Tribes used fire to shape California forests for millennia

Managers are increasingly turning to prescribed fire to address unhealthy forest conditions in California. But as researchers recently explored in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they are hardly the first. For thousands of years, the Karuk and Yurok tribes used fire to help shape the region’s forests, intentionally lighting fires to manage landscapes and ecosystem mosaics, enhance habitat, produce food and basketry materials, clear trails, reduce pests and support ceremonial practices.

In a recent study combining scientific data with Indigenous oral histories and ecological knowledge, researchers explored how these cultural practices affected the forests.

The study found that forest biomass in the Klamath Mountains used to be about half of what it is now, and that cultural burning played a significant role in maintaining forest structure and biodiversity. Even during the time period known as the Little Ice Age, when lightning-caused fires were likely fewer, data from the study suggests that burning in the region actually increased.

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Header Image: Smoke fills a valley in the Klamath Mountains, where fire suppression and logging have altered the historical forest composition. Researchers recently explored how Native tribes used fire to shape the landscape for thousands of years. Credit: Steven Bratman