Photo Credit: Will Harling


Klamath River Basin residents, and Californians in general, have received exciting news! Two state bills have been signed by California’s Governor Newsom that promote prescribed fire and provide legal protections for those performing prescribed fire for the public good. These bills will enable Klamath River Basin residents to engage the landscapes around their homes in ways closer to those traditionally utilized by Indigenous peoples before the implementation of restrictive laws that criminalized practices that Tribes had used since time immemorial to shape and maintain wildlands.

AB642 was submitted by Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Glendale) and signed by Governor Newsom on September 28th of this year. The bill, amongst other things, calls for the state fire marshal to create proposals for funding a prescribed fire education center and to appoint cultural burning liaisons tasked with developing and implementing culturally informed burning programs. This will increase regional Tribes’ influence in terms of promoting and implementing culturally sustainable prescribed fire regimes that will contribute to wildlands’ fire resilience and predictability. Enabling cultural fire practitioners to help shape and implement fire regimes will produce healthier woodlands and grasslands in the Klamath Basin resulting in less-destructive wildfires, and an overall increase in ecological health and productivity.

SB332, submitted by State Senator Bill Dodd and signed by Governor Newsom on October 6th, further empowers landowners, California Tribes, and state agencies to utilize prescribed burning practices. SB332 reduces liability for those certified by Tribes and state agencies by providing the same liability protections enjoyed by permitted burn bosses throughout the state. This will dramatically increase the number of individuals able to use prescribed fire for various cultural and management purposes and will help reinvigorate a culture of prescribed fire throughout Klamath Basin communities and their neighbors.

SB332 provides legal protections for Tribes and state agencies who utilize prescribed burning for the public good. In this case, public good refers to prescribed fires set off to reduce wildfire hazards, contribute to ecological restoration or maintenance, or to promote culturally important ecological processes.

Burners, whether Native or non-Native, will still be held responsible for fires that get out of control but there will be more widely available ways of becoming certified to plan and perform prescribed fires. This comes at a time when California’s residents understand the immediate need to confront wildfire in different ways: it has become clear over the last several years that fire suppression efforts are not serving communities throughout the state. The need for prescribed fire has been tragically illustrated in California’s fire-impacted communities that could have benefited from an earlier introduction of prescribed fire regimes.

In many cases prescribed burning methods are guided by knowledge maintained by Tribes since long before the arrival of settlers in California and are largely responsible for the historically productive and predictable landscapes that settlers inhabited upon their arrival: California is a wonderful, ecologically diverse place due to multi-generational intervention by Indigenous peoples using fire to shape their ancestral territories.

The passing of AB642 and SB332 come at a time when the legacy of fire suppression regimes that treated fire as an enemy to be constantly, rigorously extinguished are being reconsidered. Fire suppression, amongst other factors, has contributed to the ecological and environmental conditions that produce the devastating wildfires Californians have endured in recent years. With legislature that recenters good fire as an essential management tool, Klamath River Basin residents have an opportunity to restabilize and regenerate the landscapes they call home. The recent TREX Prescribed Fire Training in Orleans serves as an excellent example of how communities can embrace prescribed fire to make the places they live safer and more productive. These opportunities for ecological stability will work hand in hand with the ecological restoration of the Klamath River after dams are removed.