By EkOngKar Singh Khalsa, AMLT Executive Director

Photo courtesy Sempervirens Fund

On October 10th, members of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, Tribal Council Chair Val Lopez, and AMLT staff joined the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) for a prescribed fire on a 10-acre parcel in the San Vicente Redwoods. San Vicente Redwoods is an 8,532-acre preserve owned and managed by the Sempervirens Fund and Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST). Sempervirens Executive Director Sara Barth welcomed everyone to the property and underlined how important the day’s work was to efforts to restore controlled fire as a safe and effective tool to manage forested lands.

More than 30 firefighters, including volunteers from the local Bonny Doon Fire and Rescue, arrived on-site to ensure that work went smoothly and safely. More than one dozen trucks, tanker trucks and many lines of hose were deployed.

Native Steward Paul Lopez starts the ceremonial fire at San Vicente Redwoods using traditional methods. Photo courtesy Sempervirens Fund.

In keeping with the Amah Mutsun tradition, Amah Mutsun Native Stewards started fire using an elderberry and huckleberry fire drill they brought to the site. The Stewards had traveled a great distance that day to join everyone from their work on a fire crew in the Klamath National Forest.

Val Lopez and Native Stewards Abran Lopez, Nathan Vasquez, and Paul Lopez performed a fire ceremony while Cal Fire teams respectfully observed this sacred moment. As Val sang and prayed, the quiet attention everyone brought to this ceremony was remarkable, rarely undertaken to light a fire of this size in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the past 200 hundred years.

To begin the controlled burn, Amah Mutsun Tribal members and Val took turns with Cal Fire personnel to light lines of fire through a five-acre patch on the west side of Empire Grade Road. The inmate fire crews from the nearby Ben Lomond Conservation Camp watched carefully from along the fire break they had prepared on the site’s perimeter earlier in the day.

The weather was perfect for the burnnot too much moisture and not too little, and the wind cooperated to lift the increasingly thick smoke straight into the sky above the forest.

The burn area had been carefully prepared and nearly of all the understory had been removed. The thick underbrush and enormous amount of fuel in the forest immediately adjacent to the selected site made clear why it was necessary to remove the understory before the blaze could be set. The contrast between these two areas as worked progressed illustrated why fire had been used for long to keep land open and clear.  

The prescribed fire went very well. Cal Fire staff and superintendents worked through the day to control the burn and kept it moving forward. The upper story of the forest was protected and during the next two days more than 10 acres were burned. Fire personnel stood watch for more than 48 hours after the last flame disappeared to ensure the fire was out. All together it was a complex and collaborative effort to reduce available fuel, create an important fire-break, and bring new life to the forest.

Throughout the day a five-person crew from Providence Pictures filmed the event, catching the blaze on film and interviewing fire crews and others. Providence is including the fire and the work of the Amah Mutsun in a four-part series for PBS about Native people in North America.

Nicole Heller from POST spoke to Providence Pictures of the value of fire in maintaining a healthy forest ecology; and Rick Flores from UC Santa Cruz, spoke about the use of fire by Native tribes to tend the landscape and to encourage certain plants and trees to flourish.

The author with Tribal Chair Valentin Lopez. Photo courtesy Sempervirens Fund.

Val Lopez was also on camera all day. The fire ceremony was filmed for the first time and at the end of the day Val spoke about the past and the way his ancestors thought of the forest and of all living things as kin, as family. Val spoke of the ways that the Amah Mutsun worked to tend the wild landscapes of the mountains and coastal valleys. He spoke of the Tribe’s intention to undertake that work again–as a sacred duty and as a sensible approach to comprehensive management of protected and private lands.  

By 5PM the first day of the burn, the fire crews had declared a stop to the burn, and were cleaning up the perimeter and checking the land before dark. Providence Pictures continued to film, and Val dutifully did take after take walking across the blackened forest floor through the smoke and remnant flames talking about the past and the cruel history his ancestors endured. He talked about the future and the work ahead to restore the land to its former condition, and to restore his Tribe to its role as stewards of Popeloutchom.


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