To Fight Fires, California Must Burn

Many more controlled fires, including Indigenous cultural burns, are essential for preventing massive, deadly wildfires.

About 70 miles up the Klamath River, on Yurok Reservation land, an age-old approach to fire prevention is being rekindled. Instead of suppressing and fighting fire, Yurok Tribe member Rick O’Rourke and his non-profit, the Cultural Fire Management Council, are reintroducing fire into the ecosystem through small-scale, controlled “cultural burns.” 

“I’ll say a prayer and I’ll tell the forest what we’re doing. We’re not here in a bad way,” O’Rourke says. “Then I just let the place talk to me. I drop my guard and just be receptive to what it feels like. And as I go through there I pick good spots for holding lines.” 

Cultural burns aren’t just about reducing fuel and creating defensible space around communities, they’re also meant to restore “balance” to an ecosystem and a way of life that is adapted to fire. 

With the second and third largest wildfires in California’s recorded history still smoldering, and yet another record-breaking heat wave on the way, it’s becoming all too obvious that the rest of the state is going to have to adapt, too. For the past couple of weeks the smoke has been so bad that even in cool, grey San Francisco fires have become a matter of urgent concern. A city known for its lack of seasons now has one — fire season — and it’s not something we can proudly lord over smug New Yorkers. 

Fire season isn’t going away, but it doesn’t have to be this bad. To prevent massive, out-of-control wildfires that threaten lives and produce eye-watering amounts of smoke, California needs to do a lot more low-intensity, controlled burns (not more “raking,” as President Trump suggested.) This is the consensus increasingly shared by state and federal regulators, academic foresters, and Indigenous communities that have been engaging in these practices for millennia, but whose wisdom has until recently gone ignored. The looming challenge is to convince everyone else in the state to rethink the role that fire and smoke can play in keeping California safe and healthy.

Land of Fire

Before European settlement, California was a land of fire. Somewhere between 5 and 10 million acres would burn each year, compared to 1-2 million acres per year in modern times, according to Jeffrey Kane, a professor of forestry at Humboldt State. The amount of land burned in California between 1950 and 1999 adds up to about 5 percent of the land burned during an equivalent period in prehistoric times, according to a UC Berkeley study. Fire season was a thing then, too: skies were probably smoky for much of the summer and fall in many parts of what is now California.

Ecosystems were adapted to these conditions. “Fire is what created our natural heritage in California,” Kane says. “It’s part of why California has such diverse plant and animal species.” The state is home to a number of seritinous plants, including some varieties of pine trees, that actually require fire to disperse their seeds. Animal habitats, free of dense, impassable undergrowth, and salmon habitats in clean, nutrient-rich rivers, owe their existence to fire. 

Before colonization, Indigenous people were integral to California’s fire ecosystem. Cultural burns were part of life for diverse tribes across the state, functioning as a spiritual practice, a land management strategy, and a means of protection against larger fires.

“Being put on the lower Klamath River, our first agreement with our Creator was to manage the land,” O’Rourke says. “Fire was brought to us to keep everything in its place.” 

Cultural burns went the way of so many other Indigenous practices — a casualty of California’s genocide and subjugation of its Indian tribes. The burns, in particular, were antithetical to the prevailing philosophy of fire suppression, which conceptualized fire as an enemy of nature. It tracked with a philosophy of conservation that sought to preserve the environment in the state in which it was found.

Fire suppression, then, became the basis of California forestry and land management for most of the 20th century. And it actually worked remarkably well — until it didn’t.

A Perfect Storm

The current growth trajectory of ever larger, more intense wildfires began in the mid-1980s, according to Kane. Starting around that time, three forces began to bear down on the state, creating the perfect storm fire conditions we have today.

The first, and longest-simmering, is all of the excess fuel left in place by over a century of fire suppression. Without regular, low-intensity fires, shrubs and infant trees have taken root in empty space on the forest floor, competing with more mature trees. This young, dense ground cover is less resilient, and more flammable than older, taller trees. “They say back in the day in Lake Tahoe, you used to be able to ride through the forest on a horse without getting your hat knocked off,” says Brice Bennett, a spokesperson for Cal Fire. “I find that amazing.” 

Not only do forests have a lot more fuel, some formerly barren — and severely fire-prone — areas have recently become forested. In the Yurok Reservation, north of Eureka, O’Rourke is currently trying to restore 500 acres of historic savannah that has become a new-growth forest. Other areas that were clear-cut by logging companies decades ago have been re-planted in a far more dense pattern than would naturally occur. “In some places,” O’Rourke says, trees are just “a little bit bigger than a broomstick, but they’re all like 10 inches apart for acres and acres.”

Then there’s California’s sprawling development patterns. With housing construction politically and financially challenging in built-out urban areas, much of the state’s new housing has been built in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) . Between 1990 and 2010, about one million new homes, almost half of all homes constructed in California during that period, were built in the WUI. 

And finally, there’s climate change, which not only produces hotter, drier weather that makes vegetation more flammable, but also messes with the environment in more unexpected ways. The recent spate of fires to hit the region was not caused by PG&E power lines, but by dry lightning, an extremely unusual, but increasingly common, phenomenon here in California, according to Bennett. Those fires were then worsened by wind patterns related to hurricanes in the South Pacific, which are also fairly rare.

Once fires get going under these conditions, there isn’t much firefighters can do. Much better to reduce the fuel available before a major fire strikes. But in California, that’s easier said than done. 

Fighting Fire with Fire

In recent years, California has increased its use of controlled fires — or prescribed burns, in forester parlance — but the state is still a long way off from its goals. Between 1999 and 2017, about 13,000 acres were burned in controlled fires annually. Those numbers have increased considerably since the devastating Tubbs and Paradise fires. Between June 2019 and June 2020, Cal Fire burned 27,000 acres in controlled burns, and completed an additional 28,000 acres of fuel reduction projects. Matt Dias, executive director of the California Board of Forestry and Fire Prevention, emphasizes that these numbers do not represent the full extent of fire treatment in California, which involves many other agencies besides Cal Fire. 

California’s annual fire treatment goal is 500,000 acres, including prescribed burns as well as hand-thinning, “mastication” (turning plants into mulch), targeted animal grazing, and herbicide. The federal government, which manages a significant percentage of California’s wildlands, has a parallel goal of 500,000 acres treated annually as well. 

The California Vegetation Treatment Program (CalVTP), authorized in 2019, will make those goals somewhat more achievable. The program streamlines the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) permitting process, which has previously hindered more aggressive fire-treatment efforts. The state will still have to work collaboratively with local air resources districts that have the final sign off on prescribed burns, another occasional source of delay, Dias said. 

CalVTP also opens the door for private land owners, often organized in prescribed burn associations, or tribal groups to take advantage of streamlined permits in collaboration with a state agency. California won’t suddenly become a “right to burn” state like Florida, where government and private entities burn 2.1 million acres every year, but it’s at least trending in that direction. 

While there are a menu of options for treating fire-prone lands, fire itself is “the least expensive and most effective form,” says Bennett. In other words, to prevent the soul-sucking, throat-closing smoke of the past couple weeks, Californians are going to have to get used to smaller amounts of smoke, more of the time. 

“One of the mantras we have as prescribed burners is, a little smoke now or a lot of smoke… now,” says Kane, laughing. “Or later.”

Spreading Like… Wildfire

Californians’ concern about air quality — at both the grassroots and state government levels — has historically been a major impediment to controlled burns. But increasingly, the tradeoffs are becoming more clear. “I think there’s been enough tragedy in the last few years, especially in Sonoma, Lake, and Napa counties, to understand the benefits of using fire on the landscape,” Bennett says. 

And there are steps that can be taken to mitigate the effects of increased prescribed burns, namely working with the wind and the rain as Indigenous people have always done in their burns. 

As with all of California’s big problems, money and labor will continue to be a challenge for California’s fire prevention efforts. But on that front, too, there have been small steps in the right direction. In the dramatic, late-night end to the California legislature’s 2020 session, lawmakers passed a bill that will make it easier for former convicts, who play a key role in California’s firefighting efforts, to become professional firefighters after their release. 

The return of Indigenous cultural burns also provides valuable opportunities in those communities. O’Rourke says that some of the people who assist with his cultural burns are “otherwise unemployable. But it gives them a sense of connection back to our land. It reconnects us with our culture. Community members look at them differently and they’re able to build respect among their peers.”

Through the Nature Conservancy’s Indigenous People’s Burn Network, O’Rourke and others are trying to spread cultural burning practices to other tribes throughout California, especially to those that have lost that knowledge. The Indigenous People’s Burn Network has also trained 800 firefighters in cultural burning practices through their training exchanges. These efforts could get a boost from San Francisco State Senate candidate Jackie Fielder, who has proposed an Indigenous Wildland Task Force that would develop a plan for tribes to expand their land management work beyond current tribal lands.

However California goes about its big burn, it’s sure to be a multigenerational project. “We’re trying to undo 100 years of mismanagement, it’s not going to happen in five years or 10 years or even 20,” Bennett says. 

O’Rourke thinks it will take a “couple of hundred years” to restore balance to the ecosystem in which he lives. “That’s why I’m just throwing information at the people I work with…. We have to show our young ones and learn from our elders.” 

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