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California Teaming Up With Native American Tribes To Prevent Wildfires

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There's an old cliche about fighting fire with fire. For California, this is not a metaphor. It's what they're literally doing. The state is trying to limit destructive wildfires by lighting small fires which clear out excess vegetation, leaving less fuel for a big fire. The state is starting to work with Native American tribes who've done this for a long time. NPR's Lauren Sommer reports.

RON GOODE: Good morning.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Back in February, when large groups of people could still get together, about 50 people gathered in a clearing in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

GOODE: So what we're doing out here is restoring life.

SOMMER: Ron Goode is tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono. He's brought together several California tribes to do something they've largely been stopped from doing for a century or more - cultural burning.

GOODE: We don't put fire on the ground and not know how it's going to turn out. That's what makes it cultural burning - because we cultivate.

SOMMER: Also listening are officials from the state and federal government, the entities that historically banned tribal burning. Today they're here to start taking steps to work together. But first, the day started with a blessing.

BILL LEONARD: (Chanting in non-English language).

SOMMER: Bill Leonard is tribal chairman of the Southern Sierra Miwuk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you, Billy (ph). Get to work.

SOMMER: The group heads out into the oak woodland toward some bushes with long, bare branches.

GOODE: Sour berries, three-leaf sumac - there's a good one right there.

SOMMER: Before they begin burning, they start harvesting.

RAY GUTTERIEZ: My mom is a basket weaver.

SOMMER: Ray Gutteriez (ph) is cutting the straightest branches.

GUTTERIEZ: All of our basket material needs to be tended to in some way, so they need to be burned. And then next year, we'll probably have sticks that are 6-, 7-feet-tall in one year.

GOODE: Fire in the hole.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE CRACKLING)

SOMMER: The dry branches light up quickly, but the roots will remain intact. After spring rains, the plant will resprout.

GOODE: When I was a kid, I learned from my mother. But my mother got in trouble when she burned because the fire department, you know, didn't want her doing what we're doing today.

SOMMER: Goode says, historically, California's tribes burned thousands of acres every year until Western settlers arrived.

GOODE: They came with their concepts of being afraid of fire. They didn't understand fire in the sense of the tool that it could be to create and what it did to help generate and rejuvenate the land. So they brought in suppression.

SOMMER: The Forest Service famously had the 10 a.m. rule - to put out all forest fires by 10:00 a.m. the next day. Forests quickly became overgrown. And Native tribes lost the land they once burned, says Beth Rose Middleton Manning, professor of Native American studies at UC Davis.

BETH ROSE MIDDLETON MANNING: There was actually a bounty on California Indian people. The governor had announced a war of extermination. So you have all that history, and it really fostered removal.

SOMMER: Now tribes across California are trying to restore cultural burning by working on public lands.

MIDDLETON MANNING: I think it's really important that we don't think about traditional burning as what information can we learn from Native people and then exclude people and move on with non-Natives managing the land but the Native people are at the forefront and are leading.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So Jared (ph), when you get enough brush, relight it.

JARED: OK.

SOMMER: The crew moves on to burn a dense field a few acres across. Jennifer Montgomery lights the dry grass with a drip torch, basically a lighter on steroids.

JENNIFER MONTGOMERY: That was super empowering. I mean, I think every woman should get a chance to use a drip torch.

SOMMER: Montgomery works for California's fire agency. The state is trying to reduce overgrown fuels on hundreds of thousands of acres, but it has a long way to go. She says California's tribes should be part of that.

MONTGOMERY: It's an opportunity for me to really see how effective cultural fire can be in addressing the issues we have around uncontrolled wildfire. The work that we did today - if a fire comes through there, it will drop down to the ground. And frankly, it may, given the right circumstances, just stop the fire entirely on its own.

SOMMER: For Goode, the day is about forming these partnerships, but it's also about the kids running alongside their parents.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Clear the perimeter.

GOODE: Oh, there's no better teaching than that.

SOMMER: He looks out at the blackened field which, in a few weeks, will sprout again.

GOODE: I'm excited. I'm elated because I'm looking around at what we've done, how beautiful the land is looking. And it is. It is.

SOMMER: Lauren Sommer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO'S "THE FIRESIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.