As California battles its worst drought in 1,000 years — and after massive wildfires swept across the state for two consecutive summers — a number of tribe members, scientists and U.S. Forest Service officials are working to revive traditional Native American land management practices that some believe could help contain the blazes and lessen effects of the drought.
Native Americans in California had long tended the land in ways that preserved watersheds to ease droughts and created barriers to out-of-control fires, said Rick Flores, steward of the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program at the University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum.
Flores is leading the program in conjunction with California’s Amah Mutsun tribe to revive the knowledge of those cultural practices. One of the activities they have carried out is controlled burning in an effort to preserve certain useful plants and prevent larger fires.
The U.S. Forest Service uses prescribed burns in areas of high risk for wildfire, usually during the summer and not every year. But that practice has declined because of issues with staffing, budgets, liability and new development, a recent study showed.
Native Americans in northern California traditionally used a different approach to controlled burning, carrying it out every year in the late fall and early winter while the ground was damp and cold, experts said.