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Bills Aimed At ‘Cultural Fire Practitioners’ And Prescribed Fire Could Soon Be Law In California

Crews use drip tourches to ignite prescribed burns during the 2020 Klamath Prescribe Fire Training and Exchange Program (TREX)
Stormy Staats/Karuk Tribe
Crews use drip tourches to ignite prescribed burns during the 2020 Klamath Prescribe Fire Training and Exchange Program (TREX)

Native American tribes in California have new recognition to practice cultural burning to reduce catastrophic wildfire risk. That’s thanks to two bills passed last week in the state legislature.

One bill, SB 332, focuses on lowering what some call an onerously high liability standard for fire managers or private “burn bosses,” including cultural burning operations done by tribes.

With these legislative changes, managers who follow a list of requirements when doing prescribed burns won’t be held personally liable for fire suppression costs if a burn gets out of control, according to Craig Tucker, a natural resources policy consultant with the Karuk Tribe in Northern California.

“It improves things for burn bosses, it gets the insurance industry back in the game for providing insurance for burn bosses,” he says. “But we still need to do more to make it easier for people to have a career in this line of work.”

Tucker says managers could still be held liable for damages to personal property.

The second, much broader AB 642, would increase prescribed fire and cultural burning in communities at high fire risk. It also defines "cultural fire practitioners" for the first time, according to Tucker, putting traditional knowledge on the same level as state-certified burn bosses.

“People who have inherited the obligation or inherited the knowledge from their ancestors who have been on these landscapes for thousands of years, have the same standing under state law now as someone who is trained by Cal Fire,” he says.

Low intensity prescribed fire is considered by fire scientists to be one of the primary tools to prevent catastrophic wildfires and protect communities in harm’s way.

The Karuk Tribe lobbied lawmakers to pass the two bills and drafted language for the definition of a "cultural fire practitioner," Tucker says.

The state’s proposed budget also includes parallel pots of money, including $20 million for a fire liability fund and another $20 million for tribal fire programs. Both bills are awaiting the signature of Gov. Newsom.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.