Episode 4: The Gift of Fire

For millennia, wildfire was part of life in North America. Indigenous people used it for tradition and ceremony, to improve the health of ecosystems, and to assist with hunting and gathering. But the arrival of white settlers marked the beginning of an era in which that knowledge about fire and its role on the landscape was suppressed. Now, Indigenous groups across the country are working to revive tribal relationships with fire. Today, hear one story about bringing fire back to the land on the Flathead Reservation in Northwest Montana.

 – Andy Bidwell is a fuels specialist for the U.S. Forest Service

 – Tony Incashola Jr. is the head of forestry for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes

 – Tony Incashola Sr. is a Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes elder and the director of the Selis-Qispe Culture Committee

 – Germaine White is an educator and former cultural resource manager for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes

Transcript & Links:
Justin Angle
Previously, on Fireline:

[Richard Wrangham]: “The word focus derives from the Latin word for fire. And it’s a reminder that people love to focus on fire.”

[Jennifer Balch]: “You know I’ll talk about it in a calm way, because I’m a scientist and I’m trying to be as objective as I can, but this is me hitting the panic button.”

[Andrew Larson]: “And we have to get past the promise that forestry made the world years and years ago that we can control fire and put it out and regulate the forest in that way.”

[Smokey The Bear clip]: “Remember, only you can prevent forest fires.”

[John Maclean]: “Fire is not some strange, foreign creature. It is part of the soul of man.”

Support for this program comes from Berkshire Hathaway’s Homeservices Montana Properties, First Security Bank, Blackfoot Communications, and A New Angle podcast.

Justin Angle It’s a cold morning in late fall, and I’m in the Rattlesnake, a popular recreation area near my house in Missoula, Montana. But today I’m not hiking or biking.

I’m walking among shoulder-high, pyramid shaped piles of sticks, logs and brush with Andy Bidwell, a fire manager with the Lolo National Forest. Andy’s doing a prescribed burn. So he’s getting ready to set some stuff on fire. On purpose.

[Andy Bidwell]: “This is a drip torch, so this is just an ignition device that we use for hand ignition. Meaning, somebody just carries these around and drops some fire onto whatever we want to ignite.”

Justin Angle It looks like somebody put a curly-straw in a tank of diesel fuel1.

[Andy Bidwell]: “Minimal components, so they’re pretty simple to use.”

Justin Angle He walked me from one pile of snow-covered tree limbs to the next. Those limbs were leftover from a forest thinning project, and too small to process at a local mill.

[Andy Bidwell]: “Most firefighters carry some kind of ignition tool… Bic lighter.”

Justin Angle He crouched down, trying to find dry spots where the fire would take.

[Andy Bidwell]: “It doesn’t take much to get ‘em going but we just want to make sure that they do get going…”

Justin Angle The scientific literature overwhelmingly shows that, at a large scale, what Andy’s doing can mean less intense fire seasons2. Prescribed fires can get rid of underbrush that ladders flames up into the treetops3. They can create fire breaks that slow down or stop big blazes4.

And there are other benefits too: studies have shown that prescribed fire, coupled with thinning, is the best way to help forests hold on to more carbon that would otherwise be unleashed into the atmosphere by wildfires or large-scale logging5. Prescribed fire could reduce fire’s carbon emissions across the West by about 25 percent6.

[Chris French]: “I think people are understanding that in these fire-prone forests that one of the main things we need to do as part of our active management is bring in more prescribed fire, reintroduce fire into these places…”

Justin Angle That’s Chris French, deputy chief of the National Forest System7, in a U.S. Senate Committee meeting last fall.

Across the West, there are countless slash piles like these bundles in the Rattlesnake waiting to burn8. But to make any kind of dent in the intensity of wildfires, we need to set fire to way, way more land than we’ve been able to in the past.

We could devote a whole podcast series to the barriers to making this happen: prescribed burns are often bundled with logging projects, so lawsuits can slow them down. People don’t want smoke in the skies. Federal agencies need more staff and resources. And there are safety issues:

[News clip]: “Hundreds of homes, thousands of acres…”

Justin Angle Some burns in the past have gotten out of control, and caused huge, destructive wildfires.

[News clip]: “This fire was deliberately set to help prevent other fires. What went wrong?”

Justin Angle This is a news clip about the Cerro Grande Fire in New Mexico in 2000. A prescribed burn went sideways: hundreds of houses burnt down, and the flames threatened a nuclear weapons facility. Fires like this one can be devastating to the effort to put more fire on the ground.

The point is: we need more burning, not less. But from 1998 to 2018 – as we saw some of the worst wildfires on the books – the amount of prescribed fire we were putting on the land went down in the West9.

I’m Justin Angle and this is Fireline: a series about what wildfire means for the West, our planet, and our way of life.

Instead of zooming out to how we get more fire on the whole landscape, we’re going to zoom way in. And focus on one, single story of bringing fire back to a place where it’s been suppressed for decades.

Some people and cultures have been intentionally setting fires for tradition, hunting and gathering, and the health of ecosystems for millennia10. So why’s it so hard to get fire back on the land? And what happens when we do?

This is episode 4: The Gift of Fire.

Justin Angle I met father-and-son Tony Incashola Jr. and Tony Incashola Sr in the height of fire season last year. We met in a lush, peaceful forest of widely spaced trees in the foothills of the rugged Mission Mountains on the Flathead Reservation, just north of Missoula.

The reservation is home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes11. This is a tiny sliver of the tribes’ ancestral land — more than 20 million acres in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and British Columbia12 they’ve inhabited for at least 10 thousand years.

[Tony Incashola]: “You’re going to say something first?

[Tony Incashola Jr.]: “No, they wanted to interview you. I’m just along for the ride.”

Justin Angle We’ll just call these two Junior and Senior. They’re both tribal members, and they took me to this particular forest to tell me about a big experiment here that shaped what the forest is today.

Junior’s the head of Forestry for the tribes. He’s wearing a trucker cap, a bright blue athletic t-shirt and cargo pants, with a little burst of a goatee on his chin.

[Justin Angle]: “How did you get into this work?”

[Tony Incashola Jr.]: “Just as a kid. So I lived here. So this is what I do this I come to the woods all the time. I hunted. I fished, I gathered, I, I recreated hiked.”

Justin Angle Back when Junior was a kid, tromping around the woods, this forest looked a lot different than it does today. This spot is called the Jocko Prairie, named after the nearby Jocko River. But back then, the place looked more like a jungle than a prairie.

[Tony Incashola Jr.]: “Very dense looking, very tight, slow growing, a lot of competition, a ton of stems per acre.”

Justin Angle This, a congested swathe of ponderosa pine, is a forest type where fire suppression has played a major role in the buildup of fuel. Just like in the rest of the West, fire in the area was treated as an enemy for about a century. Without periodic flames little baby trees and other undergrowth grew, and spread. Clogged the place up. To add to the mix, cattle were grazing through here.

[Tony Incashola Sr.]: “You’d have to watch where you step, for one thing.”

Justin Angle That’s Senior. He has well-kept white hair and glasses, and a collection of pens in the chest pocket of his polo shirt. Junior grew up following his dad around the woods, watching and learning from him. And today, when Senior starts to talk about this place and what it means to the tribe, Junior mostly stands back, and lets Senior lead.

[Tony Incashola Sr.]: “I had the opportunity and fortunate enough to be born and raised in that time period, that last probably the last part generation of elders that really understood the traditional values of who we are as a people and also the last ones that actually lived that way.”

Justin Angle For almost five decades, he’s been working for the culture committee here, to keep traditions and knowledge alive that could otherwise slip through the cracks13.

[Tony Incashola Sr.]: “I still learn something new every day from my elders. And that’s something that education like that is a lifetime thing. It doesn’t just come and go. You’re not born. You go to school, you get a degree and this and that. And it’s over. No. And education continues on and on.”

Justin Angle Senior’s education about fire started when he was a kid, looking up to his grandma. He remembers seeing the smoke in the mountains after a summer thunderstorm. She looked at that smoke, and told him it wasn’t something to be feared; that soon, there would be new growth and new life there.

[Tony Incashola Sr]: “She was she was a big adamant supporter, supporter of fires, knowing that she said the creator is is cleaning his room.”

Justin Angle And it wasn’t just fires off in the mountains.

[Tony Incashola Sr.]: “We all have our favorite camping spots, our favorite hunting areas. Well, when I was growing up as no different. And in those areas, the first thing we do is get there. My grandma, who was the head in charge of camp, she would select an area to say, to work in the camp. This is our camp, my dad and my brothers and I – first thing we would do is clear it, and burn it.

Justin Angle Burning the land would prepare it for hunting, and for harvesting.

[Tony Incashola Sr.]: “You can you can kind of think about it as a garden, you know, a gardener out there taking care of his and his garden. You know, you got to weed it. You got to do things. Well, the bigger garden here is fire is used. That’s the role of the fire – comes in and cleans it out. And, and in some areas, it needs help.”

Justin Angle Looking back even farther, certain members of his tribe had a very special relationship with fire. They understood its behavior, how it would interact with upcoming rain or snow, and how it could rejuvenate the landscape.

[Tony Incashola Sr.]: “They had what they called firemakers. In our language they called them [speaks Kalispel language] which is a kind of a fire a firemaker. There were several of them that would study. That would understand the environment. The growth of different things. These people were the ones that set the fire. They knew when, they knew where, they knew the weather, and they were the ones that would set the fire.“

Justin Angle He tells us more about that childhood camping spot. It was along a river in Northwest Montana.

[Tony Incashola Sr.]: “What is now the Flathead River. Used to be called the Pend O’Reille river, which was after the upper Kalispel people. The Pend O’Reille are actually Kalispel, which means people of the camas. Kalispel in our language. Which means people of the camas.”

Justin Angle That plant – camas – is an important one to know. Camas is a flower that blooms bright purple in summer14. Traditionally, Salish women gathered and baked the bulbs of camas15. One single woman might have gathered upwards of 4000 pounds of the plant a year16. It was crucial for the survival of the tribe17. But its use — and even its presence on the landscape — has plummeted since colonization.

Here, in the Jocko Prairie, rewind just ten years, and the place is covered in cow patties, it’s an overgrown jungle, a far cry from the what it once was.

[Tony Incashola Sr.]: “You know Our elders have always said that there was camas in this area, but nobody believed because they couldn’t see it.”

Justin Angle Elders and others in the tribe took note of the damage to the ecosystem.

[Tony Incashola Sr.]: “They say something has to be done, they can’t go camping in their spots. They can do recreating their spots without stepping on some cow shit. Or drink any water anymore. They have to bring water because of it. So that’s when they started thinking about and started hammering out our tribal leaders about what’s necessary.”

Justin Angle So – what was necessary? Those elders wanted to breathe life back into this area. To get it back to that lush, wide-open space. But doing that meant bringing fire back to the landscape. And that’s no easy feat.

We’ll go back to Junior and Senior in a bit. But first, we need to understand how for the tribe, fire had a very different meaning than it did for much of the rest of the country.

When Germaine White started thinking about those two different meanings,

Germaine White I saw this extraordinary collision of cultures that that occurred historically.

Justin Angle Germaine’s also an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and she spent decades working for the tribes in cultural preservation. And she got thinking about the tribe’s relationship with fire while working on a project about tribal place names — as in, what areas are called.

Germaine White They are oftentimes names that come from coyote stories that tell about the making of places, so the creation of this landscape, they talk about resources that are on the land or they talk about landforms. So this is some of the oldest memory of tribal people that our elders have carried from their ancestors and then have passed on to their children.

What I saw at that time was that these places that the elders had known throughout their lives — so this is in the late 90s — these places that have been known for 12 or fourteen thousand years conservatively were changing within their lifetime. There was development infrastructure, there were roads, there was all kinds of change that that had occurred. But how did the landscape change so profoundly?

Justin Angle As she talked to elders about how the land used to be, she started to realize that the cause of all that change wasn’t just development. Fire had given the landscape some of the characteristics those names carried. Fire suppression was one of the forces that made things so different.

Germaine White I began to understand the role of fire in shaping this cultural landscape that our elders knew and loved.

Justin Angle Now, this is one tribe’s view of wildfire. And the federal government recognizes more than 500 tribes in the U.S.18 The specifics of tribal relationships with fire vary to some extent across the country. But before white settlers took over the land, it’s fair to say those relationships developed from living alongside — and often utilizing — wildfire.

But as the U.S. government confronted tribes, it corralled Native people into reservations, killed them, forced them into boarding schools, and outlawed traditional ceremonies and practices. As this mission to suppress indigenous culture gained steam, very different ideas about fire took hold.

Germaine White And then I also began learning about the early history of visitors and strangers that came to this landscape. And how many of them came from from Europe, from a Christian background and a built environment where fire was not considered a gift? You know, we can think about the fires of hell or the destruction of residential fire.

Justin Angle Germaine had written down a passage from an essay by ethnobotanist Nancy Turner19.

Germaine White She said, quote, “It’s ironic that the landscape so appreciated by the early explorers and colonists actually were created by the very fires they feared and disliked.” Well, that pretty much sums up the cultural collision that occurred when visitors and strangers came to this land where people were making fire, using fire as a powerful tool.

Justin Angle In the middle of the twentieth century, as our national war against fire seized the country, so did an obsession with ‘wilderness’, areas we value for the natural beauty and lack of obvious human impact.

[Wilderness Act video]: “Congress was specific about what wilderness is.”

Justin Angle This is from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service video about the Wilderness Act, which passed in 196420.

[Wilderness Act video]: “The Act states that a wilderness, in contrast to those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape is an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man. Where man himself is a visitor who does not remain…”

Justin Angle Combined, the areas designated as wilderness in the U.S. are bigger than the state of California21. In wilderness, you can’t run a chainsaw or drive a car or build a road22.

[Wilderness Act video]: “You can see the intent of the word untrammeled in the Wilderness act. These are areas where humans do not direct what goes on in the environment. It is the forces of nature that direct the environment.”

Justin Angle This idea of wilderness – of land untouched by human hands – erases the long history of humans living in and shaping those ecosystems.

As society waged a war on flames, fire — even if to make the land fertile and healthier — was forbidden. At times, the consequences for Native Americans were dire.

Germaine tells me about a newspaper account from Missoula in 1875:

Germaine White At the beginning of November of that year. One hundred and eighty three lodges of Pend O’Reille Indians were crossing the Rocky Mountains in the northwest corner of the territory. They were traveling east on a buffalo hunt when two of them were shot and killed by, quote, the officers of the international line for setting a fire on the plains.

So when people would leave in the late fall from, so this was at the beginning of November when they were returning home, they would set fire that would make the you know, that would leave an ash layer that was a fertile seedbed. It would the next year, the grasses would be green. It was a way of restoring and maintaining the landscape. Pretty powerful disincentive to continue your cultural practices when you’re shot and killed.

Justin Angle Germaine, like Senior, sees the elimination of fire, and what it means for the landscape, as bound up with the elimination of culture and tribal people. In the absence of fire, native flora tribes relied upon for millennia have been overtaken and replaced by encroaching grasses, weeds, and other plants. In many cases, the knowledge and traditions that depend upon those plants and those ecosystems have withered away too.

Germaine White It’s easy to understand that when people arrived on this landscape that it was a landscape that was shaped and maintained by fire and that it was exquisitely beautiful. It’s easy to understand that traditional knowledge of fire should be integrated into fire management practices today. But, man that’s hard to achieve.”

Justin Angle Back in the Jocko Prairie, Junior and Senior are showing us around.

[Tony Incashola Jr.]: “We got a fairly large, 100 to 200 year old ponderosa pine that’s about 18 inches diameter…”

Justin Angle When we left off, tribal elders and others on the reservation had decided that this forest had gotten too unhealthy. It was overgrown from decades of excluding fire. Cattle were ranging through, trampling grasses. It made it hard to fish or hunt. Native plants like camas hadn’t been seen there for decades.

But how do you get from Point A – this overgrown mess of a landscape to point B – a healthy forest?

[Tony Incashola Sr.]: “It wasn’t easy. But after a period of time, they finally convinced. At the right time, some leaders that agreed and move the cattle out.

Justin Angle So that’s step one, getting the cattle out. But they still had to deal with the impacts of all that grazing, and of the lack of fire. That meant first off, thinning the area — coming through and cutting away some of that overgrown mess, especially the smaller trees in between the healthier, older bigger ones. And then, at long last —

[Tony Incashola Jr.]: “We came through here in 2015, laid some fire on the ground, very low intensity…“

Justin Angle So that thinning cleared the way for a prescribed burn. Before the treatment, if a fire came through the dense brush and medium sized trees it could’ve laddered the flames up into the canopy. Everything could have burned. But the flames Junior helped put on the ground burned the overgrowth and behaved more like a natural fire. It left the big trees standing, and rejuvenated the soil for new growth.

That was all part of the plan. But nobody expected what happened next:

[Tony Incashola Jr.]: “And the next spring, we came back in here to do just a survey, and that’s when we witnessed that this entire prairie was just purple, completely purple. All the camas came back.

This place has such a higher hydrological water table in here that we didn’t even know. Obviously, we would think by the structure of the stand, it was a more dry, arid site. But it’s got such a high water table in the springtime and then runs out and dries up more in summer, which is perfect for camas. And so with that fire reintroduction finally back into it, it just it bloomed.

I can’t even guess how many years that camas was in here dormant. And with finally the exclusion of cattle just from stop suppressing it and then a rejuvenation of nutrients with the fire, it just sprouted and it’s come back every year.”

Justin Angle That regrowth has slowed just a little bit – but that’s because the work of burns like this one are never done. The area’s on a plan to get burned again in the next couple years. That new fire will likely reignite the nutrients in the soil and keep the camas blooming23.

[Tony Incashola Jr.]: “There’s been really a shift of recognition of us or native tribes nationally, regionally24, using fire and seeing the benefits from it for sure.”

Justin Angle Early in this episode, I mentioned that prescribed burning went down in the West from 1998 to 2018. In that same time period, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was the only federal agency that saw its burning increase substantially25. Organizations like the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network are also growing, and helping amplify tribal knowledge around fire in Northern California, the Great Lakes, the Southwest, and elsewhere.

Let’s zoom out a bit further. Native Americans have a long history of taking part in some of the federal government’s biggest fights, despite centuries of oppression. Senior, himself, is a Vietnam veteran.

[Tony Incashola Sr.]: “So I felt that that war, even though took me, I still had that connection to to the values of what you know, why I am there, not necessarily because of the fighting, but the protection of what what I left behind.”

Justin Angle Since the 1930s, Indigenous people in the U.S. have played a significant role in the government’s battle against wildfire, too. Tens of thousands of Native Americans and Alaska Natives helped build the country’s trail and forest infrastructure. Today, there are seven all-Native elite firefighting crews across the country.

And in spite of all the deep cultural connections to fire, intentionally setting fire to reservation land still presents many challenges. Here in the Jocko Prairie, Junior explains…

[Tony Incashola Jr.]: “There’s still a ways to go. There’s still a ways to go. Obviously, our forests aren’t where we want to be and we’re still striving to do that. We burn three to 5000 acres a year. I mean, I’d love to see us burn seven to ten, you know.”

Justin Angle Burning that much more land on the reservation— or burning a bunch more land anywhere else in the country — means building relationships with communities in the area, who have to decide that having small amounts of smoke in the skies in certain times of the year beats out choking on smoke if a massive fire erupts.

Junior says the tribe’s forest management philosophy is based on using fire, not just suppressing it.

[Tony Incashola Jr.]: “I see I see our forests coming back to a more natural state where burning will be more acceptable. I think going forward, there is an opportunity someday to to really let fire play more of its natural role.”

[Tony Incashola Sr.]: “It’s just a matter of, I think, using our knowledge and our tools properly, and we’ll get there. Our tools, knowledge, the gifts that were given to us, the fire, whatever it is, to learn how to use them, and we’ll get there.”

Justin Angle Senior used this language a lot. Gifts. He says plants, animals, everything here is a gift to the earth, fire included. Junior sees it the same way.

[Tony Incashola Jr.]: “It’s not only a gift to us, but it’s more of a gift to the land, you know. That’s how I’ve always looked at it’s a recognition that it’s a gift to the land.”

Justin Angle Junior says this open area could slow or even stop a raging fire. But fire resilience is just one small part of the bigger picture.

[Tony Incashola Jr.]: “I mean, just speaking on camas, specifically that practice and that gathering in here was was was absent for 100 years, I’d have to say. With the fire, now, that practice can begin here, cultural events can come back here, that that teaching of that lost tradition in here can happen again, not just with camas, but when camas comes back, other stuff comes back. It’s it’s not just one community, one plant. It’s multiple things that start to happen, you know, as we open to stand up, elk come in more. And as as that happens, hunting happens more gathering of camas happens more. It’s not just focusing on one goal. It’s a goal of all the ecosystem here.

Justin Angle Senior has dedicated decades of his life to preserving culture on the Flathead Reservation.

[Tony Incashola Sr.]: “Sometimes it’s hard. In this day and age, it’s hard to keep those values and traditions alive because things have changed. And that’s because we all forget who we are, where we come from. Me, I feel I’m fortunate enough that when I grew up in a time period, I know who I am, I know where I come from, and I know what I need to do for the next generation.”

Justin Angle Bringing fire back to this landscape is part of that work.

[Tony Incashola Sr.]: “Unfortunately, some of those elders that fought so hard for or weren’t able to see the benefits of what happened to their their work, and that’s how we survive today, those ancestors back then that fought so hard, they didn’t they didn’t benefit. What they were fighting for was not for them. It was for the generations that are here today. That’s what life is about. It’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about the next generation. That next generation depends on on us — what we can do.

I think this is a great example of that tribes’, one of the tribal success stories, I guess, of what this country or what our Aboriginal territories used to look like. The fire creates safety. It creates new growth. It creates a lot of different things that’s not the fear that hundreds of thousands of years ago that worried people. It was making sure that that fire, you know, played its role. But today there’s a lot of a lot of fear, a lot of misunderstanding because of simple, they don’t know what the role is on fire. You know, it’s something that you will not be able to control. And what this country has tried to control everything.

Justin Angle Standing there with Junior and Senior, the sound of the creek and the breeze blowing the ponderosa, I was struck by this idea — the control we try to exert over the natural world.

In episode two, historian Steve Pyne talked about how the country’s relationship with fire has long been one of control and domination.

[Steve Pyne]: “We’re going to knock fire out of the landscape. It was a crazy ambition.”

Justin Angle Lots of scholars call the part of history we’re in now the anthropocene26. That anthro — it means people27. It’s a time when humans have impacted every part of the ecosystem28. Wherever you look — in forests, in rivers, you can’t escape the legacy of us, and our crazy ambition to control and shape the world.

But to Senior, this forest – and bringing fire back to it – shows that a different relationship with the natural world is possible. One that’s not based on control. One in which humans and nature shape each other.

[Tony Incashola Sr.]: “It’s things like that that people need to understand. You know, you can’t control fire. That’s part of who we are and part of nature, part of whatever it is that you see here.”

[Voice 1]: “I know that the physical and mental demands of this job have gotten a lot harder.”

[Voice 2]: “And after the last three years, the exposure to human suffering that we’ve seen in California, the Pacific Northwest, and other places, and so the stress becomes cumulative.”

Justin Angle That’s next time, on Fireline.

Victor Yvellez Fireline is hosted by Justin Angle. Writing, editing, and production is by Nick Mott and me, Victor Yvellez. Our fact checking is by Aj Williams. Original theme music is by Travis Yost with additional music from Blue Dot Sessions. And our cover art is by Jessy Stevenson.

Additional support for this program comes from Montana Public Radio, United Way of Missoula County, and the Trailhead. Narration recorded at Studio 49 at the University of Montana’s College of Business.

Special thanks to Andy Bidwell, Tony Incashola Jr., Tony Incashola Sr., and Germaine White.

Justin Angle If you like what you’ve heard, please follow us — and leave us a review, wherever you get your podcasts.



2. https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs/rmrs_gtr292/2003_fernandes.pdf