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Understanding the importance of cultural burning

On this episode of the USFA Podcast, Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell interviews Margo Robbins, executive director of the Cultural Fire Management Council. Ms Robbins explains how the Yurok Tribe uses cultural burning to maintain a healthy ecosystem.

Posted: Nov. 16, 2023

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Cultural burning has been used by the Yurok Tribe of Northern California to have healthy lands for plants and animals and provide long term fire protection for residents.

Photo of Margo Robbins

Listen online 30:30

Photo of Margo Robbins


Estimated 16 min reading time.

Welcome to the USFA Podcast, the official podcast of the U.S. Fire Administration. I’m your host, Teresa Neal. Recently, USFA had the opportunity to screen the new documentary “Elemental: Reimagine Wildfire” with the film creators. Before the screening, the U.S. fire administrator, Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, sat down with one of the film’s participants, Margo Robbins, to get a better understanding of cultural fire.

Margo is executive director of the Cultural Fire Management Council. The council’s mission is to facilitate the practice of cultural burning on the Yurok reservation and ancestral lands, which will lead to a healthier ecosystem for all plants and animals, long-term fire protection for residents, and provide a platform that will in turn support traditional hunting and gathering activities of the Yurok.

Let’s join the conversation.

Dr. Moore-Merrell

Hello, everyone. This is Lori Moore-Merrell, the U.S. fire administrator, and we’re coming to you with another USFA Podcast. And today I’ve got the great honor to be able to spend some time with Margo Robbins, who I have only just met. Margo is a member of the Yurok Tribe out of Northern California. And Margo, welcome to the USFA Podcast. I’m really glad to have you as a guest with us today.

Margo Robbins

Thank you so much, Dr. Lori. It is definitely an honor and a pleasure to be here.

Dr. Moore-Merrell

Well, we’re excited to spend some time, and you and I got to spend some time yesterday as we sat to view the movie “Elemental: Reimagine Wildfire.”

And I know, Margo, you were part of that movie, and I think you were part of it for a real purpose, and that purpose was to really share about tribal understanding and use and cultural use of fire. And I think that’s going to be so important for all of us to understand. And so, tell me just a little bit more before we get into this, first of all about your tribe, and then about the Cultural Fire Management Council that I know you lead.

So, if you can tell us just a little bit more about each of those.

Margo Robbins

Thank you. So, the Yurok Tribe is based in far northern California along the lower Klamath River. It’s near the Oregon border. Our reservation stretches a mile on each side of the river, although the tribe doesn’t own the entire reservation, just a small percentage of it.

But we still carry on our traditional life ways, hunting and fishing and making baskets and gathering food and medicine from the land. We are actually the largest tribe in California with over 6,000 members. So, I’m a proud member of the Yurok Tribe. I’m raising up my children and they’re raising up their children in a traditional — maybe not totally traditional way, but to be practitioners of the culture.

Dr. Moore-Merrell

I love that. I love that in the way that that matters, doesn’t it? That we have the perpetuation of our tribes and our tribal nations. You know, we’ve gotten to spend a lot of time with leaders of tribal nations as we talk about fire — wildfire in particular.

And I often say we have still in America, we have a fire challenge, and sometimes we get caught saying it’s a fire problem. It can be a fire problem, as certainly as wildfires turn into disasters. We still have a structure fire problem in the U.S. We have way too many fire deaths that are happening in structures.

But as we talk to our tribal nations, it’s a whole different perspective than what I have grown up with, certainly. And I think most of the — in the fire service, our firefighters in particular, because we’re trained to extinguish fire, right? That’s our concept. But in the tribal nations, that’s not so. And so, we’re learning a lot right now about the cultural use of fire.

And we’re learning it from our tribal partners, and you’re one of those. So, can you talk to me just a little bit, Margo, about how you view fire, first of all, and then how it’s used in your culture?

Margo Robbins

In our culture, fire is known as a spirit, and just like we have a spirit, we have a physical body and a spirit, fire is a spirit, and it is one of the most powerful spirits in existence.

It has the power to destroy, as some people see and focus on. It also has the power to give life. And we look at it as a source of new life. It is a gift, and we lift up prayer with fire. We don’t ever have a ceremony where there is not a small ceremonial fire. We also use it to fulfill our sacred obligation to take care of the living beings around us, the plant people, the animal people, the things that are living all around us, the water, the air, the soil, and we use it to keep things in balance.

And we’ve used it for tens of thousands of years to keep healthy, viable ecosystems that function in a good way. And right now, they are very out of balance. And thank heavens, in the nick of time, our community decided that the most important thing to do is bring fire back to the land. It will increase the quality and quantity of water.

We rely a great deal on the river and the fish in the river that sustain us. The plants that are growing in such profusion and so thickly on the soil. They’re all crowded out and the native plants, they can’t get the sun that they need, and they don’t have enough water because with the exclusion of fire for the past 100 years, their growth has gone unchecked.

So, in years gone by, we would have a regular regime of a cycle of burning and those cycles would vary anywhere from 3 to 10 to 12 years, depending on the vegetation. Prairies would actually burn annually to keep the conifers from encroaching. For basket-weaving materials, which some of them are fire dependent, would burn those every 3 to 5 years.

And when we burn, we do what you would call a backing burn. You start at the top of the slope and bring the fire slowly down the hill, and what you end up with is a good portion of the underbrush is gone and the trees are unhurt. There might be a very small percentage of trees that are already weakened that would succumb to the cultural burn, but for the most part, they’re unhurt.

And suddenly, the native plants have more food to thrive. They can reach the sun and the water content is — more is reaching the creeks, which reach the river, and the charcoal that we leave laying on the ground filters that water and so it is also pure. We started down this road to provide basket-weaving materials for basket weavers such as myself and others in the community and suddenly we started to realize the enormity of all of these benefits of fire on the land.

Dr. Moore-Merrell

Wow. That is intriguing. The story that you tell, I can almost envision the fire and the need for the fire. And I love the story about the plants, how some plants that are not native begin to take over and that does damage and that builds fuel that don’t have benefits. When we get wildfire, now it just becomes fuel, unfortunately.

And so, that’s why the cultural burn is important to you. It is not just about the practices and all of the benefits that it says, but you need it as a prevention against bad things happening. And these really massive wildfires that do so much destruction and reach our communities as well as your community in a bad way.

Margo Robbins

That’s correct. And that was one of the other main purposes for bringing fire back to the land. In order to protect our communities from wildfire, we needed to reduce the amount of underbrush in along our roads, which we only have 1 road leading onto and off of our reservation. So, it is a very big risk that should there be a big wildfire there, that people would not be able to escape.

Luckily, that 1 road follows along an old Indian trail. And so, there’s lots of culturally important plants growing along that road. So, we are partnered with Cal Fire and reducing wildfire risk. As we promote the health and availability of culturally important species.

Dr. Moore-Merrell

Wow, that is incredible. You know, I again can just envision as you talk what we’re talking about because there’s so many communities that we have built in lands that have burned for hundreds of years. Lands that were forested and we continued to clear them and we put communities there, often with only 1 road in. That means only 1 road out, right? And so, we build toward risk, and we’re not properly building the structures to withstand the fire that is inevitable in that fire-prone land.

And I think that’s part of the story and what you can teach us, is that if we don’t prepare our own and reduce our own risk, prepare the communities for fire that’s inevitably going to occur, then the outcomes are always going to be negative, right? So, this is — I think this is an important piece that we need to learn.

It’s not just the cultural burning and the fuels reduction, it’s also hardening our communities. And I heard you speak some about that as well.

Margo Robbins

Yes, in today’s changed landscape, communities have become very vulnerable to wildfire. Not only are the homes, for the most part, not made to survive a wildfire coming close.

Or often it’s the sparks from the fire that will catch the homes. And so, that’s an important piece of safeguarding our communities, is teaching people about what steps they can take to, as you coined the phrase, make themselves savable. So, people need to really focus on things like the fine mesh screens on their vents, the types of vegetation that are growing near their homes.

The first 5 feet is critically important. And also, it’s very important for people that are doing work in the forest to thin and reduce the fuel load. I believe it’s really important to start from the communities and work out away from the communities. That’s also a traditional way of doing things.

The villages were placed in areas where there were a lot of food sources, and so you harvest those food sources and periodically you will burn them to keep them healthy and provide the soil nutrients. And so, that provides a perimeter around the village that becomes less fire prone, and then outside that food source perimeter there’ll be things like basket-weaving materials and other kind of cordage and medicine.

And again, those are harvested and then taken care of with fire, and then outside of that perimeter, there would be the hunting grounds where the men would go out higher up on the mountain. And when they see cues from the environment that tells them this place is ready for fire, as they walk off the hill pecking their deer, they’ll just light it up and the fire burns down the hill.

And as one elder said, and in a very high back country, lightning would take care of that. And in this day and age, when there’s lightning fires, they turn into huge wildfires, unlike in the past, because today we have all that accumulated fuel on the ground. And so, it makes a very big difference. It’s like an endless smorgasbord for the wildfire.

Dr. Moore-Merrell

Right, the fuel is everywhere. You know, one of the things that we have talked about with the Wildfire Commission, the Mitigation Commission that we’ve participated in now for over 12 months. USFA, along with FEMA, along with Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture, we’ve had some of the nation’s top experts in wildfire, wildland fire, wildland urban interface fire, talking about these concepts, and something that we know today — we are not doing enough prescribed fire. We’re not doing enough fuels reduction. We’re not creating enough fuel breaks where we built communities.

And so, as you just described, the men would see cues. The cues would be, I’m thinking, the underbrush being heavy. The cues would be plants that are not native to that land being there. I mean, the cues, what are the visual cues that we can describe so that people can understand? What’s the cue that says we need to do more prescribed burning here?

Margo Robbins

Those cues would include — I guess a really straightforward way to put it would be: When you’re walking through the forest, are your clothes getting pulled on and torn by the brush? If that’s happening, there’s too much brush. You should be able to see through the trees. And so, if you can’t see through the trees, it’s getting encroached on too much.

Are the prairies starting to get smaller because of the fir encroachment? And firs are a native tree, but they don’t belong everywhere. And so, there’s different cues like that that tell you, or for example, the hazel, which is what we use for basketry, and it’s fire dependent. We’ll burn it one year, the next year we’ll gather hazel for it.

Well, if you wait for 5 years, or 4 years, it will have nuts. You can harvest those nuts. And then the next year you’re like, okay, well this plant has had an opportunity to reproduce once or twice. So, now we can burn it again. So, there’s many cues that one can pay attention to.

Dr. Moore-Merrell

I love that.

That’s so enlightening. And I’m going to take that cue about if I walk by it and it grabs onto my clothes, it’s too much. And I can apply that around people’s homes. Maybe if I’m walking around the exterior of my home and I’m getting caught on shrubbery and I know I live in a fire-prone land or somebody’s told me that I live in a fire-prone land or we have risk of wildfire and if I’m getting caught up on brush in around my bushes, trees, around the exterior of my home, they’re probably too close.

Would you agree?

Margo Robbins

Yes, that’s true. There should actually not be any shrubberies within 5 feet of your actual home. No sawdust on the ground for — to stop the vegetation from growing up because it actually is a big fire hazard. And I know it’s really hard not to plant those beautiful little flowering bushes.

And for me, I have like medicine plants, you know, and I’m like, oh, I need to move those away from my house. They’ll grow just as good right out there and look just as beautiful.

Dr. Moore-Merrell

But keep them away from where you live. Yeah, so they don’t become fuel that can contribute to your home burning, and that’s what I think a lot of folks — because we hear often when our firefighters are out and they’re even going door to door and asking people where they know it’s high wildfire season, the potential is there.

We have red flag warnings from the National Weather Service. We know conditions are right for those dry lightning strikes you mentioned. We know conditions are right for an ignition. And if that takes place, now we’re off to the races, as I say, with the wildfire. And people who have not reduced these fuels — and often we say fuels, people don’t know what that means.

We’re talking about bushes. We’re talking about shrubs. We’re talking about trees that are too close to your home. We’re talking about, as you said, either sawdust or wood chips that you’re using for landscaping. It’s better for us to — to move those things away. Understand we need gravel, perhaps. Let’s use gravel instead of the wood chips around our homes.

Maybe some nice landscape rocks would be good. These things that are much more noncombustible or fire-resistant materials. And so, these are the kinds of concepts that I really hope people can start to embrace. Because you’re right. Everyone says, “I want these trees. I moved here to be around the trees. I love my trees.” We love our trees, too, right? And they have a purpose, and we want them to thrive, but we also don’t want them to become hazardous fuels in this strain of life.

So, I think, Margo, what you have brought is such enlightenment for me to understand. And I’ve been in the fire service for a very long time, but you have just said some things that even I had not thought about in the fire perspective, because we are all taught in the fire service to put out the fire.

If you see a fire, put it out and extinguish it. But you’re saying, no, some of them we need to burn because we fight fire with fire, don’t we? We often need fire, the beneficial fire. We need that to prevent the much larger fires we don’t want. Margo, let’s talk for just a second about smoke because all fires produce smoke.

We know that, and we just said the words “beneficial fire,” and we’ve heard the words “prescribed burn.” We’ve heard these kinds of concepts of using fire in a beneficial way so we don’t have the big fires. Describe to me what your thoughts are on the difference in fire generating smoke versus when that fire might hit the community and now it’s burning something different than vegetation, right?

It’s the buildings, the contents of our homes. Let’s talk a little bit about the difference in that smoke.

Margo Robbins

So, there is no such thing as a no smoke option. And people need to embrace that as a reality. Either we will begin to up the pace and scale, and when I say we, I mean nonprofits, for profits, tribes, federal and state organizations, as well as individuals.

We all have a stake in this. We all need to get in and do our part, whether it is hardening your home or learning how to burn safely. So, when we are doing those prescribed or cultural burns, it puts up a certain amount of smoke, but that smoke is connected to an element that is a necessary part of ecosystem help, a necessary part of biodiversity, a necessary part of reducing the spread and intensity of wildfire.

So, we have to learn to be okay with having some amount of smoke. Hopefully it’s from prescribed or cultural burns. It’s only wood smoke. It’s not toxic like the smoke that is being emitted from wildfires. So, wildfires may start in the forest, but as we all know, they have no boundaries, and when they are burning buildings and cars and plastic and rubber and all of these other things, it is very, very toxic smoke, much worse than anything we might breathe from a prescribed or cultural burn.

And when we’re burning with purpose, using fire as a tool like that, the smoke dissipates because we have smoke modeling which tells us what’s going to happen with our smoke, and so we can pick those optimum times when smoke is not going to settle in on to communities for a very long time. And so, those are the options that we have that we need to really think about because, you know, sometimes for weeks on end we’ll have smoke in the corridor from the wildfires that is so thick you can’t see across the river. And we just do our best to stay in the house with our air purifiers.

Dr. Moore-Merrell

Well, we’ve seen that from the Canadian wildfires all this year through 2023. We’ve seen even now we still have smoke coming down from Canada, and these are issues. So, as we plan these burns, your cultural burns, you plan them, I’m sure, with the other elements like wind speed and direction and the other things that are going on.

So, these are not just, “Let’s go out and burn today.” There are some planning behind these, right? As we do in the prescribed fires arena.

Margo Robbins

There is a lot of planning that goes into doing a burn and it all has to do with prepping the land so that your fire’s not going to escape and paying attention to the weather.

Traditionally, we didn’t have all of these fancy weather tools and images from space that tell us about the weather 10 days out, but those are tools that are readily available to us now when we utilize those. You know, if it looks like — first of all, we’re looking for when is the burn window going to open, and sometimes the burn window will open in winter.

You know, it’s all we need in winter is like 4 days of good weather, and the cold night draws the moisture out of the fuels and so we can burn. And then in times like late summer or early fall, we’re waiting to have a little rain first so that everything’s not so hot and dry. We’re looking for days where the wind is not going to be excessive and for times to make sure also that we’re going to have enough people there on site.

So, sometimes we will do what we call a prescribed burn with cultural objectives. So, we have a burn plan we’re following with qualified fire personnel. That’s when we’re kind of burning on the hotter side when things are a little drier. But when CAL FIRE takes off the burn restrictions, that’s the time when the average person can burn.

And so, we have 3 or 4 generations of people from — my 4-year-old grandson has been part of at least 3 or 4 burns already. So, we have him and his mama and his aunt or uncle and myself and we get out there as a family to burn around our homes or little under the oak trees.

And we also help other families in the community to do that. At one time, it was not specialized people that got out to do burns. Everybody took care of around their own homes and gathering places. And I think that that’s a good way to head. The average person should have opportunities how to learn to burn safely, how to take care of their land and protect their homes, in addition to home hardening, to be able to use prescribed or just be able to burn when the conditions are favorable.

Dr. Moore-Merrell

You know, and I think that that is certainly excellent cultural mindset that we can all start to think about what is our role in preventing these natural occurring fires from becoming disasters? And I think we all do have a role, and that applies to any of those landscapes. We’re talking about the wildland or the forested areas. We’re talking about what we refer to as the wildland urban interface. We’re certainly talking about your tribal lands that probably embrace both of those types of landscapes and the prairies as well. And we’re also talking a lot about now communities, because we are now experiencing for the first time these urban or suburban conflagrations that are fed from grass fires that are ignited, and then once the first structure is ignited, now we have embers that do structure to structure spread.

And so, all of these different contexts, wildfire and all those contexts have to be interpreted differently in the lands where you have made the point that culturally fire can be good on the lands. It helps to grow. It helps to perpetuate wildlife. In the interface where we’ve chosen to build, often it’s not the best there, so we have to reduce the fuels.

We have to do the beneficial fire, so we avoid the bad fire. And certainly in communities, I think it’s important that we certainly teach the fuels reduction around our homes and understand your risk, and understand that it’s not just your risk in your home, but your neighbor’s risk that may influence you as well.

So, all of these things are really important to these conversations. Having people be fire aware. Having them to be situationally aware of where they live and what risk that land space holds is very, very important. So, Margo, I’m going to ask you if you have any last messages that you can share with us. Any more wisdom?

You’ve shared so much wisdom with us today, so any other wisdom that you might share with our listeners?

Margo Robbins

Thank you so much. You know, what comes to mind is that when there is a fire and people’s homes are threatened and everybody is so thankful that the firefighters are there, and you’ll see them put up big signs that say, thank you firefighters, we support firefighters.

And that’s a wonderful thing to be appreciated. But it would also be a wonderful thing if people would take steps to prepare their home so that the firefighters don’t have to risk their lives to save your home. Do the prep, do the prep, put the screens on your house that are the fine screens that the sparks can’t get in. Do the vegetation removal, and do it not only for yourself and your family, but your neighbors, your neighborhood, your community — do it to save the lives of the firefighters.

We’re all in this together and we all can play a role in changing the narrative.

Dr. Moore-Merrell

Margo, I absolutely love that. Thank you. Thank you, because if you can reduce your risk and make yourself savable in your own home, then it does reduce the risk for our responders who are coming. And making yourself savable means they can help save you when they arrive.

But it’s important, as you said. So, thank you so much. That was a perfect pearl of wisdom for you to close us. I want to thank you again, Margo Robbins, from the Yurok Tribe and the Cultural Fire Management Council. Margo, thank you so much for spending time with us today.

Margo Robbins

Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure to be here and to visit with you on air.

Dr. Moore-Merrell

There you go. Margo, thank you. And we’ll talk again soon.

Teresa Neal

Thank you, and thank you for listening to the USFA podcast. If you’d like to learn more about cultural fire, please visit If you have a topic you would like to hear more about or you would like to be a guest on the podcast, please email us at

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