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Tribal Traditions: The Burning Battle | To The Point

A look at the Karuk Tribe's efforts in bringing ancestral practices back to help in climate adaptation.

HAPPY CAMP, Calif. — As California continues to navigate this ever-changing climate of wildfire outbreaks, severe drought, and agriculture issues, one tribe may be holding the keys to a solution.

ABC10 spoke with Karuk Tribe members and advocates who have been working on a plan to adapt to climate change. 

According to the Karuk Tribe, the town of Happy Camp, California is considered a "proclaimed reservation." The tribe was never formally given a reservation, so the tribe was forced to live among westerners about 170 years ago. During that time, many were sent off to boarding schools, forced to assimilate, and even sent to other reservations. Meanwhile, many fled into the mountains to preserve their way of life. 

Fast forward to the end of the 21st century and disastrous fire outbreaks have been at the forefront of the tribe's worries.

"We were just trying to grapple with what we had just seen, and how fast it had moved. I would have never believed it without seeing it. And I don't even think that there's anybody that can adequately describe it," said Erin Hillman, wildfire survivor and tribe director.

Hillman narrowly escaped the 2020 Slater Fire that killed two people near the base camp for the Karuk Tribe in Happy Camp.

"I took off in my car and went down to happy camp, ran through the store, started grabbing boxes, telling everybody you know, there's a fire, it's, it's going, you know, we got, we got to get going," says Hillman.

About 900 people reside in the small town of Happy Camp along the Klamath River in far Northern California, but the tribe makes up about 3,751 members who live in different cities like Orleans, and Yreka as well. There are about 5,000 registered descendants of the Karuk Tribe. This makes the tribe the second largest in California.

For Hillman, the land is precious to the Karuk people, and fire outbreaks make the land harder to live on.

On the morning of Sept. 8, 2020, Hillman says she started her day off with a cup of coffee on her porch and found it odd to smell such a strong smoke odor. Within the half-hour, she knew something was very wrong. 

After seeing the fire over the ridge, she drove down to her family-owned family grocery store to warn her husband, employees, and residents about the fire. Erin and her husband hurried to save what they could at home — including their cat.

"I grabbed her, and as I'm running out the door, my husband is going hurry, hurry, hurry. He's got the truck backed up to the fence back here. And all I remember is just looking over my shoulder, had her in my one arm and I looked over my shoulder, and everything was on fire," remarked Hillman.

For the Hillman’s and their neighbors, getting out of their homes was only the first obstacle.

"Like a little caravan, we were all you know, in our cars, and we would go up a little ways, and we would stop," she said.

Finding a route out would prove to be a matter of life and death.

"All of a sudden we saw the fire popping up behind us coming over the ridge and it was getting ready to block us from our escape route," said Hillman.

Luckily, the small caravan of cars made it out.

The Slater Fire burned more than 150,000 acres and destroyed nearly 200 homes.

Stories of fire outbreaks have become common in California, but for the Karuk Tribe, it’s a frustrating situation.

"Climate change has created this, this disaster waiting to happen. And so unless we do something, we are proactive about that we're going to continue to add these kinds of disasters, and people's lives are going to be lost," Hillman said.

Living in the same serene banks of the Klamath River, in the secluded Klamath-Siskiyou forests, the Karuk Tribe’s way of life has been somewhat preserved, that’s until the last century and a half.

"I was raised in the ancestral village of Karuk on the lower Salmon River. My great grandma, taught me how to use fire starting when I was four years old, and just taught me the traditional principles behind, you know, why we're supposed to do what we're supposed to do out here, and working with ecosystem processes and paying attention to the animals and the plants and everything in nature to be, you know, just so they can serve as our guide" says Bill Tripp, tribal member and co-author of the "Climate Adaptation Plan."

Before the devastating Slater Fire, in 2020, the Karuk Tribe of Indians created the “Climate Adaptation Plan” in hopes of preventing more catastrophic fire events. But tragedy struck before it could be adopted by legislators or worked on as a potential state bill. The area would continue to be inundated by wildfires.

"It's intended to be a working document, that just kind of, lets people know that there's something different that can be done," said Tripp.

Tripp says their native people have always been able to manage the land and be a part of the landscape through generations of tribal practices.

Distinct to the Karuk Tribe is cultural burning.

"With a cultural burn, it's a little bit different, it's like, you're not parsing the landscape out into these distinct little units, you're picking times of year when the conditions are just right to where this component of the ecosystem will burn, whereas this one right next to it won't," said Tripp.

The previous ecosystem of trees and plants not only helped feed the people through acorns, native crops and medicinal plants but created a diverse forest with different burning properties.

"If you've got pine trees mixed with black oak and white oak and madrone, you can burn out after four days of sun and in February," said Tripp.

Cultural burning wasn’t just a form of ceremonial practice, but a way to keep their grasses, shrubs, and forest floors from becoming big fuel for lightning outbreaks.

Craig Tucker, a natural resources policy advocate for the Karuk Tribe, has been working for decades to bring change to the tribe’s ancestral lands.

"Native people had managed that landscape for acorn bearing oak trees to feed the people in they use fire for that management. If you don't put fire in, then those forests are overgrown by Douglas fir and conifers. And so that's what we see today in the climates where it's like a giant stand of Douglas fir - and the timber industry really liked that those trees grow fast, they grow straight, they make good two by fours," said Tucker.

As settlers moved into the forests of the Karuk and other indigenous peoples in the mid-1850s, gold mining, then eventually logging practices, were at the forefront. Karuk people were killed off, forced to move to reservations, and some fled into the mountains.

"They just discovered gold. And they stopped signing treaties you know, the way it was understood by my family when, at the time of the signing was they were just going to be people, more people here, living here with us, and taking care of the place that isn't necessarily what it turned out to be,” said Tripp.

Tripp says the dispersal of the tribe over the last 170 years has proven to have profound effects on forest management.

"There were a hundreds of well over 100 villages in this stretch of the river from New Orleans up through Happy Camp and Salmon River country. And, you figure if each one of those villages had three people that focused on just doing that kind of small patchwork burning at every opportunity, that's 150 fires going - simultaneously throughout the river corridor, you know, maybe 15, 20, 30 days a year or more. So that's a lot of fire with very few people," said Tripp. “There's large numbers of Karuk people who do live in their aboriginal homelands. But a lot of that landscape is owned and managed by the U.S. Forest Service. So the tribe is not able to simply practice their traditional land management practices without forging some kind of agreement with federal agencies.

"How we treat tribes and tribal people, I think, is a reflection of what kind of people we all are. We need to know how to live in this place without driving the fish extinct. How do we live in this place without fires burning out our house? Well, the Karuk have figured that out, and they're willing to share that information with the rest of us," said Tucker.

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