For tribes, ‘good fire’ a key to restoring nature and people
By JOHN FLESHER
WEITCHPEC, Calif. (AP) — Elizabeth Azzuz stood in prayer on a Northern California mountainside, arms outstretched, grasping a handmade torch of dried wormwood branches, the fuel her Native American ancestors used for generations to burn underbrush in thick forest.
“Guide our hands as we bring fire back to the land,” she intoned before crouching and igniting dead leaves and needles carpeting the ground.
Others joined her. And soon dancing flames and pungent smoke rose from the slope high above the distant Klamath River.
Over several days in early October, about 80 acres (32.4 hectares) on the Yurok reservation would be set aflame. The burning was monitored by crews wearing protective helmets and clothing — firefighting gear and water trucks ready. They were part of a program that teaches Yurok and other tribes the ancient skills of treating land with fire.
Such an act could have meant jail a century ago. But state and federal agencies that long banned “cultural burns” in the U.S. West are coming to terms with them — and even collaborating — as the wildfire crisis worsens.