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Reservation Communities Change Their Response To Increasingly Common Megafires

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Megafires are becoming more common on reservation lands throughout the U.S. This summer alone, the Dixie Fire flattened many tribal buildings on the Greenville Rancheria in northern California. The Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon burned Klamath tribal hunting and fishing grounds. Bradley Parks of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that recovering from such fires is a long, slow road.

BRADLEY PARKS, BYLINE: In central Oregon's high desert, Pinky Beymer's ranch sits on the edge of the Warm Springs Reservation. She points to a pile of wood that was once a shed her grandfather built.

PINKY BEYMER: And he used to keep horses in the back and chickens and park a rig in here.

PARKS: The old shed is falling down, so Beymer wants to replace it with a metal one that's less likely to burn. Wildfire has torn through this ranch before, and Beymer knows it probably will again someday.

BEYMER: We're so far out here and we're so surrounded with flammable things that we're trying to do what we can to not increase fire danger and lose more buildings.

PARKS: Beymer's always taken steps to protect her home from fire, but she's ramped up her efforts since the Lionshead Fire roared across the reservation last year.

BEYMER: Before, we were looking at a fire season starting in late spring and start - and ending in early fall. And now, it's seven, eight months out of the year, and everything is at risk.

PARKS: The effects of climate change combined with a long legacy of fire suppression have created conditions for larger, hotter fires across the American West, including Indian country. Bodie Shaw is the acting fire chief for the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the National Interagency Fire Center. He grew up on the Warm Springs Reservation and says megafires like Lionshead were once unheard of here.

BODIE SHAW: We didn't have that decades ago. Fires just never burn that hot. So it's not only changed the way we look at fighting our fires, but it changes the way that we respond post fire.

PARKS: For more than a century, federal policy required every fire that started on public lands to be extinguished. For centuries before that, indigenous people used fire as a tool to promote healthy landscapes and to prevent the types of megafires that have become so frequent in recent years. Now, Shaw says prescribed burning is often hampered by insufficient funding and red tape on reservations.

SHAW: As much of our public gets used to catastrophic fire, they start to lean towards all fire is bad fire. And we're trying to reverse that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAILGATE OPENING)

PARKS: Back on Pinky Beymer's ranch, she pops the tailgate on her maroon pickup and hoists her border collie, Rowdy, into the bed. They're headed toward Trout Lake, which is right in the belly of the Lionshead Fire scar.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC PASSING)

PARKS: The winding gravel roads are lined with dead and dying trees.

BEYMER: Everything in here was just total shaded. It just makes your gut churn.

PARKS: Beymer and her siblings grew up in these woods, learning about good fire and bad fire from their parents. Lionshead was a bad fire, and Beymer says bad fire has become far too frequent on the reservation. Any time she sees smoke, she braces for the worst because like in many rural areas, residents like Beymer are often the first to meet a fire here in Warm Springs.

BEYMER: A lot of people on reservations are firefighters. It's what you do.

PARKS: Beymer says when the next Lionshead hits, she'll be ready to help save the place she calls home.

For NPR News, I'm Bradley Parks on the Warm Springs Reservation.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEERHUNTER SONG, "AD ASTRA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.