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 fire with fire may seem counterintuitive, controlled burns — coupled with forest management tactics like thinning and grazing to remove excess vegetation — can reduce the size and intensity of fires by up to 76 percent. But state and federal officials haven’t always supported the practice. When a series of deadly fires erupted across the country in 1910, the U.S. Forest Service focused on total suppression, a policy that discouraged even small controlled burns and filled the nation’s woodlands and wilderness with tinder. The agency reversed course in the 1970s after research proved that fire plays a vital role in forest ecology. But decades of stamping out beneficial burns curtailed tribes’ ability to clear dead trees and excess vegetation, kill invasive species, and create space for new growth. O’Rourke says this misguided strategy altered the landscape his tribe has been stewarding for millenia, creating a dense monoculture of trees that could erupt with the smallest spark.
O’Rourke is the fire coordinator for the Cultural Fire Management Council, a Yurok-led organization that aims to revive prescribed burns. The organization, cofounded by Margo Robbins, O’Rourke’s aunt, works with The Nature Conservancy to teach firefighters around the world how to use flames to their advantage. The prevalence of their Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) classes, which have trained roughly 3,600 people since 2008, and other programs shows there is growing support for controlled burns. O’Rourke says the practice has been bolstered by catastrophic wildfires in Australia and the Western U.S. To cite one example, California has used prescribed burns on more than 50,000 acres so far this year.
To O’Rourke, this newfound acceptance feels liberating. He and other members of the tribe consider fire a spiritual and cultural necessity. The ashes promote the growth of new plants, which provide food and medicine and attract animals integral to Yurok meals and ceremonies. Women in the tribe weave baskets from hazel stems, which only emerge from burned bushes. O’Rourke hopes to pass this essential custom on to others, and show people how fire can create life and restore ecosystems. Fix talked to him about why he’s spreading the gospel of controlled burns, and where fire management should go from here. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. How has the prevalence and acceptance of prescribed burns evolved over time?
A. We’ve been doing this for eight years with the Cultural Fire Management Council. When we started, it was pretty difficult to put fire on the ground aggressively because we had agencies keeping an eye on us. They were there to catch it when we lost it, but we never lost it. And then [the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection] upped its engagement. Once we got fire on the ground, they helped manage it, which means that they can come in and put fire on the ground also. We help them with that because a lot of them have never even held a torch before.
I’ve been working around Orleans, a neighboring community that’s doing TREX. We did some fire up there, and it actually saved the town the following year, when a fire came through. It hit the units that we treated, slowed down and got to the ground where [firefighters] could get around it and stop it from threatening the town. Giving [those residents] peace of mind was great.
Where we’re from, the whole community is supporting us and helping create a safer, manicured landscape. We are thinning out firs and trying to get back to an oak savanna, with grasslands and shrubs and food plants and medicine plants. There’s been prescribed fire going on all over the place. It’s a shame it took the tragedy [of the 2020 wildfires] to really kick it into gear.
Q. What are the ecological benefits of prescribed fire?
A. Our agreement with our Creator is to tend to our land, and he brought us fire to do it. Once I put fire down, that’s like a part of me on the ground. Those lessons have been handed down for thousands and thousands of years and they’re still strong. This place was beautiful until 150 years ago when they stopped us from burning. I remember prairies used to be out there. Now it’s all conifers, due to a lack of fire and the removal of species like porcupines. Small, first sprouts were one of their staples, and when porcupines were poisoned and eradicated, that helped the saplings take a foothold. Now it’s a tinderbox out there. It’s hard work, getting it into a state where we can put fire down.
I think that the earth has a memory and it knows [fire]. It’s like bringing two friends together. It’s magical. Fire is earth medicine, and as we put it down on the ground and bring prayer with it, it helps with our food plants and our hoofed animals, carnivores, birds and reptiles, our water system. We’re trying to create life, not take life, [except for] invasive species.
Q. Your organization is called Cultural Fire Management Council. Where does the “cultural” part fit in?
A. Our hazel is one of our most valuable cultural resources. If we didn’t have our baskets, we wouldn’t be able to survive out here; we keep our food, medicine, regalia, and babies in them. My Auntie Margo came to this understanding that there weren’t any places to pick sticks anymore because there weren’t any fires. And so she started on a quest to get sticks back on the mountain for the ladies, and it evolved into what we’re doing now. [We burn to get] the medicine plants and [deer] hides and regalia; [to attract] the woodpeckers and all our prayer animals; and [to bring] balance in our world. When our world’s out of balance, our people are going to be out of balance.
Some places have never given up their right to use fire — like Florida. The Seminoles have been using fire forever. The knowledge is still there. When we started doing this, we prayed for help and help came in all different forms. And it wasn’t just Natives, it was amazing people from around the world. It’s just this big group of people, they’re just happy as heck to march around and work their asses off and to smile and laugh all day.
The accessibility for our elders and next generations to go in and pick sticks and learn their culture is there. [Since] I started working on this, I’ve heard a lot of our elders talk about taking their young girls and burning that place off, so they can start picking [hazel] again. And maybe [those girls] will remember some of those stories and pass those on to next generations.
Q. Besides training, what do you think needs to be done to — pardon the phrasing — spread prescribed fire?
A. [We need] education and involvement of the communities that are surrounded by these hazards. It’s something that we’re going to have to take charge of because we’re going to get fire and we’re going to get smoke, but on whose terms are we going to get this fire and smoke?
We need to bring fire back into our culture and stop villainizing it. Used in the right context, fire can change the landscape into something beautiful. Flowers are coming out in the units that we just burned. Yurok, Hoopa, and Karuk have come together this year for the first time to learn together as three tribes. We’re creating trust between each other and our neighbors and communities. It’s essential for us to do that so that we can live well.