By: Joanna Nelson, with insights and review from CZU CalFire and the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band

Author’s Note: This piece was written before the CZU Lightning Complex fire on California’s central coast, which to date has burned over 85,000 acres. We would like to acknowledge the communities impacted, the tireless work of first responders, and what it will take to recover from the loss. The Amah Mutsun Land Trust staff, themselves, had tools and equipment burn in the fires (where they live and store equipment on State Park land while doing stewardship). It is the author’s view that it will only become more and more important to turn to Indigenous land management and cultural fire to guide the way forward.

I am an independent, non-indigenous scientist and researcher at LandSea Science. For seven months, from Summer 2019 to Spring 2020, I worked together with the Amah Mutsun Land Trust (AMLT), an Indigenous non-profit organization created by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band (AMTB). The Mutsun name for their traditional lands, in the Monterey Bay area, is Popeloutchom.

Their mission, as described on their website, has four parts:

  • Conserve and restore indigenous cultural and natural resources within the traditional territories of indigenous Mutsun and Awaswas peoples.
  • Steward our lands and waters; combining traditional resource and environmental management with contemporary approaches–ensuring a resilient future for all inhabitants of Popeloutchom and fulfilling our obligation to Creator.
  • Research and teach the ways of nature—returning to the path of traditional ecological knowledge that our ancestors followed for thousands of years.
  • Learning and Teaching – The Amah Mutsun Land Trust will continue on our path of knowledge, engaging in research and education that cultivates a greater understanding of our relationship with Mother Earth and all life.
Man in foreground with t-shirt of the AMLT mission statement

Gabriel Pineida holds the role of “Squad Boss” with the Native Stewardship Corps, serving as a leader and mentor. The back of his uniform shirt shows the goals of the AMLT, in an ongoing circle: “Research and Education,” “Conservation and Restoration,” and “Indigenous Stewardship.” Photo credit: Peninsula Open Space Trust 2020.

During my time with the AMLT, I was fortunate to witness a developing, early step in collaborative burning and expanded burning in California, or, as I learned at Klamath TREX, “putting good fire on the land.” The Native Stewards of the AMLT have both fire certifications and a deep cultural history of fire. The AMLT however, as a small non-profit land trust, couldn’t cover liability for burning and hit a hurdle in moving their burn forward.

The following story is a celebration of the relationships and collaboration on the ground that opened doors for good fire in Central Coastal California in Spring 2020.

Creating Collaboration for Good Fire

The direct ancestors of the AMTB have been putting good fire on the ground for hundreds of generations (likely over 800 generations). This history of fire was broken by the past 250+ years of colonization in which fire was outlawed and all Native spiritual and Earth-tending practices were violently interrupted. With the AMLT, the Native Stewards continue their stewardship and use of fire – without federal recognition of the tribe (as is true for many California tribes) and without ownership of land. All of their good work is done through partnership and relationship. One project the Native Stewards are completing is fuel reduction and burn-piles on a 110-acre unit in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

AMLT members build burn piles in the forest

The Native Stewards of the AMLT are tending the land of their traditional territory, here as sawyers and swampers, building burn piles on slopes in San Vicente Redwoods. This is preparation for collaborative burning of piles with CalFire. In background, left to right: Lupe Delgado and Nico Costillas. In foreground, left to right: Natalie Pineida, Marcella Luna, and Gabriel Pineida. Photo credit: Peninsula Open Space Trust 2020.

On the time-scale of just one lifetime (mine), I’ve studied fire ecology for 20 years. I have been studying fire around the world–in California where I’m from; in Greece at the University of Athens and in the surrounding region of Attica; and in rural, interior Alaska. In Alaska I began to understand the links between climate change, wildfire pattern and subsistence livelihoods, working with researchers, managers and Indigenous tribal-council members in Koyukon Athabascan groups. After decades of studying wildfire patterns and post-fire ecology, the first time I put good fire on the land was in October 2019 at the Klamath Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX). It was life-changing. Since then, I’ve burned with the AMLT and CA State Parks’ collaboration and looked forward to burning again here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Having made piles, we were ready to burn them, and that’s where AMLT ran into the liability hurdle (mentioned in the introduction of this piece). Although there is emerging legislation in California (such as CA Senate Bill 901 “Wildfires,” passed in August 2018 and Governor Newsom’s mandates around fire) to make burning more possible for trained landowners and crews outside of California Department of Fire and Forestry (CalFire), one problem that still remains is obtaining insurance coverage for liability.

Either insurance premiums are prohibitively expensive, insurance to cover fire-lighting doesn’t exist (yet), or the liability is just too much to take on (e.g., in this area of California, where land values and mega-home values are high). You light a fire, you’re responsible for whatever happens in that fire, including the consequences of escape. Liability concerns led the Executive Director of AMLT to conclude that the small non-profit organization could not lead burns yet. CalFire, as a state agency, can shoulder more liability, and therefore conduct burns. However, CalFire also has a limited ability to do all the burning that needs to happen. This is where collaboration comes in.

Partnerships Matter

It would be more effective to prevent catastrophic wildfire in California if multiple trained groups could burn in parallel with CalFire – and certainly with continued braiding of knowledge between Indigenous, cultural burning practices and state-agency prescribed fire practices. CalFire is supportive of efforts for private landowners to do more burning, and TREX is one of the opportunities that CalFire is engaged in. The Native Stewards have participated in the Tassajara, Klamath TREX, and Yurok TREX as well as worked collaboratively with CA State Parks on land stewardship and prescribed and cultural burns.

AMLT member adjusts chainsaw

Nico Costillas adjusts the chain tension on the AMLT chainsaw he uses. Maintaining and adjusting tools is part of in-depth knowledge of the work, and safe working conditions. Background: Lupe Delgado. Photo credit: Peninsula Open Space Trust 2020.

The AMLT has built on existing, good relationships to move forward. As one example, Chairman Valentin Lopez connected with CalFire personnel through the Santa Cruz Mountain Stewardship Network a network of land-owners and stewards “committed to working together to help cultivate a resilient, vibrant region.” In a previous engagement, in 2015, CalFire invited the Native Stewards to start a prescribed fire in a traditional way, with ceremony and with the fire-by-friction of elderberry wood and buckeye wood sparking a coal. Then CalFire ran the burn.

This year, in a phone call with a CalFire division chief and a forester, we learned that CalFire could fit the needed burn days into their schedule. Acknowledging that CalFire would take responsibility for the burn, designate a Burn Boss, and choose a crew (they chose a CA Department of Corrections inmate crew), AMLT offered additional capacity: a trained Wildland Firefighter Type 2 crew, ready to contribute well. They said, “yes,” which was a big victory, but not the last hurdle. CalFire wasn’t going to be able to fund the work of the AMLT crew. To fund the Stewards’ work, I went to our conservation partners with the news that we could serve as active participants on the burn and was able to secure funding.

Burning Together

The burn days cleaned out fuels, prevented catastrophic fire, contributed to research on releasing mature trees from competition, and increased collaboration on burn piles with CalFire for the first time. And as tribal Chairman Valentin Lopez said, “It’s very important to our tribe to do research regarding populations of native plants, insects, birds and four-leggeds, before fire, and after.”

At the start of each day, the Native Stewards and AMLT co-workers, following the direction of tribal elders, made an offering and a prayer. We shared an orientation and safety talk and then we were ready to move forward with the burn.

The project was a success. That first day, we burned with a CalFire engine crew. On day two, we burned with Captain Brian West of CalFire and an inmate crew. Days three and four, Captain West returned (which was an uncertainty) and because he had assessed our group’s capabilities on the previous day, he suggested we choose an area of piles we could manage well and go for it. As a CalFire Captain, Captain West determined our crew’s ability, made a judgment call, and gave us a certain amount of freedom and leeway. The Native Stewards and I included this recognition in the “positives” of the After Action Review for that day. We do this work cooperatively; by gaining more experience working together, we build our trust with each other.

A group standing in the woods after a prescribed fire

A glimpse of the collaborators: Captain Brian West of CalFire – who assessed the Native Stewards’ high skill level in the field conducting prescribed fire – the Native Stewardship Corps, and Joanna, after a solid day of burning piles safely. From left to right: Captain Brian West, CalFire, and then from AMLT: Gabriel Pineida, Natalie Pineida, Joanna Nelson, Steven Pratt, Marcella Luna, Nico Costillas, and Lupe Delgado. (Not pictured: Jay Scherf, Operations Coordinator for AMLT, who joined the burn crew on a different day.)

AMLT members carry equipment through a forest after a prescribed burn

Packed up after a good day’s work, Gabriel Pineida and Natalie Pineida carry tools and gear out of the fuel-reduction site and back up the hill. Photo credit: Peninsula Open Space Trust 2020.

Author's boots in the foreground in the background a small fire smoulders

Monitoring several burn piles in progress. This low-intensity smolder is part of tending the land with good fire, as the piles burn completely. Photo credit: Joanna Nelson

The Path Ahead

This experience showed again that positive steps in fire-lighting happen in the relationships on-the-ground. The Native Stewards of AMLT moved forward with a new step in burning with CalFire. What keeps opening up the path ahead? There are so many growth edges and leaps forward. We need to include respecting Indigenous leadership and cultural-burn practitioners; creating Prescribed Burn Associations (in progress in the Monterey Bay and already established in other areas of California) to support, educate, and potentially insure each other in collectives; and understanding of what emerging legislation means in practice, translated into land care. Land care involves good fire at the right place and at the right time.

Joanna Nelson, author in the field

Joanna Nelson in the field, San Vicente Redwoods, with the AMLT. Photo credit: Peninsula Open Space Trust 2020.

Joanna Nelson, PhD, is an ecologist working on science-to-action projects with communities, from headwaters to the sea. She is the founder and principal of LandSea Science LLC. She holds BS and MS degrees in Earth Systems from Stanford University; a PhD in Environmental Studies (Ecology) from the University of California, Santa Cruz; and served as a postdoctoral fellow with the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University. Born and raised in California, she also serves as a Research Associate with Rhodes University of South Africa, investigating the benefits of protected lands in headwaters for the delivery of freshwater to downstream agriculture and cities. She is grateful to the Native Stewards of AMLT for their time in the field together, and looks forward to the next project they can do together.


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