Wildland firefighters in the field

Folsom Lake Veterans Crew conducts a prescribed burn in California’s Clear Creek Management Area  in June 2019 to restore native grasses and eradicate yellow star-thistle. Photo: Monte Kawahara

YSE Alumni Award Winner Works to Increase Indigenous Role in Firefighting and Land Management

Forester and federal wildland firefighter Monte Kawahara is working to mitigate the effects of extreme wildfires by focusing on the root causes and partnering with tribal communities. Kawahara’s efforts earned him the Yale School of Environment's 2023 Prospect Street Award.

For more than a decade, Monte Kawahara ’13 MF has served the public as a forester and wildland firefighter for the U.S. Department of the Interior. He was on the frontlines fighting some of the most deadly and destructive wildfires in the West, including the Camp, August Complex, Dixie, and Thomas fires.

Kawahara in US Forest Service uniform

After serving on the Bureau of Land Management’s Folsom Lake Veterans Crew and Midnight Sun Hotshots, Kawahara served as a forester for BLM’s Mother Lode Field Office, which covers 240,000 acres of public lands across nine counties in eastern California. While there, he implemented fuel reduction, emergency post-fire rehabilitation, and forest stewardship projects to protect rural communities and threatened watersheds. Kawahara says that he returned to fire management under the Bureau of Indian Affairs after feeling frustrated that certain compromises relegated projects to treating symptoms rather than underlying issues.

“Obviously in today’s world, containing the immediate threat is necessary, and catching small fires prevents damage from dozers and intense fire. But it can’t end there. People need to officially regard the absence of fire as an emergency on par with wildfire itself. Misplaced incentives still slow us from burning at the scale required to get back to a healthy state,” he says.

Kawahara notes that Indigenous leaders like Bill Tripp, the Karuk Tribe’s director of natural resources and environmental policy, have long advocated for traditional burning to heal the entire ecosystem, not just to fight fire.

Kawahara is now a fire management specialist at the BIA’s Pacific Region, which serves 104 federally recognized tribes. He provides support for mitigating fire impacts, building capacity and resilience, increasing intentional burning, reducing unwanted fires, and restoring natural and cultural resources.

“A culture of suppression, of both fire and people, has consequences. Replacing rivers with gutters, beaver dams with concrete walls, forests with plantations, has consequences. Anything we do is just a bandage on a tumor until we address our nation’s original sin,” he says.

We are undeservedly fortunate that so many Indigenous people fought to keep this traditional knowledge alive and yet are still willing to teach us how to undo this mess despite everything, if we’ll only listen.”

Monte Kawahara2023 Prospect Street Award winner

He believes helping Indigenous communities gain a larger role in firefighting and land management and improving working conditions for all federal firefighters are essential steps  in preventing and combating destructive fires.

“If you want to get at the source, there are two basic steps. First, listen to Indigenous fire practitioners. They need to have a seat at the table, and to have a seat at the table they need to have land returned. NGOs like the Western Rivers Conservancy are returning land and providing necessary support. Tribal fire and natural resources departments and Indigenous burning organizations like the Cultural Fire Management Council and the Indigenous Peoples’ Burning Network are leading trainings and building capacity. Invite tribes to the table, wherever you are, and listen, learn, and follow through with action and support. Second, you will need to retain federal wildland firefighters to do the work instead of losing them due to working conditions and wages. This is now a life and safety emergency,” he says.

Kawahara’s efforts as a wildland firefighter serving the BIA and BLM earned him the Yale School of Environment's 2023 Prospect Street Award, which recognizes a graduate who has made significant contributions to the environmental field and who exemplifies the spirit of the School through demonstrated leadership, innovation, and creativity.

"I’m lucky to have met a handful of some of the best people working on some of the most important issues of our time. Through YSE, I met classmates like Lucas Tyree (’14 MESc) of the Monacan Indian Nation, whose tribe only regained federal recognition in 2018. His guidance gave me the resolve to leave my forester position to return to a fire position of lower federal rank, but one which would serve those to whom we owe a debt that can never be repaid.

“We are undeservedly fortunate that so many Indigenous people fought to keep this traditional knowledge alive and yet are still willing to teach us how to undo this mess despite everything, if we’ll only listen,’’ he says.

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