Fire Returned: Making cultural fire history in Chico
On a quiet afternoon in March, members of the Mechoopda Tribe set fire in the city limits of Chico for the first time in more than a century.
The cultural burn was conducted to benefit the environment and to reinvigorate cultural resources — like deergrass that’s used for basket weaving.
Ali Meders-Knight, master Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) practitioner for the tribe, led the burn and spoke with NSPR’s Sarah Bohannon while it was taking place.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
On how often materials are gathered for basket weaving
Well, we do different seasons for different gatherings. So willow is almost two times a year. Then we have sedge, and now we have deer grass out here, and redbuds. So those are the four main basket materials that we propagate out here or manage or tend for. I’m a basket weaver, but there’s plenty of other people that come through Chico that need materials. So this is a really good opportunity to make a public park accessible to basket weavers that have good straight material, real healthy good stuff they can use. And just want to invite any basket weaver who's cruising through Chico who needs the material to come check it out, and please you're welcome to have some, or have as much as you need.
On whether a cultural burn had been done at the site before
No, this is a Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) demonstration park. So we've done pretty much everything here but burning. This is like the full circle of demonstration and management. So we have the cranes above us who love fire who are watching us — I think the birds are really excited today — and the crows were here earlier talking to us. So I think not only the humans are excited to see the change, the paradigm shift that happened here. I've been told plenty of times, I would never be able to do any burning out here because of the Camp Fire. Which is almost the reason why you should have burning out here is because this is fire adapted plants. We can make a really beautiful fire buffer with this kind of management for the whole community. And so we're at the point now that we have the city out here watching us and being really delighted with the process. And we're calling these micro burns because they make people feel better. If they don't want to say cultural burns we’ll say make micro burns because they're so small.
On other places in Chico that Meders-Knight says would benefit from cultural burning
There was plenty of people that said there was no way that we would be able to do cultural burning because of the fear of fire. And people were really scared that if they saw smoke in a community that there would be trauma and maybe [people] triggered with their past post-traumatic stress from wildfires and disasters.— Ali Meders-Knight, Master Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) Practitioner for the Mechoopda Tribe
There’s areas even on Chico State where we have sedge on campus, and there's other places in the park that could do some cultural burning — which are probably far more efficient than some of the prescribed burnings that they've been doing. But we'll see. I think it just takes a whole community, like a village, to tend the land just like it does to raise children.
There was plenty of people that said there was no way that we would be able to do cultural burning because of the fear of fire. And people were really scared that if they saw smoke in a community that there would be trauma and maybe [people] triggered with their past post-traumatic stress from wildfires and disasters.
It’s not really healthy strategy to do fire suppression, and then have a lot of revegetation that's done with furs and other highly flammable timber material. We're really lucky that we're getting these skills on the table now because when we do restoration, we want fire adaptive plants that are native, that we can actually practice these types of burnings without putting people in jeopardy or without scorching the land. So I think that's the goal is to show the health and the benefits of fire and to kind of appease people that there is good fire.
On California’s goal to treat one million acres per year
If I told you there was 33 million acres of forest in California — I think alone in Butte County we have 180,000 acres — but if the governor says we're going to do prescribed burning and we're going to go to a million acres a year, [it] sounds like a big number. But if you have 33 million acres, it will take you 33 years, and a fire revisits every nine years. So there's a lot of strategies that are not working right now. One of them is reforesting with nonnative trees — just for timber industries, just for their benefit. And using carbon sequestration, as you know, saying we won't tend to this forest, we won't do anything to it to sequester carbon. But what that also does is that once it becomes a volatile fuel, and a forest fire, then you lose all your carbon credits. It goes up in smoke.
We have to think, work smarter not harder. And a lot of cases, that's what this is, working smarter, not harder with fire. Not working really hard to rebuild with nonnative plants, and then using all this effort for fire suppression when we can gently put fire on and create fire breaks in areas that are adapted to fire. Trees like Blue Oak, riparian trees like White Alder. All of them are fire adapted and work well. I don't know one native plant that's not fire adapted, and has been adapted for thousands of years. And so it's gonna take thousands of years for these naturalized plants and plants that are being introduced here to learn fire. But without us putting down fire they’re not going to be adapted either. So we have to work smarter. We’re supposed to benefit the land as humans.
On why Meders-Knight says land management should be Indigenous led
Tribes are federal entities. They are sovereign nations. And then we also have territory and we’re place based. So it really makes sense that you have a workforce that's place based where you have to have regimens of work done that you do it in house with people that have never left for thousands of years and have a good grasp of the area. In my mind it's just about having communities on the ground that stay on the ground and incorporating them in workforce development. Incorporating tribally led land management because we don't go anywhere. We haven’t. They really tried to take us out. It's a great example, we don't go anywhere. And it’s also healing for us after all of the California policies that all the way up into the ‘70s that outlawed all of our cultural practices — even to dancing. This is a great tremendous step of letting us, not only just practice cultural prayers and things like that that were illegal, but to actually do the land tending itself, which was done during colonization, which took our food sources, it took our medicine. So it's basically blowing up our hospitals, blowing up our schools, and blowing up all of our grocery stores. So this is a way of kind of taking that back and reestablishing, I wouldn't say wild food forests, but I would say, accessible food forests and public lands.
It’s not really healthy strategy to do fire suppression, and then have a lot of revegetation that's done with furs and other highly flammable timber material. We're really lucky that we're getting these skills on the table now because when we do restoration, we want fire adaptive plants that are native, that we can actually practice these types of burnings without putting people in jeopardy or without scorching the land.— Ali Meders-Knight, Master Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) Practitioner for the Mechoopda Tribe
On the significance of the day’s cultural burn at Verbena Fields
This is liberating. This is true freedom. Especially since we see so much fire suppression. It's just liberating to see our practices respected and allowed to do it. And it's just pure freedom. And I'm really grateful to be alive today and be out here because it's historical today, it’s a great piece of history being made. And then for it to be a community affair, and a cultural burn at that, so we're not all geared up.
On what Meders-Knight hopes the community feels in the future when they see a Mechoopda Tribe led burn
That we're doing good. That the health of the land is good. And that the plants are happy and that we're doing it in the right way. It's hard to just tell people to trust you just on its face value. So these small projects allow us to build the trust with the community. And so I hope for one day when they see the smoke, and they see our crews out doing something, that they really understand that it's a benefit to the ecosystem and that the native plants here that have been here for longer than humans, have been adapted to this type of behavior from us burning and cleaning this way. So I hope everybody just realizes that you are in Indian country and we are working together. And this isn't acculturation of knowledge. And so it's really good for all of us to share this experience and do it over and over again, and feel comfortable in getting certified and being with each other.
This story is part of NSPR’s Fire Returned series on cultural and prescribed burning in Butte County and has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.