it was incredible to see the level of devastation of it. Yeah, it looked like an apocalypse had come through.
CHEN: Kiliii was traveling with a Karuk friend who lived there and was seeing it for the first time in person.
YÜYAN: When we got out of the car and we were looking at this devastation, this burned-out hulk of a wreck of a vehicle and nothing left of a structure except some tin sheets on the ground that were all burned up. And the first thing she did was she hauled out a bucket from the car. And I asked her, I was like, “Wwhat’s in the bucket,” you know? And, and she started tossing acorns around, and she said, “This is an opportunity, this is an opportunity for me to heal the land by planting these acorns here. You know, right here in this place, originally, there weren’t that many oaks; this is a chance for us to heal the land.” And she said also that in healing the land and planting the acorns and doing cultural burning, “All of this is also a chance for me to heal myself.”
CHEN: In your conversations with members of the Karuk and Yurok tribes, how do people talk about fire? And what can we learn from these tribes about how we should think about fire?
YÜYAN: You know, like my friend Ron told me that when he was a kid, you know, his grandmother gave him a box of matches one day when he was out playing in the yard and told him to not come back in until he had used up the whole box of matches (laughs). Right? Yeah. It’s so different. She was teaching him to not fear it and to also learn how to deal with fire, you know, like clearly she wasn’t afraid of the fire. And she knew that it’s possible that it could get out of control, but she would be watching and she would deal with it. And so she knew that by teaching him very young not to fear it and learn how fire works, that she would be creating someone who would keep their culture going through cultural burning.
CHEN: Right. Yeah, that’s sort of the antithesis to, like, what I think a lot of people have heard when they were kids, which is don’t play with matches, right?
YÜYAN: Yeah, right, exactly. That’s right. It’s right up there with running with scissors (laughs), and you don’t run with scissors and don’t play with matches, but I would definitely say my Karuk and Yurok friends would say otherwise.
CHEN: To be clear, Kiliii isn’t encouraging kids to play with matches—it’s more about encouraging kids to have a healthy relationship with fire. Even though there’s no absolute way to control fire, Kiliii says the damage that a cultural burn could cause would be small compared to a wildfire. And there’s a greater risk to consider in not burning the land regularly.
YÜYAN: When a wildfire does actually go through, and you’ve missed the chance to stop that wildfire, that wildfire is going to destroy way more, way more than a cultural burn ever would. In a cultural burn, something gets out of control and, you know, you burned down a couple of houses by accident or something like that. When a wildfire comes through, that entire place is just burning to a cinder. There’s not gonna be anything left. Entire settlements, entire towns are going to be burned to a crisp, like in Paradise, California, where everything’s gone and it’s unrecoverable.
CHEN: According to the U.S. Forest Service, 99.8 percent of prescribed burns stay where they’re supposed to. The agency is currently reviewing its approach to prescribed burns.
YÜYAN: I definitely think that cultural burning is a real, legitimate tool. It’s one of the few legitimately scalable tools that we as human beings, as a species, have to actually combat things like climate change, you know. It’s an amazing tool.
CHEN: Fire is also necessary for Indigenous tribes to carry on their traditions. Margo Robbins, a Yurok tribe member, is a basket weaver, so she depends on cultural burns in order to grow basket-weaving materials.
MARGO ROBBINS: When our babies are born, we carry them in baskets. We use baskets to cook, eat, carry things. And we use baskets to lift up prayer. And finally, when our time on this Earth is done, we send off the person's spirit by putting them on a basket.
CHEN: The baskets Margo weaves are made of California hazelnut. On its own, hazelnut grows into a bush. But when you burn it every now and then, new shoots come up straighter and stronger, excellent basket-weaving material. Up until 10 years ago, government officials wouldn’t allow Margo to burn the land.
ROBBINS: There's no paper anyplace in existence that says we gave up our right to use fire.
CHEN: In recent years the Forest Service has come around to seeing the value of cultural burns. But to conduct a cultural burn, you still often have to get a permit from the government—and often emergency personnel have to be stationed nearby in case the fire gets out of control.
ROBBINS: Very frustrating to have to ask people who, some have never even seen our land, to get permission to burn. They don’t have enough knowledge, really, to be in the decision-making place that they are. And so it’s frustrating, but it is what it is.
CHEN: So Margo started advocating for cultural burns. The movement gained steam, and she got to actually attend her first cultural burn in 2012—one where she watched hazel burn. Margo says that was the moment she realized that it was really possible to bring fire back.
ROBBINS: And then it really cemented our drive to continue to make that happen. We knew that this would be the first of many—that once we started, we would not stop—that we would continue to grow this ability to put fire on the lands and that we would have our own people from our own homelands trained so that they could legally put fire on the land and not have to risk going to prison.
CHEN: In 2015 Margo co-founded the Indigenous Peoples Burn Network, a growing organization that works to bring cultural burns back. The organization is made up of various Native nations, nonprofit organizations, researchers, and government agencies. Today Margo doesn’t just advocate for fire; she trains firelighters.
ROBBINS: We are teaching the next generations how to burn. The time has long passed when they shoot people for using fire. So I’m able to take my grandkids and my kids out, out on the land, and we can burn. I teach them how to burn. Y know, start at the top. You bring your fire slowly down the hill. If things are dry, you put a line around it, make sure that you have water.
CHEN: Frank, meanwhile, has been using a scientific approach to advocate for burns. He has been running research to see what the data says about the effect of cultural burns.
LAKE: Lo and behold, that Indigenous knowledge and cultural practice usually results in a better, higher-quality resource, such as acorns, such as hazel shoots for basket material, such as greater berry abundance. That changes the game because now you’re saying, here, we’ve demonstrated we don’t need Western science to validate or substantiate Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices, but certainly it could corroborate that and say, this is where they’re aligned.
CHEN: He’s found that when groups burn underbrush regularly, the brush doesn’t build up and turn into massive wildfires.
LAKE: They’ve reduced that wildfire threat because a wildfire burned into a recent cultural burn and was easier to contain, right? So the more you break up the high-fuel-loading areas and you reduce the wildfire risk based on your treatments and your prescribed fires or your cultural burns, the less you have a wildfire risk actually threatening your life and property in your community.
CHEN: So that has been demonstrated that conducting multiple cultural burns or prescribed fires in a year, that can help combat wildfires?
LAKE: It definitely reduces the fuels, reduces the fuel continuity or how much fuel is there that could burn under the most severe conditions, moderates or reduces that fire intensity, and makes it less damaging.
CHEN: I'm just curious, in the 20 years that you’ve been at, you know, the Forest Service, have they become a lot more receptive to Indigenous knowledge?
LAKE: Very much so, even down to the current administration and the Council on Environmental Quality’s direction on Indigenous traditional, ecological knowledge, um, the USDA, Department of Agriculture’s direction on how the agency, the Forest Service research and development is going to respond to that.
CHEN: This year the White House announced that it was committed to using Indigenous knowledge in policy dealing with the relationship between humans and the environment. Frank currently helps the Forest Service run cultural burns.
LAKE: When it comes to the fall time, there’s an indicator where usually the infertile and buggy acorns, brown-top bad, fall first. And then you start to see this transition of the white-top acorns falling, and that’s our indicator locally for burning. And I try to time that just right before the next rainstorm to burn off clear, nice little understory fire under the acorn trees that reduces the buggy acorns, cleans up the small sticks and leaves. And then you have on that open, charred understory, white-top good acorns falling on there that are easily seen and picked up.
CHEN: Kiliii actually visited one of Frank’s acorn burns in the Klamath River Valley.
YÜYAN: You kind of, like, look over at the Klamath River, which is a river that’s just sort of like always painted with rainbows (laughs), and there’s this beautiful, bright green forest full of conifers. So even in the winter time, it’s always green.
CHEN: He recalls what the ground looked like after the burn was over.
YÜYAN: The whole ground was this carpet of black, you know, kind of this black ash that was strewn everywhere. And on top of it were sitting tons of acorns, and they were all beautiful. And they were, like, big and plump, and none of them had any holes in them. And the thing that Frank said was, “Well, they don’t have holes in them because the cultural fire burned up and killed all the acorn pests. We time it so that the acorn weevils and the acorn moths that normally go down there, they get burned up in that cultural fire. So we time that fire just right so that it does that.” And then, you know, while we were there, we gathered a bunch of acorns to take home, to make nto food.
CHEN: Frank says that it’s important his kids understand how these fires are connected to the food they eat and the things they use in their house.
LAKE: My kids see good acorns. They know what acorn soup tastes like. They know the deer we’ve hunted, the nice bucks we’ve shot in the areas that have been burned. They see the basket material that made the hazel sticks for their cradle that they were carried in.
CHEN: Frank was partially inspired to teach his kids about fire by visiting Australia. There, he visited the Martu, a group of Aboriginal Australians living in the country’s western desert.
LAKE: And I got to see Aboriginal kids take a lighter and go burn off a small patch. And then I saw the teenagers and older ones burn off a bigger patch. And then I got to go out with the men and burn off, like, a whole big valley. Like, we’re talking, like, quarter-mile to a two-mile-plus burn across spinifex and three other patches of forest and shrubs, and then hunt kangaroo. And so for me, it was, like, oh, you know, most of the time we tell kids not to play with matches and we kind of scold them, and Smokey the Bear says be careful of fire, but we need to teach our kids to respect it.
CHEN: Frank thinks kids need to start off with that mindset when they’re young.
LAKE: Kids help burn sometimes. My kids are in fifth grade and third grade. They’ve already talked about it. Especially Leland, it’s like more of a matter of a fact to kids, like, “Well, you just think fire’s bad, but there’s this, this, this, this, and this, and there’s these plants, and these are your medicines, and these are your berries. And we share those foods with the animals and the bears and the squirrels.” And, like, my kids can burn off a small little 50- by a 100foot area under a few acorn trees. They’re going to be, when he’s 20 or 25 years old, going to be able to carry out much bigger landscape burns that have multiple types of places like that, right? We’re going to be able to know the direction of the wind, the sounds of the birds or the animals that are there that are indicators. You’re going to know when it’s the right time to use fire in the best way, in a good way. For safety, and for security, and to the benefit of, again, your family and the community.
CHEN: Yeah, I have to say, I love the idea of like, you know, your kid teaching other kids about the value of fire. It’s really great.
LAKE: They need to, and particularly with what we see in the news and how sensationalized, catastrophic fires. We need the hope stories, right? We need to know that there is a positive relationship that people can have in living with fire.
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Cultural burns are just one of many stories that Kiliii and writer Charles Mann covered about the ways Indigenous groups are trying to reclaim sovereignty. That’s coming out in the July issue of the magazine.
And if you want to hear more from Kiliii, you can also listen to a previous Overheard episode where he shares stories about the many weeks he spent camping on sea ice with Native Alaskan whale hunters.
If you’re dying to see his photography, check out his website to see portraits of Indigenous people, Arctic wildlife, and more.
Also, if you want to learn more about Margo Robbins and her efforts to revive cultural burns, check out our article on the subject.
That’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.
This week’s episode of Overheard is produced by Ilana Strauss.
Our producers are Khari Douglas and Marcy Thompson.
Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.
Carla Wills is our manager of audio.
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who also edited this episode.
Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.
Our copy editors are Caroline Braun, Amy Kolczak, Cindy Leitner, and Jennifer Vilaga.
Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music, sound-designed and engineered this episode.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic grantee Kiliii Yuyan.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.
And I’m senior editor and host Eli Chen. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.
If you want to hear more from Kiliii, you can also listen to a previous Overheard episode where he shares stories from the many weeks he spent camping on sea ice with Native Alaskan whale hunters.
And you’re dying to see his photography, check out his website to see portraits of Indigenous people, Arctic wildlife, and more.
To learn more about Margo Robbins and her efforts to revive cultural burns, check out our article on the subject.
Cultural burns are just one of many stories that Kiliii and writer Charles Mann covered about the ways Indigenous groups are trying to reclaim sovereignty. That’s coming out in the July issue of the magazine.