Why have summer and fall come to mean fire and danger for our families? The Cal Fire Map gets more drastic every year, with 4 million acres burning in a single 2020 “fire season”. If we haven’t already lost loved ones or homes to runaway fires, chances are good, we know someone who has, and the deaths of heroic firefighters are a statewide tragedy that’s hard to bear.
As we anxiously pack “go bags” in the event of an emergency evacuation, as we hide indoors from toxic, smoky skies, and fear for ourselves and our families, we’re asking, “Doesn’t anyone know how to stop this?”
The answer is “yes”, the answer is right next door, but it’s not something most Californians learn in school. The answer is found in Indigenous knowledge of the place you call home, and it was what made this land a safer place to live for thousands of years, until just a few generations ago.
Right now, somewhere near you, a tribe is working hard for the rights to lessen the risks of runaway fires by restoring traditional brush management through cultural fire and care of plants. Right now, a neighbor, group or agency is starting to learn more about this. Learn with us on this page.
Fight Fire with Fire
If you’ve ever started a campfire or even a fire in your home’s fireplace, you’re already familiar with the technique of using kindling as the fuel that burns hot enough to ignite the thicker logs.
Not long ago, places around or near your home were regularly cleared with controlled burning of flammable vegetation to prevent runaway wildfire. But then this necessary safety precaution stopped. What happened?
The True California Wilderness
“They burned so they would not have the big fires. It looks terrible today. Mountain misery [an understory plant] is high and dead limbs are everywhere.” – Virginia Jeff (Central Sierra Miwok); Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson
“(PG&E) was in violation of state code on eight of those fires, failing to clear brush around its lines and properly maintain its power equipment, according to state fire investigators.” – Press Democrat
If you are not a California Indian, chances are good there is something vital missing from your understanding of the place you live: the basic knowledge of “how” to live here safely. Our state’s current ecological management policies are mainly based on European and American misunderstandings of how things had been done here since Indigenous origin times. What follows is a basic outline of how this misunderstanding occurred, bringing California to its present uncared-for state of true wilderness:
As the above infographic details, the California genocide put an end to thousands of years of skilled caretaking via fire, pruning, coppicing and other strategies. Newcomers from ecologically-degraded homelands misinterpreted what they saw here as parklands, wilderness, and eventually “nature”, entirely overlooking the Indigenous stewards who had created a continuously-renewed state of abundance in partnership with the sources of life.
To many California Indians, a “wilderness” is an uncared-for land, and when genocide took the lives of 90% of their Peoples, the survivors watched their home return to a state of true wilderness. 19th century romantic naturalists like John Muir then mistook this wilderness for “nature” and launched the environmental conservation movement which, despite good intentions, sought to preserve this idea of nature as though it were a museum piece instead of a cooperative effort between man and the sources of life. The subsequent creation of the National Parks and US Forest Service codified this belief system, enacting laws that suppressed fire as suspicious and dangerous, as embodied by Smokey the Bear.
We are now several hundred years into this mistake, and its direct outcome is the runaway fires we are all hoping to resolve. We are about 100 years into active fire suppression on an aggressive scale. Even where brush management is legally mandated, the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection reports that the utility company PG&E is responsible for fatal fires due to failure to manage vegetation around power lines. We are living in a neglected home.
Unfortunately, because everything has become overgrown, we cannot simply head into the forests and fields with fire without a plan. Solutions will require an incremental strategy, ideally formed under Indigenous leadership, to address brushy overgrowth and reshape ecosystems with smaller fires and tending to plants before prescribed burning can be safely reapplied to larger parts of the region.
The Fitness of California Indigenous Leadership
When most Californians of goodwill learn about the genocide, they feel ashamed and sad. If you are a multi-generation Californian or Californio, it is terrible to realize that your presence here is the outcome of ancestors who were willing to rob, enslave and kill innocent people who were struggling to survive epidemics. There is no adequate apology for this.
What can be done is to forthrightly acknowledge the truth of the genocide, including its continuing impacts on descendants of survivors. Californians must also acknowledge the impacts of genocide on the land, itself. Beyond this, all neighbors can commit to supporting any projects in which California Indian tribes are offering to resume management of the land.
“There’s no reason for us to exist if we can’t fulfill our responsibility to take care of this place.” – Bill Tripp (Karuk)
In fact, we are reaching a vital turning point in which government agencies are beginning to turn to tribes like the Karuk to request co-management of lands, including traditional burning. This is one of the most hopeful narratives in this region, and it is one every Californian should vigorously support.
Examples of Indigenous Leadership Regarding Fire
Catching Fire: Prescribed Burning in Northern California is a 1-hour film explaining the history of fire suppression and the present-day leadership of the Karuk Tribe in the state’s northwest to resume tended fire for safety and rehabilitation:
In this short video, the Karuk tribe and speakers from various agencies describe how Indigenous caretaking can be restored to make whole regions safer from runaway fire:
In this must-watch video, North Fork Mono Tribal Chairman Ron Goode teaches UC Davis students about traditional fire:
This hope-filled video summarizes the leading role the Yurok tribe of northwestern California have taken in resuming cultural fire in partnership with a variety of agencies:
The truth is that Californians no longer have the leisure for slowly adopting new attitudes. Water depletion and uncontrolled fire are signalling to all residents that our current strategies are not protecting us from harm. We urgently need education and solutions and some of the best of both reside in the unequaled regional knowledge of Indigenous neighbors.
Education and Solutions
What follows is a set of resources you can access from the comfort of your home or from local libraries with the goal of beginning to see the place you live in new and important ways.
Learning about the Genocide
In an effort to end the whitewashing of this region’s history, please spend some time listening to four California Indigenous people teaching about the genocide in their own words:
The scope of the genocide is so vast, it can be hard to comprehend. This video brings this account down to the level of the impacts of invasion on a single group: the Pomo:
What California Must Learn Today from Indigenous Leadership
If you can only watch one video this week to learn about the historic and current work of California Indian tribes in caring for this land, let it be Tending the Wild, an incredible new film which belongs in every classroom, boardroom and home. Special care is taken to explain the use of controlled fire and the danger of uncontrolled burning in the early parts of this inspiring documentary:
If the above video inspires you, please read the book that inspired it. Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson may completely change the way you understand California. This exhaustively-researched work offers an unforgettable description of all that the author could learn about the cycles of stewardship employed by California Indigenous Peoples which resulted in matchless bounty here prior to the genocide. Replete with historic and modern accounts of strategy, Tending the Wild can be used as a guideline for resuming a sustainable approach to caring for this region, under Indigenous leadership.
Here is a small sampling of quotes from this book:
“My parents talked about the old-time Indians burning. All the elders talked about the Indians burning as they came down the mountains in fall to the lower elevations…They’d burn in October or the last of September. The fires didn’t burn out of control. Nacomas Turner said they let Yosemite National Park go to heck because they let the trash stay on the ground for so many years. Walking in the forest is like walking on foam rubber. The litter must have been a foot deep. Everything our people did 50 years ago they don’t dare do today,” Sylvia Mayer (North Fork Mono)
“They always started the fires at the bottom of the slope – never at the top of the slope. The fires rarely got into the crowns of the tress – it mainly stayed in the brush, burning only the undergrowth…Whatever was going to burn easiest, they set on fire, the duff or grass,” Ron Goode (North Fork Mono)
“My husband’s family … burned to keep things clear. They also burned for the animals – the dear, bear, rabbits and squirrels. The new growth the following spring gave them better and higher-quality foods,” Clara Charlie (Chukchansi/Choynumni)
If you cannot afford a copy of Tending the Wild, many public libraries carry it or take requests for books you’d like to see them get in.
California is Starting to Revisit its Relationship with Fire
In 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order surrounding improved forest management, including increased controlled burning. $30 million have been budgeted for the creation of new Cal Fire crews to conduct controlled burns and clear vegetation. In this same year, US Forest Service and Cal Fire staff planned to use prescribed fire on about 80,000 acres. When you consider that 1.2 millions acres of California burned out of control in 2017, it’s easy to see that current controlled burning practices are minor by comparison. But this is changing.
The accompanying map is published by the California Fire Science Consortium which is part of a national network called the Joint Fire Science Program’s Fire Science Exchange. JFSP is a federally-funded program created in 1998 to provide “information for agencies to treat hazardous fuels successfully, reduce the threat of severe wildland fires, and restore or maintain the appropriate role of fire in ecosystems.”
As a branch of JFSP, the CFSC’s mission is to, “accelerate the awareness, understanding, and adoption of wildland fire science information by federal, tribal, state, local, and private stakeholders within ecologically similar regions.” They offer a wealth of scientific studies, webinars and field trips to areas that have been managed via prescribed burning vs. those that have suffered from wildfire. You can learn so much from their website and subscribe to their newsletter. Follow CFSC on Facebook for ongoing updates.
The Northern California Prescribed Fire Council is another important organization. Their website offers one model of how various groups are working together to employ responsible fire in the far north of the state. They have a very informative Facebook page. They host events and training sessions each year, and one hopeful aspect of this organization is the inclusion of tribal members in their leadership.
Some tribes have instituted their own organizations like the Cultural Fire Management Council which was created by the Yurok People to, in their own words, “facilitate the practice of cultural burning on the Yurok Reservation and Ancestral lands, which will lead to a healthier ecosystem for all plants and animals, long term fire protection for residents, and provide a platform that will in turn support the traditional hunting and gathering activities of Yurok.”
Here’s an excellent article and podcast regarding Mr. Clint McKay’s (Dry Creek Pomo) work at Pepperwood Preseve in Sonoma County surrounding small fires as a preventative against big fires and the necessity of Indigenous leadership in taking care of their homeland. This broadcast also takes us to meet the Indigenous People’s Burning Network in the the far northwest of California and discusses how plants and animals return to health when we we shift from fire suppression to fire tending.
Finally, some tribes partner with government agencies, foundations and others in training exchanges (TREX) sponsored by the Nature Conservancy’s Fire Learning Network. TREX events bring diverse participants together to be trained in prescribed fire practices.
Person by person, group by group, lessons are being taught and learned about resuming Indigenous-style brush management in California. In the midst of the 2018 Ferguson Fire in the Yosemite area, the park’s chief of aviation and fire management said it well,
“The only way we can get out of this problem we’re in is to have a different relationship with fire.”
In that terrible incident, the authorities chose to let one area of the fire burn, instead of suppressing it, to create safer conditions in the future. The importance of this policy change cannot be overstated.
What’s Standing in the Way of Widespread Prescribed Burning in California?
As you begin to learn about fire and talk it over with your neighbors, you will encounter some fears and roadblocks. We’ll outline these here to help you respectfully communicate facts.
Fear of Fire and Smoke
Uncontrolled fire is terrifying and smoke is unhealthy to breathe. It’s no wonder people are wary, particularly after a century of fire suppression slogans that paint fire as being always a foe. However, it can help to understand that when controlled burns are employed, people have three things on their side:
- Indigenous wisdom that can set standards for protecting people, dwellings, wildlife and valued trees
- The choice to burn at the smartest times of year, as opposed to having no choice at all about when wildfire strikes
- Meteorology reports that can predict when wind conditions will blow the least smoke toward the most people. Controlled burns are also of a lower intensity, which state and federal agency studies indicate creates less air pollution.
In other words, human intelligence can help us optimize the practice of prescribed burning with health and safety in mind. If we can become more comfortable with using fire as a tool, we will have more control instead of less of it.
It’s very important to treat others with respect when they express worry. After all, our recent years have been set amid drought, and any idea of fire may cause anxiety. Many neighbors are now experiencing post-traumatic stress from a decade of wildfires. Or, even if they’ve not been directly harmed, they may be wisely intuiting just how dry California has become. People who would like to do something, but feel nervous working directly on improving fire relationships might like to be directed to our page about restoring abundant water in the state by welcoming back beavers.
Confusion about the Place of People in the Environment
California hosts many cultures. There isn’t a single belief system to answer the big question of “how to live” and we are all the recipients of many different types of messaging. However, something very important for non-Indigenous cultures to understand is that they’ve been exposed to some pervasive myths about life in this country. Chief among these is the way in which all Native Americans have been stereotyped as being historically so “at one with nature” that they took a hands-off approach to life.
In the the place that would one day be called California, nothing could be further from the truth. It is far more accurate to say that pre-contact cultures here vigorously and respectfully interacted with and shaped their homeland. Large-scale gardening, forestry, fishery, hunting and manufacture were and are part of daily life for most California Indians. This is the opposite of the stereotype of sitting back and “letting nature take its course”. Rather, a belief system like this gives human beings a specific and honorable role to fulfill in relationship with all other sources of life here – a role in which they are assisting the regenerative work of people, animals and plants. Through careful observation and thoughtful action, people can live without being so destructive.
As many Californians look for solutions to wildfire, we are, in fact, facing the big question of “how to live” here and it is inspiring to know that this region’s oldest cultures hold positive views of humans’ place as active caretakers of the land. With a positive attitude like this, we can take positive actions and rid ourselves of some of the confusion over whether or not people should shape the environment. We just have to work on shaping it in a healthy way for everybody.
One item of very positive recent news comes to us from Northern California, where the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria are co-managing a regional park. This important development sets a new precedent for ways in which California agencies can team up with Indigenous groups to properly care for the land. The same can be done across the state to reintroduce tended fire.
Money Spent in the Wrong Places
Since the end of World War II, federal, state and city agencies have taken a chemical approach to vegetation management in California. Herbicide manufacturers like Monsanto are now worth billions of dollars from the sale of products like glyphosate-containing Roundup which they vend not just to residents but to the agencies managing public lands. Governing bodies pay the herbicide makers and citizens pay taxes which then fund governing bodies’ spraying programs. There is a great deal of money at stake in contracts like these, which should signal to California residents that it may be difficult to shift policies due to greed.
In 2018, a landmark California Superior Court case ruling found that Monsanto’s Roundup caused fatal cancer in a human victim and that the corporation acted with “malice and oppression” toward the plaintiff. A recent study found that, since its introduction in 1974, 1.8 million tons of glyphosate have been sprayed in the United States to kill vegetation. Given the health impacts of this most-widely-sprayed chemical and related herbicides, prescribed burning and manual or mechanical solutions to brush and weeds are a much more appealing alternative.
California must make the change to funding time-honored traditional vegetation management instead of dangerous chemical methods. All residents and agencies who participate can then feel truly good about their jobs, protecting their communities.
Everyone Can Help
Your concern about wildfire is healthy and appropriate, and having spent part of your day learning more about its causes, you would like to know what you can do to support traditional brush management. No matter what your circumstances in life, there are ways for you to be part of this work. Together, we can get to a place of safety.
Honoring California Indigenous Cultures
At the close of this page, BeaversandBrush.com would like to take a moment to offer gratitude to Indigenous neighbors who have preserved knowledge, despite unparalleled tribulations and losses. Without you, there would be little hope for the habitability of this region. With you, we have not just hope, but your generously-given examples of how to live here in a right way with all others. We recognize that you are the leaders and are deeply grateful for every form of outreach the different Tribes are making to rehabilitate the land out of respect for all of its inhabitants. Thank you.