Everyone in California dreads the fire season, which seems to get longer every year due to climate change. It is hard to enjoy a warm summer's day when the sky is an eerie orange-grey and your lungs are filled with smoke. From 2016 to 2020, wildfires in the state have increased from 6,959 to 7,335. Even more shocking is the jump in acres burned, with an increase from 669,534 acres in 2016 to 1,666,286 acres in 2020. As California’s climate is becoming drier as rainfall is decreasing, experts are looking for strategies to help prevent wildfires from increasing in intensity.
One old technique called prescribed
burning has been proven to be very successful at preventing large
wildfires. Indigenous groups developed this method, sometimes
referred to as “cultural burning”, centuries ago. The technique
involves removing small trees and brush and then setting intentional
fires to specific areas of land. Combined, these actions help clear
natural spaces of dry and flammable debris in order to prevent the
rapid movement and intensity of wildfires. But they were prevented
from practicing prescribed burning at the beginning of the 20th
century when modern firefighting techniques were deemed more
History of Fire Suppression
The long and robust history of fire
suppression in the United States is tied to the creation of the U.S.
Forest Service in 1905 and the establishment of the
National Park Service in 1916. In 1910, a series
of destructive wildfires swept across the Western
United States. In total, three million acres were burned across
Montana, Idaho, and Washington. In the aftermath of these fires, many
people agreed that the extreme damage could have been prevented by
fighting the fire more fiercely. This attitude ultimately shaped
national fire policy at the time to one centered around fire
prevention and suppression. This led to the reduction, and in some
places complete elimination, of light or prescribed burns.
Acres burned in the fires of 1910 in Idaho. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/forestservicenw/22749162222
The systematic killing and removal of
indigenous people from their native lands such as the later
established Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks over more than two
centuries led to a significant loss of knowledge concerning native
techniques of tending to nature. After the horrendous fires of 1910,
indigenous communities were completely banned from practicing
cultural burning because modern fire prevention did not comprehend
the connection between a healthy ecosystem and controlled burning.
Burning helped them keep the ecosystems healthy and thriving, which
in turn led to ample game and resources on which their communities
relied. It also connected them to the traditions of their ancestors
who had been practicing burning long before them.
Some plants used by indigenous groups,
such as deer grass and sumac rely on fire to spur new growth and kill
off predators. Without the help of fire, these plants struggle to
thrive, which has a heavy impact on indigenous people who use them
for artistic production such as basket weaving, spiritual and
everyday needs. As Ron W. Goode, of the North Fork Mono Tribe, told
KCET in an interview: “we are burning to perfect
this resource to supply resources for our culture.”
Photo of deergrass and sumac basket. Source: http://portlandartmuseum.us/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=38481;type=101
Why Burning Is Important
Although it may seem counterintuitive, fire is very important for California’s ecology. Clearing out dry leaves and debris reduces the amount of fuel for wildfires, which prevents them from becoming large and destructive. They also keep invasive insect populations in check that would otherwise cause harm to native plants. They help plants and the landscape regenerate. Nutrients are returned to the soil in the form of ash, and seeds are dispersed. Some plants, like the knobcone pine, only disperse their seeds when in contact with fire. Therefore, fire suppression can actually be detrimental to a healthy and thriving ecosystem.
Photo of a knob cone pinecone. Source:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Knobcone_Pine_Cone.jpg
The Process of Prescribed Burning
A lot of planning and thought go into
every prescribed burn. It is
crucial to prevent the fire from jumping from its designated area and
burning uncontrollably. Sarah Gibson, a “burn boss” in training
told the New
York Times she only burns “when I’m confident that
either it's not going to escape, or...I’m going to immediately
catch it”. Fire crew will use both natural firebreaks, like bodies
of water, and man-made fire breaks such as mowed areas and roads. The
burn will only take place on a day with low wind, high humidity, and
low temperatures. The fire is always started downwind next to a
firebreak, to make sure it doesn’t move too fast. Once that fire is
established and burning well, the crew will light fires on each side
and the top of the plot of land. At the end of the burn, the crew
will put out any lingering flames and drench the area in water.
A prescribed burn in Fort Ord, CA. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/presidioofmonterey/36870158813
What Is Happening Now?
Not until the 1970s did national fire policy slowly include some prescribed burns when emerging research showed the positive impact this method had on wildfire management. But only in the past few years has prescribed burning been more widely accepted and suggested by the state as a means to control increasing wildfire threats.
Today, with wildfires posing an immense
threat to both wildlife and property, federal, state, and private,
“burn bosses” are involved in setting prescribed burns throughout
California. In fact, in 2021 California Governor Gavin Newsom signed
legislation that encourages more prescribed burns in the state. The
bill he passed, SB
322, enacts legal protection for parties who practice
prescribed burning for the benefit of the public protecting those who
were previously hesitant to practice these burns due to legal and
other obstacles they faced.
This change in legislation and attitude
has a beneficial impact on California’s indigenous communities as
well. As Rick O’Rourke, who grew up on the Yurok reservation in
California, explained in The
Guardian, “our first agreement with our creator was
to tend the land. It was taken away from us and now we’re trying to
reclaim it.” Although the process is slow, tribes like the Yurok in
Northern California finally have the ability to participate in
cultural burns again.
Hope For The Future
The truth is scary: California is in an
extreme drought, and its fire season is growing in length and
intensity. Fire suppression has been harmful to the landscape’s
health and resilience, but it’s not too late to change course.
Returning California’s relationship with fire to one of respect and
understanding is a critical piece to saving the state from unchecked
Resource on learning to live with fire: https://www.fire.ca.gov/media/8657/live_w_fire.pdf
Savita Joshi// 10 March 2022 // #GoingGreen
Originally from California, Savita Joshi lives in Berlin. She is working towards a Masters in Digital Journalism at HMKW. It is through her writing that she combines her passion for human rights, the environment, and reproductive justice with her love of words.