New California law affirms Indigenous right to controlled burns

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In 1918, an American forest ranger suggested shooting people who set fires. Now, a new law reaffirms the right to ‘good fire’.

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San Francisco, California – Increasing wildfires and increasingly destructive wildfires are a legacy of more than a century of fire suppression policy in California. Historically, state laws held people liable for damages if they started a fire that got out of control.


But a new California law will remove the liability risk for private citizens and Indigenous peoples who burn controlled, low-intensity fires proven to prevent catastrophic fires. The law marks a paradigm shift in the United States, where, in the pre-population era, indigenous peoples regularly started small fires to care for the landscape.

However, US federal policy saw all fires as dangerous and made extinguishing it a priority, leaving the forest denser, with more fuel for wildfires. Today, climate change is drying up those forests and contributing to long-term wildfires.

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According to a recent United Nations report, California’s Yosemite National Park is now a net carbon emitter due to more intense fires and poor forest management.

In recent years, states have recognized the benefits of scheduled burning, but the practice must be increased significantly to bring forests back into balance. California’s new law, which goes into effect January 1, sets the stage for private citizens and Indigenous peoples to conduct so-called “good fires” across the state.

California has seen several major wildfires this year, as climate change is lengthening the wildfire season [File: Robert Galbraith/Reuters]

cultural irritation

In a 1918 letter, a district ranger from the Klamath National Forest wrote to his supervisor that the U.S. Forest Service’s foremost duty was to keep fires to a minimum, but that “renegade whites and Indians were setting the fires” out of pure curse. for”, not caring whether the fire has harmed others.

He suggested that the solution was to “kill them, take a shot at it every time you catch a coyote walking around in the brush”. He also suggested hiring a female missionary who had “gained confidence” to persuade the indigenous people to adopt the settler’s principles about fire.

Margo Robbins, a member of the Yurok tribe in Northern California and executive director of the Cultural Fire Management Council, shared the letter with Al Jazeera, showing how forest policy has changed dramatically over the past century. Its community faces a high fire risk due to the heavy fuel load in its area, but liability has been a hindrance to scheduled burns, as “there is no 100 percent guarantee that [the fire] is going to stay where you want”, Robbins said.

Prescribed burns in California require permission from the owner of the land, and while the new law removes the liability for such burns, if a basic set of conditions are met, any person whose conduct is grossly negligent. constitutes, he will still be held responsible. The law covers “cultural burning” and “cultural fire practitioners”, reaffirming the rights of indigenous peoples to use fire.

,[The law] recognizes the value of this Indigenous knowledge and this experience of Native peoples with fire, so much so that they have said we are the equivalent of a California-certified barn boss,” Robbins said. “It’s huge, because it opens the door for us to start caring for our land by fire again without the fear of going to jail.”

wide support

This winter, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire consultant at the University of California Cooperative Extension and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, said she plans to put out a “good fire” near the city of Eureka, taking the same precautions as He has always followed.

,[The law] Doesn’t change the way we’re working; It makes us more comfortable,” she told Al Jazeera.

Quinn-Davidson is part of a coalition of determined burn advocates who pushed for new California legislation. A politically diverse group of supporters supported the law, including conservative ranchers, indigenous groups and scientists, she said.

Robbins said the law’s writers not only sought “token” input from his group, but “went back to the drawing board” after hearing indigenous guidance.

California has also authorized $20m in funding for a pilot fund in case a scheduled burn gets out of control. The next step is to increase the number of people trained for scheduled burns for California and other states, Quinn-Davidson said, adding that “the workforce we currently have is a fraction of what we need”.

‘Critical turning point’

California isn’t the first state to change its prescribed fire liability laws; In 1990, Florida was the first to implement a “gross negligence” standard, which was less stringent than the commonly used “simple negligence” standard. Several other states followed suit, including Nevada, Georgia and Michigan.

Oregon is also rethinking its fire liability laws, because private citizens who choose to set up scheduled burns are running up against similar liability risks. “Many organizations and private landlords are finding it impossible to secure prescribed fire insurance coverage,” Amelia Porterfield, a senior policy advisor at the Nature Conservancy in Oregon, told Al Jazeera.

This year, the state passed two laws, one ordering state agencies to complete a study by July 2022 on liability and insurance barriers to prevent scheduled burns from escalating, and another to help train more prescribed burners. For.

Robbins hopes that one day, throughout America, indigenous peoples will claim their sovereign right to use fire, without anyone’s permission. His vision is “that we can burn at the right place, at the right time, for the right reasons”.

“As Aboriginal people, we know what is best for our land,” she said. “We can make our own decisions about the rules and regulations to use in the context of using land management tools and fire in ceremonies.”

Robbins said all private landlords should be able to put out their “good fire” while getting better access to training opportunities: “We’re at a turning point, and we’re turning in a good direction.”


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