In September of 2020, along with the rest of the western United States, western Oregon experienced one of the worst fire events in history. As one of many fires that began over Labor Day Weekend, the Holiday Farm Fire grew to over 170,000 acres before it was contained, and destroyed hundreds of homes along the Mckenzie River. As one of the thousands of families forced to evacuate due to the threat of the Holiday Farm Fire, I never want to experience that level of anxiety again. Many living in western Oregon, myself included, are unaccustomed to dealing with wildfire threats in our usually wet rainforests. However, living in Lane County, one of the top timber-producing counties in Oregon, I’m aware that these sorts of events will only become more common as the once hazy impacts of climate change come into focus.
To learn more about climate change and wildfires from perspectives not typically represented in mainstream society, I recently attended “Climate Change, Fire and Indigenous Science”, an event hosted by the Museum of Natural and Cultural History. The talk was part of their Thursday Evening Talk series in partnership with the University of Oregon’s College of Arts and Sciences. The three panelists for the evening were Dr. Kari Marie Norgaard, professor of sociology and author of Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life, Ryan Reed, a Karuk Spring Salmon Ceremonial Priest, Hoopa Tribal member and Yurok descendant, and Joe Scott, Siletz Tribal member, fire practitioner, and Curriculum Director for the Traditional Ecological Inquiry Program. The panelists discussed the relationship between humans and fire, the benefits of reintroducing fire into the landscape, and the opportunities for blending traditional ecological knowledge with western science.
Dr. Kari Marie Norgaard began the evening by introducing her work on climate change denial. Dr. Norgaard noted the widespread apathy for climate change in our society is actually collective denial. As someone in the Eugene area, Dr. Norgaard was also personally impacted by the heavy smoke that choked the region for over a week, and she hoped that the fires would serve as a wake-up call for many. In addition to her work on climate change denial, Dr. Norgaard has worked with the Karuk tribe on the creation of the Karuk Climate Action plan, and restoring traditional fire regimes on tribal managed land is a key point in the plan. Contrary to mainstream western science, she explained how traditional ecological knowledge acknowledges humans as part of the ecosystem, rather than separate from or above it. Because of their place within the ecosystem, humans have the unique ability to use tools, such as fire and smoke, to maintain ecological integrity and stability. One of the uses of smoke that I was not previously familiar with was how through strategically placed fire, smoke has the ability to cool rivers during intense heat and potentially prevent thousands of fish deaths.
The next panelist was Ryan Reed, a Karuk Spring Salmon Ceremonial Priest and fire practitioner. In his community, fire is revered as medicine and the giver and taker of life, and not something to be feared. Reed recognized the wealth of knowledge that comes from living within intergenerational communities where traditional knowledge can be transferred from one generation to the next. He connected the mainstream practice of fire suppression to colonial violence, as many tribes have been forbidden to use fire practices, which are deeply embedded in their cultures. Reed stressed the importance of fire and fire practice to the mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing of the tribal community. Because healthy ecosystems ensure the availability of traditional food sources, the use of fire in the maintenance of those ecosystems is critical.
The final panelist, Joe Scott, also highlighted the importance of fire practices to tribal sovereignty, with a primary focus on fire’s role in restoring traditional food systems within historic oak savannah ecosystems that are characteristic of the Willamette valley. As someone who has lived in the Willamette Valley much of my life, I am familiar with the stunning fields of blue camas lilies that bloom in late Spring. Tribes in the Willamette Valley, like the Kalapuyans, historically relied on camas bulbs as a food staple. Fire plays an important role in ensuring adequate camas harvests. Annual fires reduced thatch buildup and kept the valley clear from encroaching Douglas firs. Similar to Reed, Scott emphasized the importance of fire not only in ecosystem management but also its role in daily life.
A theme that came up during the Q&A portion of the event was how to implement traditional fire practices into mainstream forest management. Scott referred to framing the restoration of fire practice as critical to tribal food sovereignty rather than purely for fuel reduction, which again emphasizes humans’ role within an ecosystem. He also suggested more land trusts or partnerships between tribal members and landowners, watershed councils, and water and soil conservation districts, emphasizing the need to recognize them as tribal led endeavors. Dr. Norgaard’s suggestions focused on disrupting the denial of indigenous knowledge in society, as well as the day-to-day erasure of human involvement within ecosystems and indigenous knowledge in western science. Ryan Reed ended by acknowledging that restoration is a beneficial process for both the ecosystem and society, as there is no distinction between humans and the environment.
While I had previously understood the practical use of fire as a way to control fuel buildup, I had not heard of some of the other uses of fire for ecosystem maintenance, such as smoke used as a tool to strategically cool rivers and prevent fish deaths. In addition to forest management, the panelists stressed the centrality of fire within tribal cultures, as it is connected to ceremonial and cultural traditions, as well as food sovereignty. Along with Dr. Norgaard, I also hope the Holiday Farm Fire and other catastrophic wildfires serve as a wake-up call to disrupt the widespread denial of climate change and an invitation to look for partnerships and opportunities to blend traditional ecological knowledge and western science for the benefit of people and the planet.