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Podcasts The Big Burn: How To Survive the Age of Wildfires
The Big Burn: The Impediments
The Big Burn text above hills with homes on fire, four palm trees in the middle ground, and a person watching from afar in the foreground
(Dan Carino
/
LAist)
Episode 5
38:17
The Big Burn: The Impediments
We know prescribed burning is a major solution…so why aren’t we doing more of it? Preppi is giving a free emergency kit with any purchase over $100. Go to preppi.com/thebigburn for more information. This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp. Give online therapy a try at betterhelp.com/bigburn and get on your way to being your best self.

Jacob Margolis  00:00

It's July of 2021 in the forests of Northern California, when a tree comes into contact with an electrical line belonging to PG & E and kicks out some sparks.

News Anchor  00:11

[audio clip] Now with some breaking news on the Dixie Fire, which this evening engulfed much of the Plumas County town of Greenville. [music in] This is video just in to the KTV newsroom within the last hour, showing homes and businesses... [fade out]

Jacob Margolis  00:22

Day after day, the Dixie Fire feeds off bone dry shrubs, grasses and trees, tearing across the traditional homelands of the Maidu, getting so big that it generates a pyrocumulonimbus cloud, a gigantic, towering monster stretching some 30,000 feet in the air, creating its own lightning.

News Anchor  00:39

[audio clip] After swelling 110 square miles in a single day, California's Dixie Fire is now the largest anywhere in the country.

Jacob Margolis  00:46

Burning nearly a million acres.

Dixie Fire Victim  00:49

[audio clip] Everything that I own is now ashes or twisted metal.

Jacob Margolis  00:52

Destroying more than 1300 structures.

News Reporter  00:55

[audio clip] [footsteps] It looks like this for blocks. Homes and buildings that have withstood the test of time for over 100 years, decimated. [fade out]

Jacob Margolis  01:01

Nearly wiping the town of Greenville off the map.

Dixie Fire Victim  01:04

[audio clip] Our town's going, going, gone. [music out]

Jacob Margolis  01:14

Strangely enough though, just a few miles from town, in the middle of a forest turned to ash, there's a bunch of green. Trees still very much alive, surrounding a house, still very much standing. And out front, there's a guy staring at it.

Jeff Greef  01:34

Well, [laughs] I think I was beyond surprised. I was just in relief.

Jacob Margolis  01:38

Just days before, firefighters had warned Jeff Greef that they wouldn't be able to save his house from the fire. So, he had left not knowing what would happen to it. Yet there the house stood. But to Jeff, when he thought about it, it actually made sense.

Jeff Greef  01:56

[music in] My place was an island of green because I had done the thinning work and the under burning that uh, cleans up the, the duff on the forest floor and ruh- reduces the amount of fuel that's there.

Jacob Margolis  02:12

Just five months earlier, Jeff had hosted a TREX event on the property. If you remember from the last episode, I spent a few days observing a TREX event, a prescribed fire training exchange. Well, they did a bunch of prescribed burns all around his home to clear out the fuel that had been building up. So when the fire arrived,

Jeff Greef  02:30

As it passed by my house and around my house, it caused the fire to be a very low intensity, whereas elsewhere, where there had not been prescribed fire, the fire was a very high intensity because of the ground fuels.

Jacob Margolis  02:45

While a huge, high severity wall of flames destroyed the forests around his property, when it got to the areas they'd treated, it laid down. And indeed, firefighters hadn't been there to defend it.

Jeff Greef  02:58

Shortly after the fire, one of the uh, Cal Fire chiefs left his card in my door, and he wrote on the back of it, all of your hard work paid off, which uh, was very gratifying to get.

Jacob Margolis  03:14

So, is it accurate to say that your property was saved by prescribed burning?

Jeff Greef  03:19

Absolutely, yes. [music out]

Jacob Margolis  03:25

Like we talked about in previous episodes, good fire on the landscape, especially in forested areas, can help make forests more resilient to the mega fires we're seeing, help make them more resilient to climate change, can help protect homes and lives. [music in] It's clear prescribed burning is an amazing tool. It's widely recognized as critical to our future. Estimates say that there are as many as 30 million acres of California that could benefit from good fire and landscape management. And we've got this goal in the state- that we want to burn 400,000 acres a year by 2025.

Governor Gavin Newsom  04:02

[audio clip] When I sign this bill today, uh, we'll be advancing the cause of more prescribed burns in this state, more home hardening... [fade out]

Jacob Margolis  04:10

In 2021 though? We burned just around 100,000 acres. Even the Governor's own wildfire task force says we need to burn more. So why, even though we know it's the answer, are we not burning the way we need to?

Lenya Quinn-Davidson  04:31

One of the most experienced burn bosses in California, hands down, and he just got certified yesterday- [laughs] a year and a half later...

Bill Tripp  04:40

We said don't start on, along our sacred ceremonial trails. Why even stay involved in a conversation with someone like that? It's uh, just seems futile to me.

Frank Lake  04:51

We often talk about wildfire and climate change like it's an act of God. No! Acknowledge the part that you have in contributing through fire exclusion and fire suppression, the removal of Native people...

Jacob Margolis  05:06

This is The Big Burn. I'm Jacob Margolis. [music out]

Jacob Margolis  05:22

There's this whole humongous book long list of bureaucratic and other cultural reasons we're not burning the way we need to in the western US. But for this episode, we're going to zoom in on what's getting in the way of doing more prescribed burns in California. And I want to start by answering a really basic question, which is- who is responsible for burning? Well, for a little more than half of the state, it's the feds, national parks, national forests, those sorts of places. They have their own rules and politics going on there. But for the other half, which includes state and private land, the main big dog agency that controls most things fire, including who burns, is Cal Fire. Cal Fire is a 3.7 billion dollar plus fire suppression machine built up over 80 years, which as of 2010, didn't even have prescribed burning on its radar. And that's according to the guy who used to run it.

Ken Pimlott  06:14

Ken Pimlott, retired chief of Cal Fire.

Jacob Margolis  06:17

Was that, uh, did you enjoy, or did you enjoy your time as the chief?

Ken Pimlott  06:21

Yeah, I mean, it had its challenges, of course, but I, I enjoyed my entire 30 plus year career with Cal Fire. Last eight years as the chief were- it was certainly eye opening.

Jacob Margolis  06:31

Ken Pimlott was in charge of Cal Fire from 2010 until 2018, the beginning of the most destructive decade on record in California wildfire history, what we've been calling the new normal. And Ken has been there on the ground in one way or another as Cal Fire faced all sorts of changes. Back in episode three, we talked about how in the 1960s, agencies began to realize that fire suppression in our forests isn't always the answer. So Ken says, Cal Fire started to make some changes and by the 1980s, it had even developed a small prescribed burn program.

Ken Pimlott  07:06

We were at that time burning probably 50 to 60 thousand acres a year early in the program. Over the years, that program waned.

Jacob Margolis  07:15

[music in] He says some of it was resource issues. And when there's limited money to spend, it's often easier to justify spending it on fire suppression.

Ken Pimlott  07:29

Everybody understands firefighters responding to fires, protecting people, the emergencies. We see it on TV. It's bread and butter. It's protecting people. That's what people can get behind. And when there's a, when budget increases occur, they occur because Cal Fire and others are able to articulate what the needs are to protect the public.

Jacob Margolis  07:49

By the time Ken became chief in 2010, burning wasn't a focus for Cal Fire. A few years later though, he says he was forced to pay attention to prescribed burning because Native American tribes, scientists, community groups, were saying, hey, we want to burn in our forests. We need to burn. But Cal Fire is standing in the way, enforcing burn bans during longer stretches of the year, saying that if it's not safe to burn in one part of the state, we're gonna ban burning all over. And Ken says they did that because they were concerned about resources, that if a prescribed burn escaped, they wanted to have people nearby to put it out. Then Ken is approached by a representative of the Karuk tribe and told this is a problem. We know it's safe to burn where we are.

Ken Pimlott  08:35

When I realized that decisions we were making to protect all of California, we weren't thinking about it from an individual perspective. And let's take some opportunity to identify those places where we can get this done. And so, the following year, we worked with the tribe and provided what they needed, allowed that burn to happen. And quite frankly, it was that first foot in the door to start the conversation.

Jacob Margolis  09:07

But Ken says after decades of inaction around prescribed fire, things moved slowly. [music out]

Ken Pimlott  09:14

And so, in those early years of that decade, trying to- I equate it to turning an aircraft carrier because we've got an entire cultural mindset of an organization going one way and we need, need to make a shift even one degree, to reinvest, quite frankly, in our roots. What we know is important and what we were good at doing decades before- that era is when we really recognized we're in this together.

Jacob Margolis  09:43

Since then, the fire problem in California has continued to get worse, making the need for prescribed burning even more urgent. Cal Fire is slowly turning the aircraft carrier, doing more prescribed burns. And prescribed burning is a core part of the state's most recent strategic fire plan. Cal Fire's training up a fuels treatment force of its own, which has grown to 130 people. Right now, there are as many as 30 million acres across the state that could benefit from fuels treatment. [music in] One of the biggest issues we have on the prescribed fire front is that there just aren't enough people to do all the burns we need. And this people problem- One way to address it is by getting more people trained and certified to lead burns, to empower the people who want to become maybe the coolest sounding thing ever: burn bosses. That's after the break. [music out] [break]

Jacob Margolis  10:59

To understand why we don't have nearly enough burn bosses in California, I wanted to talk to someone who's been deeply involved in the issue. Lenya Quinn-Davidson. So, when I was up in Humboldt last winter, I drove over to her house. [ambi of meeting: Uh, shoes off? Well, are they muddy? No. Yeah, you're fine...] It was dark by the time I got there, just in time to uh, interrupt her kid's bedtime routine. [ambi with kid: What's your name? Mom. No, it's Lenya... (laughing) Chicka rock... (laughing) Yeah, why don't you go start brushing and flossing...]

Jacob Margolis  11:35

Um, so can I get your name, your title, how you like to be identified?

Lenya Quinn-Davidson  11:40

Yeah, sure. So my name is Lenya Quinn-Davidson, and I am the fire advisor for the University of California cooperative extension.

Jacob Margolis  11:49

Okay, so can you explain to me a bit about what you do?

Lenya Quinn-Davidson  11:52

Yeah, so one of the things that I've been really focused on in the last couple years is the development of a new California state certified burn boss program. Unfortunately there, there were a lot of holdups within Cal Fire because Cal Fire's certifying that program, and you know, they're kind of backing it at the state level, and they haven't had confidence in the idea of the program.

Jacob Margolis  12:15

[music in] In 2018, California legislators passed a bill meant to help build up the state's prescribed burn infrastructure. The state certified prescribed fire burn boss program, as it's so excitingly called, is a critical piece to this whole thing, says Lenya. It's kind of like burn bosses oversee burns the way directors oversee a film set. They come up with the game plan or the prescription, in this case, make sure the weather's right, figure out how many firefighters and fire engines they need. And then when the burn happens, they're on the ground, organizing everyone and leading. If you're a private landowner and you want to burn, you might turn to a private burn boss to get the job done. There's a gigantic problem, though. Because if you want to hire someone right now, [music out]

Lenya Quinn-Davidson  13:05

We don't have enough people to do this work. We had maybe five or six until a couple years ago, but a lot of folks have been losing their insurance.

Jacob Margolis  13:13

Insurance. If you're a director running a film set without it, it'd be a huge liability. If you're a burn boss setting stuff on fire without it, even though fewer than 2% of prescribed burns escape, if one does, you might have a problem.

Lenya Quinn-Davidson  13:27

You don't need insurance to lead a burn. But if you're the kind of person who wants to do this work for hire, you'd be kind of crazy to just do it without insurance, right?

Jacob Margolis  13:37

Which brings us back to the burn boss certification program. [music in] The feds have their own burn boss qualifications. And back in 2018, California wanted its own, too. Lenya was asked to help put together the criteria. One of the goals of this new certification was for the state to create a pathway for non-firefighters to become prescribed burn leaders. The other goal was that if people could get approved and Cal Fire said they were qualified, maybe it would give the private insurance market confidence to give them coverage, says Lenya. Again, this insurance issue is such an important piece of the puzzle. And Lenya hoped that a certification program would allow more people to get insured and that more burning would happen. She spent two years working with a handful of other people to develop the certification program. And in May of 2021, she finally held her first class. She said she wanted to get people through as fast as she could. And so, she stacked the class with people that had extensive experience in this field- some people who she says had already met the federal government requirements for becoming a burn boss.

Lenya Quinn-Davidson  14:41

So these are some of the best burn bosses in California and you know, people who have 40 years under their belt leading prescribed fire. And so for those people, it was kind of funny to be in this class and, and they, there was some eyerolling, you know, they're like really, we have to come take this class to be certified to do something that they are more experienced than the people instructing the class by, by a lot, you know, because they've been doing this forever.

Jacob Margolis  15:06

The course wrapped up, and then [music out] the process stalled, she says. Lenya needed Cal Fire to certify her students. And she said about eight months went by.

Lenya Quinn-Davidson  15:18

You know, I would send emails, and no one would even respond to me. And so there was that element of just unresponsiveness. But um, there was also this element of questioning people's qualifications.

Jacob Margolis  15:30

Lenya felt like there was a distrust on the part of Cal Fire, especially towards people in her class, who hadn't come up as firefighters through the Cal Fire system. In response, a spokesperson for Cal Fire told me, no, it does not have distrust of people who haven't previously worked with the agency, that it took time to develop the new certification process, and that it kept in touch with Lenya throughout. A year and a half later though, out of the 19 people that took the class, when I interviewed Lenya, she said only six of them were state certified burn bosses.

Lenya Quinn-Davidson  16:01

I just got an email last night from one of the participants in that very first class. And he is a, he's a retired federal burn boss. He actually owns a whole fire suppression company that works all across California, all over the country, doing fire work, prescribed fire and fire suppression work. One of the most experienced burn bosses in California hands down, and he just got certified yesterday, [laughs] a year and a half later.

Jacob Margolis  16:29

Cal Fire said delays and certification are on those who attended the classes. When I reached out to the person Lenya mentioned, he told me that yes, he was delayed in filing all of the proper paperwork, but that the process was far from straightforward. [pause] So, even if a certified burn boss wants to go lead a burn tomorrow, there's still no guarantee that they can go and get private liability coverage says Lenya.

Lenya Quinn-Davidson  16:57

In general, there just, there just aren't policies available. It's non- existent, and a lot of the groups that had liability insurance that included prescribed fire have been canceled in recent years. And you know, it's not because prescribed fires have gotten out of control, like, we don't have examples of, of that in California. But it's more because insurance companies are just kind of walking away from fire in general, right. Fire in California- messy, costly.

Jacob Margolis  17:28

The state has stepped in though, in an effort to address some of the issue. There's now a prescribed fire claims fund backed up by the state that has $20 million put into it meant to help cover prescribed burners if something does happen. Some of the details are still being worked out. [pause] Lenya's running more certification classes, hoping to get more people qualified. And she says she sees a fundamental clash of cultures here, between Cal Fire, which she feels is motivated to burn primarily from a wildfire reduction standpoint, who just recently adopted prescribed fire again, and the people that Lenya works with a lot, who have been doing this for ages, and sure, may want to reduce wildfire risk, but are also approaching burning from what she sees as a fundamentally different standpoint- like the Native American fire practitioners that Lenya works with.

Lenya Quinn-Davidson  18:23

I think too often, we view prescribed fires through the lens of reducing wildfire. And we forget about the reasons why most of us burn, which are for ecological and cultural reasons. It's more about caring for place and understanding that that piece of ground needs fire and it needs it like this, not like that. And you know, there- there's so much more nuance and kind of care that goes into it. And this is an agency that at its core, really isn't about restoring fire. [music in] It's about putting fires out. I mean, they're a great fire suppression agency. That is what they do. They are hugely effective at that. But the prescribed fire thing is just not really their wheelhouse. And I just don't see that Cal Fire is the agency who can bring that. And so I guess the, the feeling I think that many of us who work in that space have is, it's great to have a partnership with the state, but to have them be in charge of it and be calling the shots around it when they don't actually understand it in the same ways that we do- it's a source of tension. It's uh, you know, it's a um, there's a lot of friction there.

Jacob Margolis  19:35

When asked, a Cal Fire spokesperson said the agency does prescribed burns for a variety of reasons, including to improve landscape health. What I will say is that across the board, everyone I talked to in the fire world wants more prescribed burning, but there is a very clear tension between all these different parties, between the big institutions that are trying to turn their aircraft carriers, and the people on the ground who've been doing this for generations, who have to wait for them to catch up. For years now, the state and federal government have been talking about the importance of Native American cultural knowledge around bringing fire back to the landscape. They've said that they want help from these groups, that they see the importance of cultural burners, but many of the practitioners I've been talking to say the government hasn't always been a good partner in this process. [music out]

Jacob Margolis  20:39

While I was up in the Klamath mountains, I decided to visit someone, someone I've been meaning to talk to, for a while. [ambi of someone moving] Through months of reporting, I'd been hearing people talk about this guy, because he's long been navigating the bureaucracy of fire and tribal rights here in California. He's the guy I've been seeing over and over on all sorts of influential policy documents, and papers. [rooster] [JM: ...s'en here Bill? (duck under)] His name is Bill Tripp, the director of natural resources and environmental policy for the Karuk Tribe's Department of Natural Resources. The state and the feds say they want help from indigenous groups to treat the land, from people like Bill. But what I wanted to know was how's that been playing out on the ground. When I arrived at his house, I walked past some garden beds, Bill's cat [talking in background] that wanted some pets, and we sat on chairs on his front lawn, about six feet apart. Bill's been hard to get ahold of because he's been busy with press and meetings and government stuff. When we do meet in person, he's warm and engaged.

Bill Tripp  21:41

It's been a hectic day, man. I'm not used to skipping back and forth between meetings and about half asleep from this booster shot. [laughs]

Jacob Margolis  21:51

You're a busy guy.

Bill Tripp  21:52

Oh, man, trying to do emails simultaneously. Yeah, it's a little bit crazy how busy- I've been up since 3:30 this morning. [JM: I'm sorry.] Got started at 4, so I'm about 12 hours in almost now.

Jacob Margolis  22:09

We get to talking about how he got involved in fire in the first place, [talking in background] how his great grandmother taught him to burn when he was four. And how his life's goal since he was eight years old, has been to help bring fire back to his people.

Bill Tripp  22:21

It just seemed like that was like the biggest injustice um, that I could find in the entirety of what I was taught. So that's what I chose to do.

Jacob Margolis  22:35

Unlike some tribes in the state, the Karuk Tribe doesn't have a reservation. The treaties that were signed with the US government in the 1800s were never ratified. They have these disparate patches of land surrounded by US National Forest. And they've had to fight to have a say over how their broader ancestral lands are managed. They can't always just go out and burn, tend to the land for spiritual reasons, make it healthier, even though the dense stands of Douglas Fir fuel destructive and deadly fire- like in 2020, when the Slater Fire destroyed 150 homes in nearby Happy Camp, killing two people. Bill says that if they want to treat their ancestral land, they've often got to deal with the government, depending on where they want to burn, which Bill says has meant sitting through countless meetings with local agency people, and meetings where people say one thing, but then turn around and do something else.

Bill Tripp  23:30

The agencies are saying, we want to work with you in a manner that um, respects and honors uh, tribal sovereignty, uh, self-governance and self-determination. Um, wherein, you know, right afterwards they say, okay, well, uh, we really don't know what those things mean, and we have to approve you doing anything. And so that creates tension.

Jacob Margolis  23:55

Bill tells me about this one fuels reduction and forest health project in Six Rivers National Forest in northeastern California, where there were years of back and forth between the tribe and the US Forest Service, because the project was going to happen right along their sacred ceremonial trails.

Bill Tripp  24:12

We said don't start on, along our sacred ceremonial trails, because we're gonna have to teach these contractors how to, you know, communicate, and respect the space. Well, where did they start it? Right on that ceremonial trail. And we had dozers going up the trail and skidding logs up the trail, and it's like, where they weren't even supposed to be. You know, they just did whatever they could to um, to do what they wanted to do regardless of what we said.

Jacob Margolis  24:43

The Karuk Tribe and others filed a lawsuit, and a US district judge found that the Forest Service had violated the National Historic Preservation Act.

Bill Tripp  24:53

And um, why. Why even stay involved in a conversation with someone like that? [mumbles] It's uh, just seems futile to me.

Jacob Margolis  25:05

By the way, we reached out and the US Forest Service didn't respond in time for the release of this episode. If you remember from the last episode, Native American fire practitioners burn, not just to protect against high severity fire, but for cultural and spiritual reasons as well. They still face insurance and funding issues and say they still get stopped by Cal Fire and the feds from treating the land, even when practitioners know conditions are good for it. [pause] When I talked to Bill about all this, on one hand, he says that things are getting better with government agencies. But on the other hand, he's tired. For decades, he's been trying to bring fire back to his people, trying to protect their traditional ecological knowledge and expand where they can apply it. And I asked him, what his eight-year-old self that wanted to bring fire back, would think about the work he's done.

Bill Tripp  26:06

I would probably think that I was silly trying to work within these systems, that they're just futile, and they're built on, you know, they're built on racist foundations. Um, I think that, you know, if things were a little bit different, um you know, I probably would if I would have known what I know now, I would have probably started trying to build different systems for putting fire back on the ground rather than trying to work within existing systems. Um, who knows how successful that would be?

Jacob Margolis  26:55

[music in] I've been thinking a lot about the people like Bill who choose to do this work inside a system that disrespects them, that believes in fundamentally different things than they do, that expects them to be part of cleaning up the mess. And there's another person in that position who I really wanted to talk to. That's after the break. [music out] [break]

Jacob Margolis  27:30

Are you Frank? [Frank: Yeah, I am.] Oh, I'm Jacob. [Frank: Yeah, hi, Jacob.]

Jacob Margolis  27:36

I meet up with Frank Lake at his home in Arcata in Northern California, at a blue house with a basketball hoop out front, and one of those signs telling neighbors to slow down because there might be kids nearby.

Frank Lake  27:47

And uh, I can get you water, ginger ale, coffee.

Jacob Margolis  27:50

Very nice to meet ya. [FL: Yeah, likewise.]

Jacob Margolis  27:53

Frank's of Karuk ancestry. And like Bill, Frank has chosen to try and change things from the inside. He's a research ecologist with the US Forest Service and also a tribal liaison. Frank's body of experience, he tells me- that of a Western trained scientist, but also someone who's a tribal descendant who works with tribes throughout the region- is complicated and difficult for him.

Jacob Margolis  28:19

Do you feel like you're carrying the weight of an awful lot, especially being in both worlds?

Frank Lake  28:24

Tremendously. There's intergenerational trauma and legacy that's pervasive through my family. I'm the one who went away to get Western educated. I'm the oldest son who's expected to hold up older cultural knowledge and practices of my family. Wears on me all the time. That I'm not Native enough, that I'm Western academically trained, so I'm "Them." Yeah, it's tough.

Jacob Margolis  28:46

And then I guess there was a point recently where now all these journalists start to show up at your door or politicians start to show up at your door and go, you know, solve this problem for us.

Frank Lake  28:56

Yeah. When that was- never seen the value or worth, until it affected them. Native people have been pleading for help and recognition for a long time. This only became important when it started burning down million-dollar mansion homes and affecting the privileged.

Jacob Margolis  29:21

For someone like me, having grown up, you know, not apprised of Native history, I come to mountains like this, and I see all the Doug Firs. My first reaction is one of like, that's just lovely. [FL: Green is good.] Green is good. Exactly. And so that's one of the things that I'm, I'm hoping to- that I think is really difficult to convey to people that have grown up with that and have some like, buried deep in their hearts, a love for, for that and to then tell them that that is, that that is wrong. And-

Frank Lake  29:50

And that it’s a product of genocide, a product of colonization. That's a product of environmental degradation and vulnerability, and a lack of resistance and ad- adaptive capacity.

Jacob Margolis  30:04

One reason I came to Frank is because I had wanted him to explain how the genocide of Native Americans affected landscapes across California, with the hope that I could convey to the audience, what sort of world might be possible for us to return to, if we follow through with good fire practices. And in truth, I had wanted a simple explanation in the hope that we could arrive at something of a simple solution.

Jacob Margolis  30:32

So, if you don't mind, I would like to go back to before the 1850s. And so in order to do that, and to present it to an audience that uh, knows literally nothing [FL: Yeah.] about any of this, as I'm sure you've had to explain all of this in a very basic manner for a long time- And I know it's overwhelmingly big, and I don't want to, I don't want you to think that I, that I uh, I want to discount any sort of history or anything like that [pause] but...

Frank Lake  31:00

So you want simple without detail. [JM: I, I want detail.] And that's not the narrative. I'm sorry, but- [JM: No, it's fair. It's fair. It's fair. Yeah.] You as a colonist and as a settler have to understand, it's a complex history over generations and thousands of years. Can you understand that? Can you at least begin to acknowledge that? Because if you can, then what you assume to be natural, it's a product of indigenous engagement with their place. There was an extreme amount of indigenous modification in environment that was intentional and purposeful, that was embedded in all aspects of their culture and their belief systems and practices that relate to modifying the fire regime.

Jacob Margolis  31:42

Is there a level of frustration from you also, in terms of someone like me coming in and asking you these questions and wanting to uh, break down some of that history? Would you prefer that I not be, not be asking you this stuff, by any chance? I, I don't want to upset you or anything like that.

Frank Lake  31:56

No. You can see I'm agitated. And a reason why is because it's a sophisticated and deep process. And so, for you to, asking me to generalize it so you communicate it to your audience- your audience needs to realize there's a deep complexity here. And there's a part of colonial debt that they need to challenge themselves to understand the history that they're the benefactors of. And I used to think there was benefits in like, being a translator or being somehow a liaison, which I actually am, but that is obviously very, very hard. One side feels very resentful and dispossessed of what's happened to them. The other side is coming to terms with what it means to acknowledge their position of privilege as a colonial institution of the agency or as a settler, who's the beneficiary of maybe what their ancestors did or not, but not even realizing that there's this tension space, and I'm in the middle of it.

Jacob Margolis  32:57

And now, with climate change and everything burning down and poor landscape management for so long, now, we're at the point where people are turning to indigenous groups to go, "Hey can- like, save us, help us, all this stuff."

Frank Lake  33:11

And now for the American society to come back and be like, Hey, you have the last little bit of whatever you've been holding on to, and we want that to help save us. Not what we can do to help empower you to revitalize your culture, to help recover your cultural practices that also are going to improve the environment and help us adapt to climate change. Again, it's still very extractive. There is still a very big expectation that the Native people who have been, had so much taken and have already had to give so much, are now the ones who are expected to have the burden to find solutions to help the colonizer decolonize and deconstruct it, which is really also inappropriate. It's more important, now I would say is, well, what are the conditions in which we can respectfully work with indigenous people, as a way to bring in their fire knowledge and cultural practices, just not to benef- again, just to benefit Western society, but in a way that has to say, well, how can we help indigenous people recover their cultural knowledge and practice? I mean, that is a way of assistance and support, rather than asking them for one more thing to help me, that's gonna benefit my position of privilege to allow me to have the golf course that, and the vineyard that is over ancestral orchards and sites. And not to put it back on the tribes to be the ones that, now you have to help us solve this. They can look to them for solutions. But in order to do that, it has to be commensurate with a level of tribal support. If you're looking to learn, then you also need to be able to be a good partner in that process.

Jacob Margolis  34:54

And to you, what does that look like?

Frank Lake  34:55

Well, it's a lot different for me as a personal person and as a scientist, but for me as a good partner, when it comes from the agency side, is to acknowledge again, own up to and take responsibility for what you've created and contributed to. We often talk about the wildfire and it's climate change, like it's an act of God. No! Acknowledge the part that you have in contributing through fire exclusion and fire suppression, your removal of Native people. We have the ability to be humble and learn from indigenous people, to in a respectful way, show up and be part of the solution.

Jacob Margolis  35:35

[music in] Next episode, we explore what ideas California can borrow from places that have got fire management more figured out.

Scott  36:10

There are two places in the US that actually figured this out. And they're really different. These places are the prescribed fire capital of the United States of America. The other option is, frankly, what's going on in California. Let wildfire basically manage your landscape, and that is a devastating option. [music out]

Jacob Margolis  36:28

That's next time on The Big Burn.

Jacob Margolis  36:30

[music in] The Big Burn is created, written, reported, and hosted by me, Jacob Margolis. Shana Naomi Krochmal is our Vice President of Podcasts. Antonia Cereijido and Leo G are the executive producers for LAist Studios. Our producer is Minju Park, with additional production by Anjuli Sastry Krbecheck. Bruno Lopez-Vega is our intern. Natalie Chudnovsky is the Senior Producer. Editing by Meg Cramer. Fact checking by Caitlin Antonios. Professor Theresa Gregor is our Native cultural content reader. Sound design and mixing by E. Scott Kelly. Original music by Andy Clausen. Our website LAist.com is designed by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at LAist Studios. The marketing team of LAist Studios created our branding. Artwork for this show by Dan Carino. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, Andy Orozco, Michael Cosentino, and Leo G. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live, the Strelow Family, and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. The Big Burn is a production of LAist Studios. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. [music out]