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For tribes, 'good fire' a key to restoring nature and people

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AP Photo/David Goldman
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Elizabeth Azzuz stands in prayer with a handmade torch of dried wormwood branches before leading a cultural training burn on the Yurok reservation in Weitchpec, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. Azzuz, who is Yurok, along with other native tribes in the U.S. West are making progress toward restoring their ancient practice of treating lands with fire, an act that could have meant jail a century ago. But state and federal agencies that long banned "cultural burns" are coming to terms with them and even collaborating as the wildfire crisis worsens.

Native tribes in the U.S. West are making progress toward restoring their ancient practice of treating lands with fire.

For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples set fire to clear forest floors of undergrowth. It supported foods such as acorns and hazel wood used in baskets.

But starting in the early 1900s, federal policy made such activities illegal. That disrupted the tribes’ hunter-gatherer lifestyle. And it built up fuels that feed wildfires.

In recent years, federal and state officials have formed partnerships with Northern California tribes to allow limited burning, despite some opposition from a jittery public.

Native leaders say their fires are carefully planned and well executed. They hope to burn larger areas in their historical territory.