Year after year, wildfires have swept through Northern California’s wine and dairy country, threatening the region’s famous agricultural businesses. Evacuation orders have become a way of life in places like Sonoma County, as have exemptions to those orders. County officials have created a special program for agricultural employers to bring agricultural workers to areas being evacuated and keep them on the job, even when wildfires are raging. It is generally known as the farm pass program. Journalist Teresa Cotsirilos investigates whether the policy puts low-wage farm workers at risk from smoke and flames. This story is a partnership with the non-profit newsroom The Food and Environment Reporting Network and the podcast and the radio show International affairs.
So KQEDDanielle Venton introduces us to Bill Tripp, a member of the Karuk tribe. Tripp grew up along the Klamath River, where his great-grandmother taught him how controlled burns could make the land more productive and protect villages from dangerous fires. But in the 1800s, authorities banned traditional burning practices. Today, the impact of this policy is clear: the land is overgrown and there has been one major fire in the area every year for the past decade, including one that destroyed half the homes in Karuk’s largest town, Happy Camp, and killed two people. Tripp spent 30 years trying to restore the “good fire” to the area, but faced resistance from the U.S. Forest Service and others.
Twelve years ago, the Forest Service officially changed its policy to expand the use of prescribed burns, one of the most effective tools for mitigating massive and deadly wildfires. But Reveal’s Elizabeth Shogren reports that while the agency has committed to controlled burns, it hasn’t actually increased the amount of fire it uses to fight the fire. The Forest Service has also been slow to adopt another type of good fire that experts say the West desperately needs: managed wildfires, in which fires are allowed to burn in a controlled manner to reduce overgrowth. To protect the future of the earth and people — especially with climate change making forests drier and hotter — the Forest Service must embrace the idea of a good fire.
This is a rerun of an episode that originally aired in September 2021.
Lily: Indigenous practice may be key to preventing forest fires (National Geographic)
Reporters: Teresa Cotsirilos and Danielle Venton | Editors: Brett Myers, Casey Miner and Jenny Casas | Main producer: Elizabeth Shogren | Producers: Levi Bridges and Danielle Venton | Original music and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda with help from Jess Alvarenga, Steven Rascón and Claire Mullen | Production Manager: Amy Mostafa | Digital Producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode Photo: Mike McMillan | Executive Producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Al Letson
Special thanks: Sam Fromartz of the Food & Environment Reporting Network, Joanne Elgart Jennings of World Affairs, and Katrin Snow and Ethan Toven-Lindsey of KQED. Reveal Data Editor Soo Oh, Reveal Intern Lakshmi Varanasi and Ryan Howzell at World Affairs contributed to the farmworker segment.