Last episode, we talked to environmental historian Jared Dahl Aldern about why California has so many wildfires. And with all the news of big, out-of-control wildfires—especially in the last two years—it’s hard to think of fire as anything but a scary, destructive force.
Do you ever wonder if fire can be good?
Chairman Ron Goode, the Tribal Chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe, has been conducting cultural burns in California for decades. He’s a fire expert and a scholar and has a ton of interesting insight into the ways fire can be used as a force for good, supporting both the land and Indigenous culture.
Learn more about Ron’s work:
Last fall, we opened a brand-new exhibit called Fire! Science & Safety, which invites our guests to explore Casa del Fuego, Apartment 911 as a fire danger detective, seeking out fire and burn hazards to make their families, pets, and homes safer—both inside the home, as well as outside threats like wildfires.
Have a question you've been wondering about? Send an email or voice recording to the podcast team to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes.
Perry Roth-Johnson (00:06):
Hello! This is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center. I'm Perry Roth-Johnson. Last episode, we talked to environmental historian, Jared Dahl Aldern about why California has so many wildfires. And with all the news of big out-of-control wildfires—especially in the last two years—it's hard to think of fire as anything but a scary, destructive force. But do you ever wonder if fire can be good?
Perry Roth-Johnson (00:36):
Chairman Ron Goode, the Tribal Chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe, has been conducting cultural burns in California for decades. He's a fire expert and a scholar, and has a ton of interesting insight into the ways fire can be used as a force for good, supporting both the land and Indigenous culture. Quick side note: we recorded this conversation at the end of 2021. So when you hear us say "this year" and "last year," we're referring to 2021 and 2020. Chairman Ron Goode, you are the Tribal Chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe. You're also a scholar, a fire expert, a practitioner of cultural burning—Ron, welcome to the show!
Ron Goode (01:16):
Hey, thank you.
Perry Roth-Johnson (01:17):
I'm really excited and grateful to talk to you today, Ron, uh, as you know, we first met because you graciously served as a technical advisor for a short video series on wildfire that will be in a new exhibition called Fire! Science & Safety, here at the California Science Center. I just want to kinda lay, uh, some groundwork and start with some basics. Obviously, Californians are no stranger to wildfires. We all saw the news headlines in 2020 about these giant catastrophic megafires, one after another, or about the smoke and ash from nearby fires even turning Bay Area skies orange. And this year, the wildfires like the Dixie Fire, Caldor Fire, or more recently, uh, KNP Complex Fire in Sequoia. They all seem to be burning at a similar pace as last year. But these catastrophic wildfires are just one type of fire, right? Uh, can fire be good? Do we just know fire's bad side because we see it in the news all the time?
Ron Goode (02:14):
Yes. Fire can be good. Uh, let's entertain a little bit here because yes, every year we are breaking the record and the Creek fire was the biggest single fire at 378,000 acres. And now, you know, the, the Dixie fire has more than twice, almost three times as big. So that, that's the big question why and there's answers, but they all are not in one little nutshell. So the, the answers of course is that it's the way the land and the landscape has been being managed and taken care of, which is allowing and has been allowing since 1900 a fuel base to be brought up on the landscape that is creating the avenue for the fire to be a unstoppable. That's the first thing mm-hmm the second thing is the people that are fighting the fire, managing the fire, coordinating the fire are fighting with each other on the fire.
Perry Roth-Johnson (03:35):
Ron Goode (03:35):
Perry Roth-Johnson (03:36):
What do you mean by that?
Ron Goode (03:37):
This is something that people are not hearing. They are not understanding that Cal Fire wants to go this way. The forest wants to go that way, or the park wants to go in another direction and it all, and they're all on the project together on how to do these things. And they are all stuck back in a mode that has never worked for them on how to fight a fire. And so consequently, they are struggling big time on how to attack this fire. Stop this fire. Now that sounds like a pretty big statement. So there's a couple of Chinooks down south that can drop 10 times the water of any helicopter. They can fly through smoke, they can fly at night and they can refill in 90 seconds.
Perry Roth-Johnson (04:40):
Ron Goode (04:41):
And they have been refused on every fire in Northern California above Bakersfield.
Perry Roth-Johnson (04:48):
Wait really? I did not know that.
Ron Goode (04:52):
They even, they even took the, the Chinook up to the Dixie Fire and got turned down and, and all these fire, every one of them right here on the Complex Fire on the Windy Fire mm-hmm, mm-hmm, Caldor Fire, Dixie Fire. They have all turned it down. So we are not maximizing what technology is available to us. I see. Okay. Now the next thing that happens out there on the fire is that teams are brought in on the Creek Fire last year. There were seven different teams over the four months, I think seven or eight different teams.
Perry Roth-Johnson (05:37):
It's a lot of coordination.
Ron Goode (05:38):
They come in for about 14 days. And while they're in they're they're in charge, they don't care what the last team did. And they're not worried about what the next one's gonna do. Mm-hmm, they're in charge now. And here's how we manage fires. It's not the forest. If it's on the forest, it's not the force that's managing the fire. It's the team that's being brought in. They could be brought in from Alaska, uh, Wyoming and Florida, who knows where they come from, right?
Perry Roth-Johnson (06:09):
Yeah. Cause you get these mutual aid agreements, right. Where different fire departments will, will fly in to help.
Ron Goode (06:15):
Right? This is what they have to deal with on these big fires. Then you also get to a point where like on the Creek Fire, uh, there's several native American firefighting groups that were out there. And one of them that I'm aware of, you know, called in to the, to the management team at the time and said, Hey, at 278,000, we can pretty much put a, a stop to this fire or control it real well right here. And they were told to get out, move along and a hundred thousand acres later, they finally put the fire out.
Perry Roth-Johnson (06:56):
Ron Goode (06:57):
That's the biggest, greatest question right there. Uh I'm I just got done writing a journal article and in some parts it's, what's called wildfire management. Mm-hmm so they hit certain areas where, oh, we've burned here before we have a, a good, uh, footprint, or, you know, it's gonna get up into the rocks and we just don't have any more trees to burn. So let it burn through, let it burn this area. This area's never been burned. And you know, it's not gonna take out too many facilities and you know, we're good just let it burn. Some of that might be good management, but again, you have to figure out, you know. What's the equation? What is everything that's being thrown into this pot? And it's going to come out here are equaling what we have at the very end. It's a complex algebra problem. If not trigonometry and people don't understand that. People in general don't realize that there's all this complexity to the firefighting because in the end they. You know, they will look out and look at our blackened earth and wonder what happened and how can you stop a fire like that? Right. Mm-hmm. Well, I'm not saying that it could have been stopped at any point in time, but there are variables in which it could have been controlled in different manners and was controlled in different manners by letting it burn here, letting it burn there versus stopping it or not using the equipment that you need to use. So on the, uh, I think it's the Complex Fire. So it was burning in a canyon that was, had no access in Sequoia Park. So basically they just let the whole side of the mountain burn and it was burning down to the creek down to the river. So, you know, hopefully it wasn't going to jump across in which it did anyway, but there were over the years I've been out there because I did cultural burning with them back a few years, you know, and we, we would go out and we'd look at these when you gonna burn that mountain over there, you know? Oh, I don't know. You know, I said, it'd be easy to burn if you go up on top and open the entire ridge, you know, like not, not a trail, but a pathway on both sides of the mountain, just open the top of the mountain and you can light it down here on the bottom. And it ain't gonna go over the top. If you open it up and got plenty of space, you can spot fire it on the other side, you know, and make sure you're you got a good watch on there. Oh, you know, that was just crazy talk. It's no longer crazy talk because all that's burned now.
Perry Roth-Johnson (10:22):
Right. And just for our listeners who might not yet be familiar, uh, what is cultural burning, uh, to you?
Ron Goode (10:30):
So we'll switch horses from wildfires for a minute or even prescribed fire. There's a lot of legislation going on right now in the state, including, uh, cultural burning. And, uh, I'm, I'm currently reviewing a 23 page report all about cultural burning, prescribed fire wildfire, and not one word about culture. Cultural burning is about culture. And it is not about restoring the landscape. It is not about enhancing or restoring the resources. It is about the sustainability of the culture and the practitioner, the traditionalist, and the traditional way of life of the tribal group, their culture. Now, if, and when we go to burn, then I need to know what type of stick does the basket maker need and from what plant, and I need to know exactly what is the best stick for them together, because if they're good basket makers, they don't want poor quality even after a wildfire or, or, you know, they will go out and hunt for that perfect bush that burned just right. And you know, you're talking about the Creek Fire than you're looking at 378,000 acres. Well, basically, if you're over 50, you're not going to be doing too much hiking over 378,000 acres for the best bush.
Perry Roth-Johnson (12:27):
Yeah. That's a lot.
Ron Goode (12:28):
You're gonna need to be able to get to access points along the way that you might find a good bush. So if I'm doing cultural burning and I'm going to burn a strawberry or an elderberry or a red bud, I need to be able to put fire on the land so that that product will return the following year and be harvestable by the basket maker. The normalcy for that is three years and maybe five before it will start producing the kind of stick or, or even berries for that matter that the harvester and gatherer needs. If I can do one or two, you know, spots where it's a perfect burn and the nutrient of the ground is done so I don't even need water. That's when I've re-attained my ultimate cultural burning. So last February in 2021, it poured rain. We managed to get 16 burns and before them were before the weekend came before the rains came and we burned invasives and we burned some plants. We had one burn that was pretty good. In March, we got 25 burns over a 45 acres. It, it, it's not all 45 acres that was on fire, but throughout 45 acres, we had four or five burn areas going. And we had one that was perfect. That one that was so perfect. This is March. We got a little bit of rain in April No rain in May, no rain in June, no rain in July, August, September, those plants, because it was done correctly. And the nutrient to the ground was done so well that the elderberry grew five, six feet tall.
Perry Roth-Johnson (14:55):
Ron Goode (14:56):
The strawberry was three to four feet tall in perfect shape. That is when you have achieved a certain goal of burning to sustain the culture of your people. So I don't go out there to light fire to restore that sour berry bush, because it's dead and dying. Yes. That's the one that needs to be burned because it's dead and dying. But if I'm going to burn it, I need to burn it with, with how, how does my basket maker want these sticks? How do they want the berries to be on this shrub when it gets reproduced next year? That's what you're trying to attain.
Perry Roth-Johnson (15:49):
Uh, so let me just make sure I understand this, uh, cultural burning, like you said, is for culture and restoration might be a helpful byproduct, but it's not the primary goal of doing cultural burning. Do I have that right?
Ron Goode (16:03):
You got it right.
Perry Roth-Johnson (16:05):
I want to shift gears a little bit, uh, to talk about some of the history of how we got here, cause it seems like the outcome of a fire seems to depend so much on the initial conditions of the landscape. And now that we have more intense, more frequent and often much bigger wildfires, how did we get to this point? Can, can you walk me through how the landscape of California has evolved since say pre 1850 when the Indian was living out on the land before Euro-American colonizers arrived?
Ron Goode (16:32):
Well, you said it right there pre 1850, we had thousands and thousands of Indians. My tribe had 3000, which is one of the smaller groups. My tribe is the North Fork Mono Tribe. We still have 1.4 million homeland acres. We don't own it according to the government, but then the government has never, you know, we're not a federally recognized tribe because we're an aboriginal tribe and it's still our homeland and we still ride jurisdiction over it. Now, many of the tribes are, are that way. But when we were out on that land, the overall canopy in thickness was 40% or less. I've been on a collaborative called the Dinkey Restoration Landscape Collaborative. And there's like 22 of them in the, in the nation. And that was right here on the Sierra National Forest. We had environmentalists in loggers and ranchers and um, forestry folks and you name it. We had 'em. But the concept was that the forest and one of the reasons it burns so well is because it's 80 to 90% in thickness up from 40 yes. Up from 40. And when we did landscaping and we took it down to 60%, they all started crying, oh, this is just that that's just too low. That's just too open. Well, let me tell you what this openness means to us. We lived out there. Every meadow, which is over to 10,000 meadows throughout the Sierras has an archeological site nearby because our people lived there. I have children. I've been living on this land for minimally 8,000 to as long as 15,000 years. And I've had children continually for many, many generations. Well, if I can't see my children, because my children are living out there with bear's children with lion's children, with deer's children, with badger's children, they're out there with everybody's children. I need to be able to see my children. All times. So we have what we call the, see through concept. I gotta be able to see 100 yards, 200 yards, 400 yards, where are my children? When I see bear and her children. Look, we got two springs, maybe one in this meadow, and everybody comes to use it. Deer comes at 10:20 in the morning. Well, lion, he's got a Rolex on his paw. He looks at his paw and he goes, it's 10:20, man. It's not only time for a drink. It's time for breakfast and if he doesn't get one of those little fawns, he's gonna be looking at one of your little fawns. Cause he's hungry and bears sitting over there in the shadow. Yeah. You go line when you get done I'll come by and finish it off. So this is all part of nature. But when we were out there in the, the land, we got to be able to know where our children are. I mean, if, if we in the big, massive society that we live in, put yourself in a mall and you got kids, you know, and you're shopping with your kids and you're getting tired. And all of a sudden there's a pretty little red pair of shoes in the window. And you turn to look at those red shoes, like dream a little bit. And then you turn around and go, Hey, what happened to my kids? And there's 10,000 people going through the mall and you have no idea where your kids are and you start to panic. And then you bust through that crowd of people and okay, there's your kids over there looking at the puzzles in the window. Oh, you know, I'm okay now. But that's how it is out there on the land. It's panic time. When you see lion and bear and you don't know where your kids are. So if our canopy is 80, 90%, like it is today, I can't see through the forest for the trees. There's no way that I can see my kids and no way that I can live out there. So fire was a part of our tool in how we kept it all open. You know, I mean that, that's some wild analogies, but people don't seem to understand sometimes until they're put into a certain kind of pot and say, oh, this pot's boiling. Yeah. This pot's boiling. Now you understand what, what I'm talking about.
Perry Roth-Johnson (22:05):
Mm-hmm. From what I understand in your past writings and, and talks, there's a unique relationship between fire, water and the land. Right? Can you tell me a little bit more about that relationship?
Ron Goode (22:18):
You want a story.
Perry Roth-Johnson (22:19):
Ron Goode (22:22):
So, yeah, let's see if I can remember this. But anyway, the story is, is that a long time ago, water married land and they had a little mischievous child named fire. We have Indian names for all of these. And fire, as he grew up, would run around the countryside and lighten things up. So water would follow along behind him. His father would follow along behind him, putting water on his, on his fire. And then mother, Mother Earth would come along and replant put in new grasses, native, native plants and cover up his trail. And so this relationship is the same then as it is today, when the Creek Fire took off, he was in an area that was so inundated with brush and trees that the landscape, the trees, the brush all started calling fire. They called fire, come to us. And across the river, they called over there, you know, come across over here. We need to be burned. And it did. And then it called wind and wind came 110 miles an hour from the space up in space. They show pictures of it. It looked like a big Adam bomb going off and it created its own, you know, system. It was, ash was flowing so much that it looked like it was pouring rain, but it was lightning and thundering inside of its, you know, its own system because it needed fire. The land needed fire. And then eventually, you know, water has come, but where has water come from? Well, now that the fire is over, we just completed nine new meadows of assessing for the forest. And as a tribe, when we went out in June, every single meadow was just soft and wet. I've been I'm 71 years old on, I never seen the meadows that wet. So wet that some of the meadows you soaked up to your knees and most of 'em, you bogged down into your shoes. Boots went down.
Perry Roth-Johnson (25:19):
It almost sounds like a swamp.
Ron Goode (25:20):
Almost. Some of them were, you know, then some of 'em started to dry up a little bit by late August. You know, they still had water here and there bits of water, but that's because there's nothing sucking up the water now. You know, all that, all those trees that the Creek Fire burned. When you drive around out there, the little drainages are just full of water. And you look at the drainage and the water was maybe a foot to two foot wide. But now after the fire, you got four feet on each side of the drainage of all greenery in the middle of this blackened forest, every water spot, you got ponds everywhere. You got water, just flowing. Some of it, white, white water, there's water coming out of the mountain everywhere. Because once we put fire on the land, the water come back. And that's our old stories was that when the Nim get their fires off the land, the water will rise, Nium being the North Fork Mono people. And, and that's, that's what our old creation stories and everything told us what we needed to know and how we needed to do things. So we still go back then to these old concepts of what was in place and how we need to deal with, with fire, how we need to deal with, with land.
Perry Roth-Johnson (27:10):
Absolutely. It's been wonderful talking to you, Ron. Uh, just on a personal note, in the brief time I've worked with you, it's really helped me get a better understanding and new perspective on our relationship with fire, and I hope our listeners have a similar experience. Ron, thanks for joining us on the show!
Ron Goode (27:25):
Thank you. You have a good day.
Perry Roth-Johnson (27:26):
You too, Ron.
Ron Goode (27:28):
Perry Roth-Johnson (27:28):
Perry Roth-Johnson (27:28):
That's our show, and thanks for listening. Until next time, keep wondering. Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center is produced by me, Perry Roth-Johnson, along with Devin Stewart and Jennifer Aguirre. Liz Roth-Johnson is our editor. Theme music provided by Michael Nickolas and Pond5. We'll drop new episodes every other Wednesday. If you're a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps other people discover our show. Have a question you've been wondering about? Send an email or voice recording to email@example.com to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes.