California Wildfires: How Can We Control the Burn?

Written by Shaina Hall

It’s that time of year again. No, not summer — wildfire season.

With wildfires already burning through Northern and Southern California, wildfire season has started early, and state officials are warning this season has the potential to be more destructive than ever as California slips into drought conditions. Consequently, this affects the dryness of vegetation and our ability to suppress fires, which happens to be our state’s primary wildfire strategy. Our communities face a chain reaction of threats from these fires, from the threat of the fire itself to the anticipated levels of smoke and air pollution, prompting experts to advise the purchase of air purifiers ahead of this year’s wildfire season. Not to mention air pollution’s role in the climate crisis.

However, how we got here should not come as a surprise.

For years we’ve been warned of the consequences should we neglect the climate crisis, and California has seen those consequences first hand. The frequency of natural disasters is not supposed to be the “new normal.” We’ve gotten used to the idea of these climate catastrophes. With less than a decade to transition toward a better climate future, we must use all of the tools at our disposal to mitigate wildfires.

California has taken initial steps to prepare for wildfire season. Governor Newsom included a $2 billion investment in wildfire preparedness in his state budget proposal, which will “carve fuel breaks out of forestlands, help rural residents retrofit their homes against fire, and equip Cal Fire with additional airplanes and helicopters.”
While these investments are essential, one tool that must be part of the plan for wildfire mitigation is controlled burns.

Let’s get this straight: annual wildfires are not a byproduct of living in California. It’s a direct response to unregulated fossil fuel production. Although our summers have officially been dubbed “wildfire” season, wildfires are not a part of nature’s course. What’s worse is there’s a solution- there’s always been a solution.

For 13,000 years, Indigenous People have used controlled burns to protect against wildfires. This method was used to discard underbrush, promote new plant life, and prevent the catastrophic forest fires we now so commonly see.

Controlled burns may sound counterintuitive at first, but millenia of Indigenous history shows that they’ve worked. Before the murderous intrusion of colonial settlers, Indigenous People successfully lived by their own code, and prospered. Native Americans never had to face the natural disasters on the scale we experience today because they understood how to take care of their land. It’s time we learned from them again.

These devastating wildfires that have been desecrating our lands do not share a biological bond to California’s natural history. The phrase “fight fire with fire” can be off putting without context, but the “good fire” that Native American tribes once traditionally performed could be the answer. Before the state government banned these sacred traditions, Native Americans would annually practice controlled burns. Controlled burns don’t just help prevent forest fires, they are also an integral part of keeping local ecosystems thriving and healthy. “We don’t put fire on the ground and not know how it’s going to turn out,” said Ron Goode, tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono. “That’s what makes it a cultural burning, because we cultivate.”

State and federal government officials decided to place their energy on a more dangerous and less predictable method: extinguishing these massive fires as fast as they can. In the last 100 years, government agencies chose firefighting practices over fire prevention tactics, allowing vegetation (read wildfire fuel) to go unchecked. Through the attempted erasure of Native American culture by Western colonizers, these cultural burns almost face extinction. So far this hasn’t been the most efficient method, as seen by record-breaking wildfires taking place every year.

In Northern California, the Forest Service blocked necessary controlled burns and rejected forest treatment strategies from the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership. The Slater fire then took place last September, burning 157,000 acres in the Klamath, Six Rivers and Rogue-Siskiyou national forests, killing two people and destroying 197 homes. The organization believes that in partnership with the thinning of forests, their proposal for burns would have likely prevented the destruction of half of the homes. According to another member of Western Klamath, the Karuk Tribe, the Forest Service won’t even allow Tribal members to oversee controlled burns, despite these members becoming federally certified “burn bosses,” a title required for the practice.

Ignorance and a difference of opinion puts the government’s agenda above the safety of its constituents, a stark reminder that it is important to have representation from all different communities in positions of power to guide policy that affects everyone.

The blotting out of Native American practices and climate change go hand-in-hand in aiding the wildfire crisis. Without regular controlled fires, vegetation grows and expands, all while drying out from droughts and hot summers. These are the primary ingredients that make wildfire season an annual event. So the burning question here is do we still have an opportunity here to turn things around? Yes, of course. We can use our collective voices to support Indigenous People in advocating for controlled burns for the benefit of the ecosystem and a climate just recovery.

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