‘A way of succeeding’
The wildland of California is a realm of fire: It’s a rare Mediterranean climate region, with cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers. In these places, fire exerts a strong environmental influence.
Some plants only reproduce after fires, with cues like heat, smoke or char triggering cones to release seeds or long dormant seeds to germinate. Others survive fires by resprouting from tubers, burls or roots protected underground. Several species take both approaches, and different fire regimes favor different plants.
California’s native Indians were intimately familiar with the effect fire had on the landscape, and many used it for thousands of years to manage the land. These fires were applied with several specific goals in mind: to promote ecosystems that favored useful plants, improve hunting and ease of travel, curtail wildfire risk and to reduce pests like ticks.
“When we’re using fire on the landscape, you could really think about it more as a form of agriculture,” said Diego Cordero, the lead environmental technician in the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Environmental Office. “After these big fires here in the hills, you see flowers you probably hadn’t seen in decades popping up everywhere. A lot of those plants are actually our crops.”
Historical staples of the Chumash diet include annuals like red maids and chia. Setting fire to the landscape after harvest promoted a bountiful crop the next year. There’s also evidence that burning the leaf litter under oak trees reduces the number of weevils in the acorns, another standard food.
The Chumash used fire to coppice plants like dogwood so they would send up long, straight shoots useful for arrows. Fire also prevented the chaparral from encroaching on productive grasslands.
The lingering legacy of Indigenous management is a major reason we could successfully fight fires in the 19th and 20th centuries; European Americans and other settlers took control of a landscape that was well tended. But they imposed fire suppression and neglected the land, experts say, and the consequences have caught up with us.
“You can’t fight these firestorms anymore,” said Childress, recalling the 1991 Oakland firestorm which threatened his childhood home in the hills. “All you can do is get out of the way.”
Fire agencies, land managers and scientists agree that burns need to be done in conversation with tribes — collaboration when possible. But American Indians aren’t responsible for the current state of our wildlands. They were removed from land management when Europeans colonized the West, and redressing past mistakes will require a systemic effort. “Colonization was the first, and most significant, form of fire suppression,” Childress said.