News from University of California, Irvine

NSF funds UCI-led team connecting Indigenous communities with key decision-makers in wildfire management

A team of researchers from UCI and UC Santa Barbara has been awarded a $192,869 grant from the National Science Foundation to study wildfire mitigation and management at a regional level, with a particular focus on bringing Indigenous communities working and living in high-risk areas into conversations they have previously been omitted from.

“Many areas at high risk for catastrophic wildfire are also characterized by mixed-use, high-density forested lands under federal, state, Tribal and private sector control,” said Justin Richland, UCI professor of anthropology and leader of the project. “Stakeholders in these areas have begun the process of developing wildfire management plans that require partnership across a diverse set of interests and perspectives. Unfortunately, and despite regulatory regimes that mandate state and federal agencies to seek their input, Tribes regularly report being left out of these planning processes.”

California is home to 110 federally recognized Tribes who reside on 100 reservations – many in locations at severe risk of wildfire. According to Richland, fire remains an enduring component of Indigenous landscape management and a tool of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, but only recently have Indigenous fire practices been recognized as a viable option for agency-led forest restoration projects.

The research team will lead a series of planning discussions, drafting exercises and site visits with Tribal leaders, Indigenous knowledge keepers, fire science ecologists, government agents and social scientists aimed at developing a proposal for wildland fire research science and management in the Payahuunadü/Owens Valley and Eastern Sierra region of California.

Joining Richland are Salvador Zárate, UCI assistant professor of anthropology; Holly Hapke, UCI director of research development in social sciences; Carol Blanchette, UCSB associate research biologist and director of the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory; and Gregory Johnson, UCSB professor of religious studies and director of the Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion, and Public Life. Collectively, the group has decades of experience researching and/or living in California’s Eastern Sierra region and working with members of Tribal Nations.

Funding for this work began in September and runs through August 2025.