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Though his job quite literally has him putting out fires, you wouldn’t call Rick O’Rourke a firefighter, at least not in the traditional sense. In fact, he’s more of a fire starter — and someone who finds great joy in it, too. 

He always offers a prayer before painting the ground with gasoline from his drip torch. And as he guides a wall of low flames slowly through the forest, he laughs with his colleagues, confident in the knowledge that he is destined to heal the earth with fire.

O’Rourke is a member of the Yurok Tribe in Northern California and an expert in the Indigenous practice of prescribed burns: small, managed fires ignited to clear the underbrush that could spark larger, more destructive blazes. This ancient custom has become a pillar of California’s $1.2 billion fire-mitigation strategy, which has been drastically scaled up to prepare for what is expected to be a devastating season. Two decades of heavy drought have left 73 percent of the Golden State tinder-dry, making it highly likely that 2021’s wildfire tally will dwarf last year’s, when a record 9,917 blazes torched 4.2 million acres.

Although the idea of fighting... Read more

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