After almost two years of community organizing on the remote, up-Klamath River reaches of the Yurok Reservation, a controlled cultural burn was held last week near Weitchpec — the first step in reintroducing traditional fire treatment that was practiced on the land by American Indians for centuries.
The first community-organized, officially sanctioned cultural burn on Yurok Tribal land took place April 30 — the last day before a statewide ban on burns.
A celebration to commemorate the event will be held Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. at the Libby Nix Community Center in Weitchpec.
In three years, the 5-acre hazel stick patch that was burned along Route 169 will provide the crucial materials necessary for basket weaving, a practice that has been endangered by a lack of weaving materials.
“You can’t tell someone how to weave a basket — you have to show them,” said Skip Lowry, a community organizer for the burn. Yurok elders have expressed the desire to pass on their basket-weaving expertise, Lowry said, but modern management of the forests have made it difficult. “If the materials are not present, that knowledge is going to be lost.”
The community desire to revive controlled burns was identified through the Weitchpec to Wotek Local Organizing Committee as a way to strengthen cultural practices while keeping the community safe from fires.
“If the elders that have passed on could see what we are doing for our people, for the preservation and continuance of our culture, I know they’d be proud and happy,” said Yurok elder Bertha Peters, an accomplished weaver and member of the WWLOC, in a press release. “I am really happy that this happened and we are going to have enough hazel materials for our community classes.”
Lowry, a Susanville Indian tribal member who lives in Weitchpec and is considered a Yurok descendant, said that weavers were an “instrumental” part of the committee’s success in achieving the burn.
“They were the soul behind this movement,” Lowry said.
The site chosen is one of the densest stands of hazel on the Yurok Reservation — perfect for a burn.
“Without fire, hazel stands turn into a dry, dense mess, prone to insect problems, and is impenetrable by large game and birds of prey,” said a Yurok press release. “Hazel is used in everything from baby baskets to eel baskets, which need to be made with strong material. Hazel nuts and milk are both important traditional foods, which contain an extraordinary amount of protein and plenty of essential vitamins and minerals. The fires rejuvenate grasses consumed by large mammals like deer and elk.”
National fire suppression policies implemented in the 1920s turned Indian controlled burns into something considered crime or arson, Lowry said.
“They really didn’t hardly understand fire and created this negative stigma that fire is bad or evil,” Lowry said.
Fuel reduction work conducted by Calfire relieves fire danger, but the burn piles used in that technique do not evenly distribute soil-regenerating ash or create the materials for basket weaving like Indian burning did, Lowry said.
Controlled burns for the health and growth of natural resources are even written into the preamble of the Yurok Tribe’s constitution.
Many fires in the Weitchpec and Wotek area are labeled as suspicious fires or arson fires when often they might be started by Indians attempting to heal what’s been lost, Lowry said.
Calfire responded to 10 small fires on Route 169, 10–14 miles downstream from Weitchpec, last Friday.
Lowry said that Calfire was very open to the idea of controlled burns, as it would rather have preventive burns than respond to wildfires. On the day of the burn, Calfire inmate crews stood by with hoses to hold the fire lines.
The actual burn was conducted by Yurok wildland firefighter Capt. Clyde Trimble Sr. and firefighters Mike Obie, Andrew Lamebear, Lawrence Tracy and Brodie Richardson.
Other groups involved in the partnership for this project were the Yurok Tribe, the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of The California Endowment, the California Conservation Corps (which cut hazel down before burning), and several community members.
“The community should be commended for the hard work, dedication and effort they put into making the cultural burn and long-term burn plan a reality,” said Yurok Chairman Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr. in a press release. “This is the first of many planned, prescribed fires to come. Controlled, cultural burns benefit the entire ecosystem.”