Editor’s note: Mike Beasley is the Board President of Firefighters United For Safety, Ethics, and Ecology (FUSEE) and a longtime federal fire management professional. Read his full bio here. In his first post on our blog as a guest author, Mike writes about his recent experience working with a crew of Indigenous fire practitioners beginning their professional careers in fire, and the importance of creating fire cultures that center integrity and respect. All stories, photos, phrases, and quotes are shared with permission from and in collaboration with Indigenous members of the Willamette Valley Fire Collaboration.
As a thirty-plus year veteran of wildland firefighting and retired Fire Management Officer for one of California’s eighteen National Forests, I have had the privilege of working with many incredible fire crews over the years. But I must say, the crew of young wildland firefighters I had the opportunity to work with this past fall 2022 was truly exceptional.
These young burners hail from the brand new Willamette Valley Fire Collaboration. As an Indigenous crew, the module has self-dubbed as the “Wagon Burners,” taking back the power of the derogatory slur. Aside from their module leader, Sara Fraser, who came from Eugene-based Oregon Woods, the crew members are just starting their fire careers, eager to learn and excited to make a difference in the world of wildland fire management. From the moment they arrived back to Oregon from their prescribed fire projects on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State in mid-September of last year, they hit the ground running, ready to take on the remainder of a busy fall 2022 burning season.
Bringing skills and awareness to fire
As a Burn Boss for Ecostudies Institute and Friends of Buford Park & Mount Pisgah, I had the pleasure of working with the crew on several burns last fall, starting with our rendezvous with a Nature Conservancy burn module at their Willow Creek headquarters in the Upper Willamette Valley in Oregon. From there, we burned on numerous sites in the West Eugene wetlands and in the Coburg Hills on private property, as well as property owned by The Nature Conservancy and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Throughout the season, we worked long hours in sometimes challenging conditions. And the hard work paid off – we were able to complete all of our burns safely and effectively, thanks in large part to the professional skills of the crew and their good energy. During their first season, the crew participated in dozens of prescribed burns in Washington and Oregon, totaling some 675 acres.
Fire is Step Zero in creating a relationship with the land.
-Jae Viles-Erdelt, Siletz Tribal Member and Willamette Valley Fire Collaboration Crew Member
It wasn’t just their technical skills that impressed me. These eco-cultural burners also understood the importance of keeping the traditions of the local Tribes alive. They recognized the role that Indigenous knowledge and practices can play in promoting healthy ecosystems and communities, and they were eager to learn from and work with local Tribal elders to incorporate these practices into our prescribed fire projects.
Respecting and acknowledging fire as a cultural practice
Of course, this wasn’t always easy. These young fire practitioners felt the pressure when everyone else working on these prescribed fire projects looked to them for the right words to say. And while a test fire is a common practice on all prescribed fires to see if conditions are right to move forward with the burn, integrating a land acknowledgement and ceremony into the beginning of a prescribed fire is far less common. These young people rose to the challenge, balancing the technical demands of the burn with the cultural and spiritual elements that are so important to the local Tribes. The last thing one wants is for this moment of introspection, during what is often a hurried and rushed time as the burn gets underway, to seem performative or more for the consumption of the non-Native burn participants.
Important questions that emerged include:
- Should the module be expected to hold space for a ceremony planned for the beginning of every burn?
- How can non-Native burners be a part of a “cultural burn?”
- How can a Burn Boss set the stage at the operation briefing with an appropriate land acknowledgement and help for the non-Native participants to understand what is expected of them during any words or songs spoken by the Indigenous burners? Should they participate at all? If so, how? Are photographs permissible?
- Should landowners allow local Tribes, whose ancestral land is being burned, to come and gather important plants for food security, basket weaving and medicinal purposes after the burn?
Carrying the work forward
As I wished these young burners well on their journey to Eastern Oregon to finish their season conducting burns at Sycan Marsh Preserve, I couldn’t help but feel inspired by the work they had accomplished and the bright future that lies ahead for them. With their dedication, professionalism, and commitment to promoting healthy ecosystems and communities, I know that they will go on to accomplish great things in their careers.
The seeds of this program were sown on a prescribed fire back in October of 2021 at the Andrew Reasoner Wildlife Preserve. Many of the crew members participated in that burn and had meaningful experiences, like Jessica Douglas, a Kalapuya descendant. More developments and advancements in the Collaboration are planned for 2023 under the guidance of Katie MacKendrick, the Willamette Valley Fire Collaboration Manager and Ecologist, who came from the Long Tom Watershed Council. Katie has worked tirelessly for years trying to restore fire through the Rivers to Ridges Partnership. A new module leader has been hired, so Sara Fraser will have more time as the Collaboration’s Fire Planning and Training Specialist. They are also adding to their fleet of fire apparatus housed along with that of the Nature Conservancy at Willow Creek.
What fire means to people
As a privileged white male, I only know what I’ve read about Indigenous societies and their relationship with fire, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own deeply felt spiritual connection between the land, the biodiversity fire brings, and my own identity. Scientists believe the ability to carry and propagate fire was crucial to the development of the large brains of homo sapiens. Beyond the many Indigenous legends of how Coyote stole fire for humanity, the mythologies of Australian Aboriginal, the San people of Southern Africa, and that of the Hindu all have similar stories. From Europe, we have Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. As punishment, Zeus had him chained to a rock where an eagle would eat his liver every day. In each of these stories, fire was seen as a powerful tool that could bring both benefits and dangers to humans and was often associated with divine or supernatural forces.
To my mind, returning fire to the land as a cultural practice certainly benefits the Tribes upon whose ancestral and present lands the crew plied their trade this fall – the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Nisqually Indian Tribe, the Chehalis Tribe, and the Klamath Tribes. I think it also goes a long way to bridge cultural gaps by engaging in an ancient practice that all our ancestors once treated with reverence. While this could never reverse the intergenerational trauma experienced by Indigenous peoples, it may give us a chance to share in the experience of fire as medicine for all Earth’s inhabitants. Along the way, it may also start to curb the institutional momentum of America’s current prevailing wildland fire culture, which is mostly about taking fire “out” and not putting fire “in.” Federal careerist risk aversion and the shared trauma of recent climate-driven wildfires and smoke is making it harder and harder to retain the social license to burn, even though that has been an integral part of being human. Fire is not a thing to be captured only in the bellies of our mechanical beasts of burden. As we are now learning, that comes with a cost.
In conclusion, I want to express my deep gratitude to the young burners I had the privilege of working with this past fall. To the Willamette Valley Fire Collaboration members: your hard work, dedication, and passion for wildland fire management are truly inspiring, and I know that you will continue to make a difference in the world of fire.