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Tribal Traditions: The Burning Battle (Part 2) - To The Point

The effects of cultural burning go beyond catastrophic fires but directly affect the ecosystem.

SISKIYOU COUNTY, Calif. — Wildfire outbreaks have been synonymous with drought in California, in Part 2 of  "Tribal Traditions: The Burning Battle” climate adaptation series, Carley Gomez shows how it’s not just homes being lost, but entire ways of life.

The Karuk Tribe’s aboriginal land makes up about 1 million acres. As wildfires roar through the Siskiyou and Klamath National Forests, tribal members are witnessing different ways of life from what they learned through their ancestors.

Tribal member Kenneth Brink also known as “Binx,” knows this all too well.

"People along the river would start burning their little piles, because we knew fire was coming. We knew that we had to manage our land; we had to do fuels reduction" said Brink.

"I lived on the Klamath River for 45 years now, then go to school and you know, I lived there pretty much all my life, being tribal, growing up as a ceremonial person, being involved with our traditional ways" said Brink.

Binx has seen his fair share of fires, floods and destruction. Just this year, the McKinney Fire experienced a major landslide, after thunderstorms dumped heavy rain over a burn scar. The Klamath River didn’t fair well.

"I go out and I see thousands and thousands of dead fish. It was like a big ol' plume moving through zero oxygen and killing everything in its way. I mean, it's hard to say what lived and what didn't," said Brink.

Working with the U.S. Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division, Brink saw it all first hand.

"What hits home with those fish is that a lot of people will be like, 'Oh, that's not a salmon. It's just a sucker.' Right? But they're very important. These fish are very old. They don't mature for like 10 years, so they can't reproduce for like a decade. And they got to be like 20-30 years old, so they're like our elders of our river," said Brink.

Fish, to the Karuk Tribe, are precious.

"It was really a combination of fire exclusion and poor forest management - layer on top of that the freak weather, it comes from global warming, and you get a fish kill" said Craig Tucker, a natural resources advocate for the Karuk Tribe.

"I've worked fisheries for 20-plus years now, and I fished all my life and I've watched our tributaries dry up, our fish almost go extinct. There are two or three species right now on the threatened species list and our land here in this region of California" said Brink.

Brink says he was previously a firefighter, and now works with fisheries. He’s says he’s been on both sides of the aisle, and it all comes down to money over preservation.

"They have all this funding when it's burning, catastrophically. But when I look at the forest, I say that the forest is in dire need. It's in the state of emergency. Why can't we get money to prevent? Now, it's not a gold rush. It's what I call a fire rush. So they see this timber burning, the mountain burns, they see dollar signs in their eyes. And I know this because, I was a firefighter. As a young firefighter, I thought 'Yes, the fire, the forest is burning! Money!'" said Brink.

Cal Fire says a state emergency fund is used to pay overtime in these big fires. Local agencies responding to these fire say they get one and a half times pay on top of their normal hours.

"Inappropriate things get done with the land, because we've seen that for the past 150 years. So I really think if we're going to survive global warming and come up with new systems that make this place that habitable, we're going to have to listen to the wisdom of native people, not just here but all over the planet for how to live here in a way that doesn't lead to mass extinction and drag the temperature of the earth up to other habitable levels" said Tucker.

However, allowing tribal burns takes permission.

"It isn't necessarily climate change itself, that's the determining factor in the cause and effect relationship behind these large mega fires. You really dig into the history of the situation, a lot of times that root causes state and federal law, that it made it illegal to do these things made it criminal to be an indigenous person managing our landscape" said Bill Tripp, coauthor of the Climate Adaptation Plan and Karuk Tribal member.

The U.S. Forest Service said when their agency started in the 1800’s, they misunderstood the role fire played on the landscape.

"They thought that they were protecting the trees. And you know, forestry is one of those things that it takes a long time to see the mistakes” said Stephen Fillmore, regional fuels operations specialist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Fillmore says they’re excited for more programs like the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management strategy to help with the issue. The plan would work across tribal, federal, state and local governments as a way to “effectively manage landscapes.”

"We're, of course, the government agency. We have to have people to manage those contracts, people to do the environmental planning to make sure that habitat isn't - or archaeological concerns - aren't damaged. So... we just need more more of the people to do the work" said Fillmore.

But right now, it’s all just a strategy plan. New programs, laws and funding can take years. The Karuk Tribe needs emergency action now.

"They actually criminalized all this stuff. We go to jail for burns. We're going to jail for protecting ourselves. Yes, we got to protect our houses. Of course, we got to do that. But we also need to figure out how we can declare our forests in a state of emergency before it's on fire, you know, before it's on fire" said Brink. 

"For some communities like Karuk, like their aboriginal homelands, really been stolen by the United States Forest Service. And so, it has a lot of consequences. But one of those is that Karuk people can't find a place to live in their own homelands, because over 97% of their homeland is Forest Service land. So I think federal agencies like the Forest Service are going to have to give land back to tribes, so that they can live in their homelands and manage them properly" said Tucker.

While the battle to burn in aboriginal territory continues, families like Erin Hillman's are picking up the pieces of their lives after the Slater Fire destroyed her home in 2020. With insurance, the Hillman's are fortunate enough to rebuild.

"I raised my children in this house. They grew up here; they went to the first days of high school here. They had their graduation parties, their proms. We had all our Christmases here, our grandchildren were brought here when they were born. We have so many memories of, you know, people that are no longer with us now that are tied to the last place. You know, this is my home" said Hillman.

It's taken two years to build, but this time they’re taking further precautions

"The actual siding is a fire-resistant siding, and there will be another layer of some wrap and then there will be some cheating under that" said Hillman.

"What would make me feel comfortable would be if we had a two to three mile wide barrier around our communities of just clean, clear treated forest, right?" said Hillman.

The Hillman's lost history and precious heirlooms that their family owned for generations.

"From tribal members to tribal members' home, there are all these things that were passed down over, you know, generations that we don't have photographs, documentation of, of people that are no longer with us, baskets, of regalia. I mean, just the losses are heartbreaking, you see people reporting on their experiences during these types of events. And, you know, you still don't connect to that until you're in it." said Hillman.

As the Karuk have witnessed, just about everything has a cause and effect.

"As a tribal of person, we know that management has to be done for everything. It cannot be just timber, it cannot be just fire and it cannot just be fish" said Brink.

"You can run into this with environmentalists that are worried that if lands returned to a tribe and the tribe really gets to make decisions... we won't be able to sue over the Sequoia. Like, yeah, you'll have to trust the tribes. Well, 'What if they do something inappropriate with the land?' Well, I know if they don't get it, inappropriate things get done with the land, because we've seen that for the for the past 150 years" said Tucker.

"It's a big, big circle of life ,and it starts at the top of the mountain. Now we have to manage and do fuel reduction, keep our water, because we're California and it gets hot. We're in a drought, climate change is real, it's happening. So to let our forests is to be overgrown like that, that's insane. It's really insane, especially during climate change and drought" said Brink.

Now the phrase “it takes a village” is hitting even closer to home for the Karuk Tribe.

“'Pikyav' means to fix the world, not fix my tribe or fix me or just fix this our place. But we know that the world rotates on a harmonious balance on an axis, so when things are bad here, they're bad on the other side too. And that's how the world works, so we pray for the whole world and in our ceremonies" said Brink.


Tribal Traditions: The Burning Battle (Part 1) | To The Point

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