Wildfires are more intense than ever. In the past
three years alone, hundreds of people lost their homes and many lost
their lives due to massive blazes. There are multiple reasons why fires
are getting worse, but Laurel James, Yakama Nation, believes the fire
suppression policy of the U.S. Forest Service is partly to blame.
Now the program manager for her tribe’s Wildlife, Vegetation, and
Range Management Program, James is also an Interdisicplinary PhD
candidate in both the School of Environmental & Forest Sciences and
the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington. She
explains that the Yakama Nation is one of many western tribes that
essentially fought fire with fire for thousands of years. James
remembers how as people moved down from the hills when the first snow
came, they set fires behind them — a practice that helps support future
growth of valuable plants.
Knowledge of how fire renews the land has been passed down, but James
says that government fire policies in the West were centered on
suppression, not renewal. She attributes that policy to a catastrophic
1910 fire that burned 3 million acres in Idaho, Washington, and British
Columbia. “Early fire policies of suppression changed the landscape for
all tribes,” says James, explaining that people who managed tribal lands
in those days were non-Natives with no knowledge of Indigenous culture.
Along with the recent upsurge in the severity of fires, James has
noticed a change in the ability of the Yakama Nation, for one, to fight
them. In the early 1990s, James recalls that the tribe had 20
eight-person fire crews. Today that number has dwindled, and fewer
people are signing up.
Yakama Nation’s fire manager, Don Jones, agrees that resources are
thin at a time when tribes are facing conflagrations. “I’ve seen a
steady decrease in funds for fire preparedness,” says Jones. Losing both
resources and experienced firefighters creates challenges.
But the greater challenge long term may be climate change. To counter
it, Jones uses controlled burning, which he says is just one way to
deal with more intense fires. “You really can’t burn the number of acres
you need to burn to counter what climate change is throwing at us,”
Yakama Nation is only one of many tribes enlisting traditional
knowledge to battle large fires and bring back cultural resources.
Vernon Stearns, fuels manager for the Spokane Tribe in eastern
Washington since 2003, spoke with elders about the tribe’s traditional
use of fire to clear dead brush to prevent large wildfires and enhance
the natural habitat. “Our foresters see the importance and the benefits
that can produce,” he says, explaining that in 2015–2016 almost half the
tribal lands burned in two large fires, prompting a review of land
managment. “Although there were high-severity impacts, we did observe
some low-severity impacts in areas we previously managed, especially
where we used prescribed fire.
A hundred miles or so east, in the Montana Rockies, lies the Flathead
Indian Reservation, where for thousands of years the Confederated
Salish Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) set fires to shape the land, plants, and
animals. In the documentary Fire on the Land, tribal elders
describe how fire was part of a traditional way of life and what happens
culturally when fires aren’t allowed to burn.
Fast-forward to today and fire managers are revitalizing
controlled-burning techniques. Ron Swaney, Flathead Reservation fuels
manager, says that burning has brought back traditional plants like
camas, an important food for the tribe. There were “camas galore!” he
says, after fire managers did a fuels treatment that opened the area and
The Salish Kootenai have also seen a change in the intensity and
magnitude of fires. “From 1980 until 2000, there were eight large fires.
From 2000 until 2020, we’ve had 38 large fires,” Swaney says. He
believes that hot summers make these large fires more likely while
increasing the danger of controlled burning. “The more we get away from
fire regimens, the more fuel and debris accumulate to make more dramatic
fires,” Swaney says. Adds James, “It’s hard to put fire back on the
land when it’s not happened in a long time.”
The Bureau of Indian Affairs supports CSKT efforts to manage their
land by using fires. Jim Durglo, fire technical specialist for the
Intertribal Timber Council, says that “even the local government
supports our activities. They see the benefit of what we’re doing.”
That support is critical if tribes are to avoid catastrophic fires in
the future. But the ability to burn is not guaranteed. James is worried
that this year’s mild winter will affect the landscape in the spring
and fall months — the best time to burn — and she worries about future
challenges from the changing climate. “It’s crazy,” she says, “how much
change we are seeing in Mother Nature.”
As a member of the U.S. Forest Service, Laurel James (inset) was
part of the elite crew of hotshots trained to fight wildfires; above,
former members of the Entiat Hotshots when James was part of that team.
COURTESY OF LAUREL JAMES (2)
Native Women Hotshots Step Up
Laurel James remembers her first experience working
on a crew of hotshots — elite firefighters trained to battle intense
wildfires. It was the summer of 1990 and she was just a few months into
her job away from her tribe, the Yakama Nation. She and her fellow
firefighters were sent to Arizona to help fight the Dude Fire, one of
the most tragic in the history of the U.S. Forest Service.
The crew had started hiking back to dig lines when they were told to
return to camp — six people on the prison inmate crew had lost their
lives fighting the fire. She’d been on fires before, but this was a
visceral experience. “That was a real moment for me,” James says. “I
remember thinking, ‘this is what we do.’”
And more women are doing it. Still, women who fight wildland fires
are rare — just 11 percent of Forest Service wildfire jobs are held by
women, and the figure is lower in other firefighting agencies like the
Bureau of Indian Affairs and Fish and Wildlife Service, where it’s
closer to 6 percent.
Women hotshots are rarer still, but that is slowly changing. The BIA
has been sponsoring Native hotshot crews since 1982, and currently funds
seven, all of which are equal opportunity crews. As wildfires increase,
so will the demand for both skilled men and women who have the
knowledge to fight them.