One of New Mexico’s first fires of 2021—the Spring Fire—began as a structure blaze near the small town of Sacramento that jumped into Lincoln National Forest, burning 17 acres and one building before firefighters extinguished the flames.
Since the beginning of the year, 363 fires have burned over 71,000 acres across the state. As predicted, the year’s fire season started early and continues to ravage the Southwest amid climate change and extreme drought conditions facing the region.
With the intensity of last year’s wildfire season still fresh in the minds of many, debates over what factors contribute to such extreme fire events remain hot. But fire management conversations often leave out the voices of the original forest managers: Indigenous people.
A network of Native communities, environmental groups and government agencies are working to promote a culture of fire stewardship, instead of a system of control. For Mary Huffman, director of the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network, that means hazardous fuel reduction projects that involve controlled burns in areas where the landscape has grown unchecked.
“If we’re going to bring fire back into balance, there has to be more good fire put on the ground,” Huffman tells SFR. “And the government can’t do it all. We’re at a place where the forests are thick, the weather is hot and when the winds come up and there’s ignition, all that stuff combines into these conflagrations that are too hard to handle.”
The conditions Huffman outlines aren’t the only things stacked up against forests in New Mexico.
“We’re seeing record lows on fuel moisture,” says Julie Anne Overton, spokeswoman for Santa Fe National Forest. June is historically the most challenging month for fires in the state, and two fires in Santa Fe National Forest speak to this reality.
The Cuervito Fire in the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District remains in monitor status after crews managed the lightning-caused blaze to reduce the risk of future high-severity wildfires.
One hope for relief comes from the National Weather Service, which predicted that this year’s monsoon season—which tends to start at the beginning of July—is on track to deliver some much-needed moisture to New Mexican forests. (The Medio Fire near Santa Fe last summer started in mid-August.)
As local and federal agencies work to corral the current fire situation, Indigenous communities and environmental groups are working together to address longstanding challenges across landscapes by leveraging traditional fire practices.
Huffman says that while the current model of fighting fires is useful for controlling blazes, it ignores Native fire cultures.
The exclusion began over 100 years ago when President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration took over enormous swaths of land in the Southwest through executive action, ousting Native communities from land they had managed for centuries. The consequence of his action: A relatively open landscape managed by Indigenous people transitioned into much denser forests with greater amounts of hazardous fuels—conditions that consequently led to more intense fire and erosion events.
“If the tribes haven’t really had the opportunity to take care of their landscapes with fire for a hundred years, and now they’re pretty out of balance, it’s a hard journey to fix it back,” Huffman says, adding a note of hope: “That doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”
Six years ago, the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network sprouted from a collaboration between the Yurok, Hoopa and Karuk Tribes in Northern California, and Fire Learning Network—a partnership between The Nature Conservancy, the US Forest Service and the Department of Interior—to revitalize Indigenous fire practices in the region.
Since then, the group’s work has expanded to other areas where Native communities are working to bring back their fire culture in a contemporary context.
“What it’s about is making room for more than one fire culture,” Huffman tells SFR.
The Pueblo nations of Northern New Mexico are among the spots where IPBN touched down.
To open up that space, the network sat down with tribal leaders, collaborating as the Reserved Treaty Rights Lands working group.
John Waconda, a tribal resource practitioner and member of Isleta Pueblo, says the network provided “a way in which we could help each other and share...knowledge and experience and continue to practice cultural fire practices, mostly prescribed fire.”
Waconda says the plan is to leverage funding from the Reserved Treaty Rights Lands program to enable Indigneous communities to pursue projects that allow tribes to work with other agencies on ancestral lands—to remove hazardous fuels on areas outside reservation boundaries.
But to do so, tribes must comply with the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s standards, which require financing to overcome bureaucratic hurdles. The barriers include equipment costs and training to maintain qualifications.
On Indigenous fire culture Waconda says: “It has a role in nature’s cycle of restoring areas, it brings new life to areas that fire has maybe been excluded.”
A virtual event from the Nature Conservancy in New Mexico Thursday, June 10, at 10 am will outline the intricacies between Indigenous communities and fire in the state. Speakers from Native communities in Northern California and Taos Pueblo will touch on these relationships and the contemporary challenges facing Indigenous communities. While the event is free, attendees must register in advance.