Historic Fire Regimes

The exceptional biological diversity of the mid-Klamath River region of northern California has emerged in conjunction with sophisticated Karuk land management practices, including the regulation of the forest and fisheries through ceremony and the use of fire. Over three quarters of Karuk traditional food and cultural use species are enhanced by fire. Fire is also central to cultural and spiritual practices. Land management techniques since the 1900s have emphasized fire suppression and the “exclusion” of wildfire from the landscape. Over the past several decades a combination of factors that likely include accumulation of biomass and fuels as a result of fire suppression, decreasing fire intervals, increasing scale and cost of fires (Miller et al., 2012), Native cultural resurgence (Nagel, 1997) and the presence of modern Indian nations as active players in natural resource management (Wilkinson, 2005), and the increased fire intensity resulting from climate change have converged to create contentious politics concerning fire management. Conflict over fire policy has produced significant media attention, generated textbooks, conferences and entire college-level courses.

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Karuk management principles have been central to the evolution of the flora and fauna of the mid-Klamath ecosystem (Andersen 2005, Lake et al 2010, Skinner et al 2006). Taken together climate change and past management activities have created landscape conditions that could be completely devastating should a wildfire event occur. These conditions have great potential to reset much of the aboriginal landscapes to an early serial condition that has a tendency to burn at high severity over and over again. Along with this potential is the loss of species that may cause a domino effect through the entire ecosystem.

[Watch the Movie: Catching Fire: Prescribed Burning in Northern California to learn more about fire and climate change on the Klamath River]

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