'Our right to fire': Tribes battle agencies, old policies to restore fire practices
HAPPY CAMP, California — Leeon Hillman knew something was wrong in the early hours of Sept. 8 as he listened from the bedroom of his home along Indian Creek Road.
“At 2 in the morning, I was laying there with my fingers crossed because I heard the wind, and it was so hard,” he said.
Later that morning, Hillman, his wife, Erin, and hundreds of other residents of the small mountain town of Happy Camp rushed to save what they could before the flames roared down Indian Creek Road.
In just a few hours, the Hillman home burned to the ground. The flames raced along Indian Creek so fast and hot that almost no ash littered the ground alongside twisted metal, brick chimneys and burned-out vehicle hulks.
“Twenty-three years we were here — it was our first house,” said Erin, who’s Karuk and Abenaki. She looked at what was left, dazed.
“Here’s where the shed was,” said Leeon, a member of the Karuk Tribe. “I had all my regalia stored in here. There were deer hides and an elk hide. All my feathers were here. I had a cedar chest where I kept my necklaces. And I had four otter hides and two mink hides that I used for ceremonies. It’s going to be hard to replace those items. They take a lifetime to get.”
Next to the shed’s remains, a scorched block of obsidian that Leeon drew from to craft arrowheads using ancient techniquesnow lay brittle and useless.
Leeon Hillman’s recounting of what was lost illuminates this small town’s agony among other communities that suffered losses in lives, livelihoods and homes during the brutal fire season of 2020. Across Northern California, nearly two dozen fires burned 2.3 million acres, killed 29 people and destroyed or damaged 7,810 structures.
Happy Camp, the capital of the Karuk Tribe with a population of about 1,100, is grieving the loss of two human lives and about 160 homes, including the tribe's elder housing community. Also lost were cultural materials such as world-class basketry created by now-deceased weavers stored in elders’ homes, regalia used in ceremonies like the World Renewal Ceremony, carefully collected feathers and other items.
But community members also grieve for what they say is the failure of federal and state agencies to accept their deep knowledge and experience in stewarding these lands for more than 10,000 years.
Happy Camp sits on the historic village of Athithúfvuunupma or "where the hazel creek flows into," the ancestral homeland of the Karuk Tribe. Its citizens and leaders say half the town didn't have to burn.
And the Karuks, along with other tribal land stewards, fire scientists, some environmentalists and non-Native neighbors, say they possess solutions to the perfect storm of mismanaged lands, climate change and power company mistakes that struck California this year.
What they need now is to persuade agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the majority of Karuk's ancestral lands, to heed them.
Karuks sustained their land, only to lose most of it
The Karuk people have lived in the lands surrounding the middle Klamath River in Northern California for millennia. Their 1.3 million-acre ancestral land stretches about 170 miles along the Klamath from Orleans to Yreka in Humboldt and Siskiyou counties. With more than 3,700 enrolled members and another 5,000 enrolled descendants, the Karuk Tribe is one of California’s largest by population.
Like many other U.S. tribes, historic Karuk communities were protected from big burns through careful management, including the women who burned up to a 2-mile radius around their homes to encourage a mosaic of oak and tanoak, basket materials like hazel and bear grass, berries, medicinal plants and native grasses.
Kathy McCovey, a Karuk tribal member and retired archaeologist for the U.S. Forest Service, said the men would burn another 2 miles out to provide for elk and deer food as well as wildlife and hunting corridors.
The site of a pilot cultural burn near the town of Orleans, about 45 miles southwest of Happy Camp, shows what the landscape was like before contact: open areas between trees and bushes, with room for elk and deer to meander. And the small valley where Orleans is located shows how Karuk villages were protected from big burns.
By burning and brushing, nurturing important plants and keeping lands around their homes clear of dead brush and debris, Native peoples carefully stewarded the lands to sustain the biodiverse ecologies California is known for. Their work resulted in a richly productive landscape that provided food and habitat for not only humans but many land, air and water animals. That included the salmon, a staple of tribes in the West for millennia.
The traditional fall fires created a smoke layer that, as Karuk tribal member and cultural resources technician Chook Chook Hillman said, cooled the river, making the water more hospitable for salmon to spawn.
All that changed when California became a U.S. state in 1850.
In 1851-52, Karuk tribal leaders negotiated with the U.S. government, which had recently won the state at the end of the Mexican-American War. But the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Karuk’s treaty or any of the other 17 treaties that California tribes had signed.
The result was chaos, a genocidal campaign that wiped out about 80% of all Native people in the state, including many Karuks, and left a hodgepodge of hastily created tiny reservations known as rancherias. The neighboring Hoopa Tribe fared better, since it got about 99,000 acres of its ancestral lands to serve as a reservation. Karuk received nothing.
The U.S. provided services to the tribe, but inexplicably stopped in the mid-20th century during what’s known as the Termination Era, when 41 California tribes were stripped of their lands and tribal status.
Karuk was never formally terminated, though, and in the late 1970s, the U.S. recognized the tribe. Since then, Karuk has been working to rebuild its land base by buying up parcels along the Klamath. The tribe now has 914 acres of trust land and own another 822 acres of private land, strung out like pearls — or salmon roe — in or near historic Karuk communities like Happy Camp; Orleans, or Panámniik, "the flat place;" and Yreka, or Kahtishraam, "the upriver valley."
These towns are a mix of tiny parcels of tribal trust land, private land and large swaths of federal land, which makes any land management policy development a struggle of sometimes Machiavellian proportions.
'Douglas fir plantations' on the Klamath
The U.S. government created the Six Rivers and Klamath national forests from ancestral Karuk lands, but the Forest Service managed the lands primarily for logging operations. That eventually turned portions of the Klamath Mountains into a green desert. Tribal members told The Arizona Republic the steep slopes along the river are now what they call “Douglas fir plantations.” The evergreens, which are periodically planted to replace logged or burned trees, are all uniform in size and trunk diameter.
Chook Chook Hillman said the ground underneath the tree canopy is “an ocean of brown. There’s no green, it’s a monotone.”
There are no huckleberries, no young oaks, no hazel growing straight and strong for baskets, no food for ruminants, squirrels, woodpeckers or much of anything else, just a pile of dead sticks and debris, ripe kindling for the next big fire.
These forests depend on periodic fires for their ecological health. But the Forest Service and other agencies have for decades enforced a policy ofsuppressing fires. Indigenous peoples, scientists and even the Forest Service say that policy has resulted in altered lands, decreased wildlife habitat and increased susceptibility to huge wildfires sparked by lightning or human activity and fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Researchers in the emerging field of pyrogeography, the study of historic, present-day and future wildfire distribution and effects of ecologies and societies, agree that these poorly managed forests are overdue for a return to human management. And at least one Indigenous fire scientist links Indigenous culture to Western science in his work.
Don Hankins, a Plains Miwok, is a professor of geology at California State University-Chico, as well as an Indigenous fire practitioner. Like other traditional fire stewards, Hankins also links the spiritual aspect of a cultural burn to the “ability to just clean our house.”
“Everybody who's ever burned with me, who's ever had the opportunity to be on a fire, talked about how much of a metaphysical experience it was for them just to be there and to have kind of this weight lifted off of them from the fire,” he said.
Tribal burning protocols are inherently adaptable to changing climates, said Crystal Kolden, an assistant professor at the University of California-Merced. People are at a breaking point and are desperate for solutions.
“It’s such a logical solution,” she said, “just give the reins back over to the people who do this.”
Tribe attempts to work with the feds
The Karuk Tribe wants to bring fire back to the people and the lands, said Bill Tripp, director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy at Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources.
“We don't really have much in the way of a viable cultural resources or even really good hunting without it,” said Tripp, who was handed his first pitch stick at age 4 to do a grandparent-supervised burn. “And we've been saying for four decades that we need to do something about this.”
The tribe has been working toward meaningful management of its ancestral lands for about 25 years, starting with a small pilot burning project, he said. Even though the Karuk Tribe and the Forest Service have signed various interagency agreements over the years, progress is agonizingly slow.
Tripp, said the tribe has written a climate adaptation plan and an eco-cultural management plan, and created partnerships with government agencies and NGOs to increase the scale of their management capacity. The tribe and non-Native partners, including the Nature Conservancy, several local fire safe councils and salmon protection councils, created the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership, known as WKRP, as a coordinated approach to regional land and water stewardship.
Those efforts don’t seem to have much effect on putting the Karuk Tribe and its neighboring tribes into leadership roles, or at least to be considered equal partners.
One big obstacle: conflicting jurisdictions and liability. Although it's the primary land manager in the region, the Forest Service is just one of the multiple jurisdictions tribes like the Karuk must deal with.
Among the long list of others: California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire, the California Natural Resources Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Environmental Protection Agency, local air quality boards, county governments.
All of these entities have a stake in land and water management. And nearly all of them have hoops that tribes with small trust land bases like the Karuk must jump through to exercise their sovereignty over ancestral lands that were never formally ceded to the U.S.
"The biggest obstacle is the lack of recognition of indigenous territorial sovereignty to plan and perform this work," Tripp said. "The Forest Service has the largest overlapping jurisdictional claim."
Despite the tangle of agencies, “this is just simple stuff that shouldn't be hard to fix,” Tripp said.
But after several years of planning and gathering resources, the tribe put a burn plan together only to have it turned down because the proposed burn zone crossed boundaries into private property.
“So in order to get the plan approved, we've got to remove that other parcel, which means we either have to put a fire line along a property boundary that's mid-slope and just a horrible type of fuel to work in, or we can put the fire in where it makes sense and then we can have a CalFire and a BIA signature on the burn plan,” he said.
“We’re not going to do it unless it’s totally within our jurisdiction because we don't have the authority to sign for another jurisdiction,” Tripp said.
But, he said, “the Karuk Tribe retains territorial sovereignty over our right to fire. And why should we have to ask you guys for permission to begin with?"
“Something has to change.”
'We just want to be there'
In late September, about 300 residents of Happy Camp gathered in the bleachers at the field outside the town's elementary school for a public information hearing.
Some had driven in from temporary lodging in Yreka or Orleans, while others had returned to intact homes. Some, like the Hillmans, had managed to secure small trailers in town or at other nearby sites.
All of them had the same goal: find answers. When could they get help to clean up their homesites and rebuild? When would the fire be contained and the power turned back on? What help could they expect from federal or state emergency agencies?
And, from the tribe's standpoint, when would the various agencies involved in land management finally work with the Karuk tribal government to prevent future tragedies?
Karuk Chairman Russell “Buster” Attebury said meaningful consultation between the tribe and federal agencies hasn’t occurred. “They're not coming out (to Karuk territory),” he said. “You need to consult with people. You need to come in and talk to the people that live here. Nobody knows the area like the people who live there. And why would you want to not get that information?”
Attebury said the tribe has been waiting for a master stewardship program to enable fire lines to be built around Karuk communities for five years.
The chairman also disputed claims that the tribe opposes logging.
“We weren't opposed to logging,” Attebury said. “We were opposed to the way it was being done. There’s a way to get it done and not get rid of that economy. There is a sustainable economy here, and you all know that.”
The spotted owl wars of the 1990s, when environmentalists and loggers battled over the fate of old-growth forests, also left their mark not only on forests but on rural Northern California’s economy. When the logging industry largely dried up, so did jobs that are critical to keeping tribal and non-Native young people from having to move away from generational support systems and their cultures.
Tripp and Chook Chook Hillman agreed that logging is part of a sustainable forest stewardship program, to thin out overgrown forests. They say the spotted owl wars do not have to break out again, emphasizing that spotted owls wouldn’t be harmed by prescribed burns.
“There’s a place for spotted owls in our forest,” Chook Chook Hillman said.
He said some progressive activists don’t want any human management in the forests, while other people destroy the lands by clear cutting and other destructive practices. “We just want to be there and do what we're supposed to do.”
But tribal-driven programs like logging, burning and brushing won’t happen until the tribes get their voice at the table, he said. “They don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”
Tripp and other tribal citizens said another roadblock to fully implementing the agreements is the “revolving door” at the Forest Service, particularly the Happy Camp Ranger Station. McCovey said Forest Service staffers become district rangers in Happy Camp just for the pay raise and the bump to their retirement income.
“Every three years we get a new one,” she said.
Tripp said it takes at least two years for a ranger to get his or her bearings before they can become effective. But a year later, he said, often after spouses either leave town for a less remote residence or the ranger’s tour of duty is up, they depart, and the cycle restarts.
All of the tribal members and residents The Republic spoke with said the Forest Service was shutting locals out of available jobs and bringing in outside people to fill those positions.
Leeon Hillman, who with Erin owns Kingfisher Market in town, said Karuks have been trying to get their foot in the management door, only to encounter an adversarial attitude.
“Nobody wants to give up anything,” he said, “so nothing seems to get done.”
McCovey and Tripp both said many Forest Service officials either don’t understand or recognize that tribes have inherent subsistence rights and sovereignty over their own lands.
“One time when I was working for the Forest Service we were at a meeting,” McCovey said. “I had every right to be sitting at that table with the rest of the specialists.”
She said the group was discussing vegetation management programs for the Slater area and she mentioned the resources the program would provide for both tribal and non-Native community residents. "The team member looked at me and said, ‘Isn't it a conflict of interest for you to be here?’”
Tripp recounted when one Forest Service staffer observed a neighboring Yurok fisherman casting his net upon the Klamath, exercising his subsistence right.
“’I sure wish I could do that,’” Tripp said the staffer said.
“They’re failing not only Indian people but failing their mission,” Tripp said.
Tribal allies are equally frustrated
Jeremy Bailey of the Nature Conservancy directs the Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges program, known as TREX. He said tribal fire programs like Karuk Tribe’s WKRP and its neighbor's, the Yurok Tribe’s Cultural Fire Management Council, are designed to not only manage lands but create jobs for the area’s rural residents. Many non-Native agencies like local fire safe councils have also signed on as WRKP and TREX partners.
Like the tribes who used his template to create Indigenous-led fire training programs, Bailey is frustrated over agencies’ reluctance to partner with these Indigenous-led programs to address sick, fire-prone forests.
“It’s a 100-year-old problem if not more,” he said. “But I think we have discovered a solution — what’s happening in the Klamath Mountains with the Yurok and the Karuk.”
But he also acknowledged that the TREX programs have limited funding and practically zero support from the Forest Service to do the work. Bailey thinks the feds don’t trust volunteer fire workers.
“If you didn’t come from the federal firefighting system or if you didn't come from a well-known state agency that had similar qualifications, you don't matter and your qualifications don't matter,” he said. “When the agencies look at a man or a woman or a family that has been burning for generations, they don’t see that as traditional ecological knowledge.”
Forest management might change, or might not
A month after the fire hit, Happy Camp was still running on generators, said Earl Crosby of the Karuk Tribe’s natural resources department. Insurance claims are sure to be difficult, and many homeowners may not be able to purchase insurance again.
But it’s not just generators or insurance agents that’s on many tribal members’ minds.
“We lost a lot, but the community's lost more,” said Leeon Hillman, who had to roust some of his 11 employees out of bed the morning the fire tore through his neighborhood because their cellphones didn't sound the evacuation alarm.
“What are the folks that were here going to do? I talked to the neighbors last night that lived here. They have three kids, and they don’t want to go. The people that have been here forever don’t know anything else," he said. "Somewhere else they’re just another cog.”
Nearly a month after the fire roared up Indian Creek, Happy Camp’s power hadn’t yet been restored. Businesses like the Hillmans’ store and the tribal buildings operated with generators. The tribe purchased about 100 trailers for temporary homes for tribal members who lost their homes.
In the meantime, the Forest Service and the state of California signed an agreement establishing a long-term strategy to manage forests and rangelands, since the U.S. owns 58% of such lands. But tribes were mentioned only as stakeholders and land owners, although the agreement does call for consultation and to provide resources for tribes to do what they’re already doing: sustainable ecological forest management.
Through a spokesperson, the California Natural Resources Agency said tribes were identified as a critical stakeholder in the agreement, and that the state and the Forest Service committed to work with tribes in all areas of the agreement.
CalFire has a tribal council that advises the agency for partnerships on cultural burning and cultural resource protection. And the agency said it has awarded more than $20 million in grants to tribes in high-risk areas.
In an emailed statement, Kris Nelson, Klamath National Forest acting supervisor, said 2020 has been an unprecedented year with the COVID-19 pandemic and fires. She wrote that the Slater Fire that tore through Happy Camp was 87% contained and has burned 157,229 acres as of Nov. 10.
“We value our partnerships and shared stewardship of the land,” the statement said. “The issues raised by the Karuk Tribe are extremely complex.”
Nelson confirmed that the Forest Service is investigating the suspected cause of the Slater Fire as a live power line that high winds had downed near Slater Butte. She also acknowledged the staff turnover.
“Some important staff positions in the Forest Service routinely turn over and the Klamath National Forest is no exception,” she wrote. “We will continue to work closely with the Karuk Tribe moving forward.”
Tripp said events like the past summer’s fires may finally spur meaningful action.
“I think you’ve got to see it to believe it,” he said. “It unfortunately takes shock and awe like what we have right now where you can’t see the sun in San Francisco for days on end. Then people will listen.”
Bailey is more pessimistic about the pace of change in forest management policies. “I think it's going to take us 100 years,” he said. “It's going to take multiple generations of team members, dedicated, passionate people like you find in the Klamath Mountains and all over the world.”
McCovey is not waiting for anybody to change their policies. She’s already starting to replant her burned Indian Creek property. But she said she is leaving out conifers because they burn too fast. Instead, she is adding traditional trees like black and white oaks and tanoak to her parcel.
“Besides being more resistant to fire, the acorns are edible,” she said. Acorns once formed a major part of Native peoples' diets in California and the West, and are still gathered as a food source.
“We have to fix our village,” McCovey said. “And we have to start over. We have to start integrating prescribed burning and traditional ecological knowledge into our management of this area to help make it more fire resilient, more resistant.”
“We don't just do things for ourselves,” Chook Chook Hillman said. “We do it for the world. You know, we're all included in it.”
Debra Krol covers issues related to Indigenous communities in Arizona, the Southwest and the intermountain West. Reach the reporter at debra.krol@AZCentral.com or at 602-444-8490. Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol.
Coverage of Indigenous issues at the intersection of climate, culture and commerce is supported by the Catena Foundation and the Water Funder Initiative.