Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

San Francisco California – Overgrown forests and increasing destructive wildfires is the legacy of more than a century of fire-suppression policies in California. Historically, state laws have held people liable for damages if they started a fire that burned out of control.

But a new California law will remove the liability risk for private citizens and indigenous peoples who set out managed burns, which are low-intensity fires that have been proven to prevent catastrophic fires. The law points to a paradigm shift in the United States, where in the pre-settler era, indigenous peoples regularly set small fires to care for the landscape.

However, U.S. federal policy considered all fires to be dangerous and made it a priority to put them out so forests could become dense, with more fuel for wildfires. Today, climate change is drying up those forests and contributing to longer veldfire seasons.

California’s Yosemite National Park is now a net carbon emitter due to more intense fires and poor forest management, according to a recent UN report.

In recent years, states have recognized the benefits of prescribed burns, but practice needs to scale up significantly to bring forests back into balance. California’s new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, paves the way for private citizens and indigenous peoples across the state to wave so-called “good fires.”

California has seen several major wildfires this year as climate change causes a longer wildfire season [File: Robert Galbraith/Reuters]

Cultural burns

In a 1918 letter, a district guard at Klamath National Forest wrote to his supervisor that the U.S. Forest Service’s most important duty was to keep fires to a minimum, but “apostate whites and Indians” set fires “for pure curse.” and do not care. whether the fires harmed others.

He suggested the solution was “to kill them, every time you catch one sneaking around like a coyote in the brush, take a shot at him”. He also suggested hiring a female missionary who had gained “the trust” of indigenous peoples to persuade them to adopt settler theories about fire.

Margo Robbins, a member of the Yurok tribe in northern California and executive director of the Cultural Fire Management Council, shared the letter with Al Jazeera to show how dramatically forest policy has changed over the past century. Her community faces a high fire risk due to a heavy fuel load in their region, but liability was an obstacle to prescribed burns, as “there is no 100 percent guarantee that [the fire] go stay where you want, ”said Robbins.

Prescribed burns in California require permission from the landowner, and although the new law removes liability for those who perform such burns if a basic set of conditions is met, anyone whose conduct constitutes gross negligence will still be held accountable. The law covers “cultural burns” and “cultural fire practitioners”, which affirms the rights of indigenous peoples to use fire.

“[The law] recognizes the value of this indigenous knowledge and this experience of indigenous people with fire, so much so that they said we are on an equal footing with California-certified fire bosses, ”Robbins said. “It’s big, because it opens the door for us to start treating our land with fire again without being afraid to go to jail.”

Widespread support

This winter, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire advisor at the University of California Cooperative Extension and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Board, said she plans to start “good fires” near the city of Eureka, using the same precautions she has always taken. did. consequence.

“[The law] does not change the way we work; it just makes us more comfortable, ”she told Al Jazeera.

Quinn-Davidson is part of a coalition of prescribed burn advocates who have called for the new California law. A politically diverse group of supporters supported the legislation, including conservative farmers, indigenous groups and scientists, she said.

Robbins said the authors of the law not only asked for “signable” input from her group, but “went back to the drawing board” after hearing indigenous guidance.

California has also authorized $ 20 million in funding for a pilot fund to pay damages if a prescribed fire gets out of control. The next step is for California and other states to increase the number of people trained to prepare prescribed burns, Quinn-Davidson said, noting that “the workforce we currently have is a fraction of what we need. “.

Critical turning point

California is not the first state to change its prescribed fire liability laws; in 1990, Florida was the first to implement a “gross negligence” standard, less stringent than the most commonly used “simple negligence” standard. A number of other states, including Nevada, Georgia and Michigan, followed suit.

Oregon is also reconsidering its fire liability laws, as private citizens who want to set up prescribed burns face the same liability risks. “Many organizations and private landowners find it impossible to provide prescribed fire insurance coverage,” Amelia Porterfield, a senior policy adviser at the Nature Conservancy in Oregon, told Al Jazeera.

This year, the state passed two laws, one ordering state agencies to complete a study by July 2022 on the liability and insurance barriers that prevent prescribed burns from getting bigger, and another to help train more prescribed burners .

Robbins hopes that one day indigenous peoples across the United States will assert their sovereign right to use fire without needing anyone’s permission. Her vision is “that we can burn in the right place, at the right time, for the right reasons”.

“As tribal people, we know what is best for our country,” she said. “We can make our own decisions about the rules and regulations to use in terms of using fire as a land management tool and in ceremonies.”

Robbins added that all private landowners should be able to set up their own “good fire” while gaining better access to training opportunities: “We are at a critical turning point, and we are turning in a good direction.”

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