LOS ANGELES – When Belinda Brown was a child, she would rise early in the morning every spring and fall to help her father and grandfather light the fields of the XL Ranch Indian reservation outside of Alturas, Calif. She would take a metal rake to the grasses and watch as flames spread.
"Fire was absolutely a part of what we did all the time," she said. "It wasn't a fearful thing."
Long before California was California, Native Americans used fire to keep the lands where they lived healthy. That meant intentionally burning excess vegetation at regular intervals, during times of the year when the weather would keep blazes smaller and cooler than the fires burning today.
The work requires a deep understanding of how winds would spread flames down a particular hillside or when lighting a fire in a forest would foster the growth of certain plants, and that knowledge has been passed down through ceremony and practice. But until recently, it has been mostly dismissed as unscientific.
Now, as more Americans are being forced to confront the realities of climate change, firefighting experts and policymakers are increasingly turning to fundamental ecological principles that have long guided Indigenous communities.
"I keep saying we're getting that 'I told you so' award," Brown, a member of the Kosealekte Band of the Ajumawi-Atsuge Nation in Northern California, said with a weary smile. "My prayer is that ignorance won't stop us again."
Today, she is the tribal partnerships director for the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization that works with tribal communities in Oregon and Northern California to make life in forested areas more sustainable.
More than 5 million acres have burned on the West Coast this year, including a staggering 4 million in California.
Officials and experts have coalesced around the need to abandon long-standing policies requiring that every fire be extinguished and to significantly increase the use of prescribed burning.
But it has been difficult to introduce those practices in the West, where the landscape and climate are essentially incomparable.
Dar Mims, a meteorologist for the California Air Resources Board and an expert on prescribed burning, said that perhaps the biggest challenge for the state's policymakers has been convincing the public that burning large swaths of land on purpose is the best way to keep them safe.
This challenge is compounded by the fact that many have been allowed to move into areas that are at risk of burning, with the expectation that their property will be protected at any cost. "It's like making the battleship turn," he said. "It takes time."
Still, officials and Indigenous community advocates have described this year as a wake-up call.
Last month, Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Maria Cantwell of Washington introduced legislation that would fund significantly more prescribed burns.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has acknowledged that the state's forests should be better maintained. He has touted a new partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, which controls most of the state's forest land, with the goal of treating 1 million acres per year, including with prescribed fires.