Taking a cue from the native people of California
By Paula Urtecho
Fire is on everyone’s mind these days. It’s difficult not to think about it when you look out the window and see smoke hanging in the air and a layer of ash coating everything outside your home. This year’s wildfire season has been unprecedented in its scope and it frightens us to consider that this may be our “new normal”. But California’s relationship with fire has not always been so adversarial or fraught with tension. Fire is an important part of California’s natural ecosystems and the native people living among these ecosystems understood this well.
In M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, (2005), the author describes the land stewardship and resource management practices of native people in California, among which fire was a key element. In stark contrast to the program of fire suppression that forest management agencies have practiced for decades, native people intentionally set fires to varied California landscapes to manage them and increase their productivity. Burning enhanced the abundance of many plant species upon which they depended for food – nutritious bulbs, fruits, seeds and greens – and preserved important plant community types (e.g. grassland, foothill woodland). Prescribed burning also enhanced feed for wildlife which native people depended upon for food, such as deer and rabbits. Burning was used as a means for controlling insects and diseases on plants and for regenerating plentiful new material to make baskets, cordage, weapons, clothing and all manner of utilitarian items. And, of course, burning removed dead plant material and encouraged less vegetative density in the landscape, thereby preventing the occurrence of catastrophic wildfires.
The amount of land burned by native people and lightning fires was quite significant – estimated at 5.6 to 13 million acres annually by fire scientists. This is well in line with the amount of land that is burning this fire season, however these managed burns were far less intense. The current state of California’s too-dense vegetation results in extremely hot, destructive wildfires whose tragedy is compounded by the high number of people living at the wildland-urban interface (WUI) and losing homes and sometimes lives. In light of these tragedies, native practices of land stewardship seem all the more germane to modern land management practices. Land managers are becoming more aware that wildlands require active management instead of simply protection and preservation. Indeed, it seems paradoxical that in order to restore the historical ecological balance of the land, a potentially destructive force such as fire should be employed.
It must be acknowledged that indigenous management practices were supremely effective at fostering biodiversity and maintaining open habitats that were less prone to catastrophic wildfire. Because as native people understood, fire is both regenerative and can be used as a defense against itself. Of course, we cannot ignore climate change’s role in exacerbating the frequency and intensity of the fire seasons we’ve been experiencing in recent years. Here we as individuals can have an impact on future outcomes through the choices we make on a daily basis. By consciously reducing our dependence upon fossil fuels – driving and flying less, avoiding plastic (especially single use plastics), choosing renewable energy and moving away from animal-based diets – we can align ourselves with the practices of the native people of California who lived in symbiosis with the natural world, respectfully taking and generously giving back.