I have two vivid memories of wildfires from my childhood. The first was a fire that my nine-year-old brother started in a field across the road from our house on the Santa Ysabel Indian Reservation, about sixty-miles north of San Diego. It was mid-summer, I don't recall the exact month, and he found matches outside that he claimed were wet. He wanted to see if they would still light on a rock and he quickly learned that they would. His clichéd childhood fascination with matches set off a wildfire that burned from our yard to nearly the top of the west-facing ridge of Vulcan Mountain. Our local tribal volunteer fire department responded along with engines from the Forest Service and from what was then called the California Department of Forestry, or CDF, and what is now CAL FIRE.
As kids, the fire seemed enormous, what I might have called catastrophic if I knew that word when I was eleven. What I did experience was how quickly a fire can get out of hand, how hot it can burn and how you can feel the intensity of the heat even when you are across the road from it, shielded from danger by a wide swathe of dry dirt.
My second childhood memory of a wildfire is from the 1987 Palomar Mountain fire. I was thirteen then. From our family's front porch, we had a clear view of the Highway 79 corridor leading to Lake Henshaw with the majestic brow of Mt. Palomar at the helm and the Palomar Observatory sitting like a puffy marshmallow on top. Every morning, the lake, mountain and observatory were the first things I saw when I walked out the front door. I don't remember seeing the fire start.
The only image of the 1987 Palomar Fire in my mind's eye is the enormous plume billowing above the mountain in what looked to me like a nuclear explosion. Roads were closed, sirens blasted, air tankers and helicopters flew non-stop to dump water and retardant on the mountain. We watched them fly low and high, in and out of the inferno, but their air drops were veiled by the thick smoke. The blaze burned for a long time, but I never had a sense of fear or thought that we might be in danger or be evacuated. We merely witnessed and were subdued by the awe-inspiring power of fire.
Fire and its power were and are not new to me, my family or community. We did not have electricity in our house. Everything we needed to survive and live was based on the use of fire. We used a propane stove to cook, heat our house and fuel our refrigerator. All of these items had pilot lights that needed a flame to ignite. We used kerosene and Coleman lanterns filled with white gas for light at night. We had a wood-burning fireplace, one of the oldest on the reservation, that was once used to cook meals for funeral wakes. In fact, there was an old hook in the fireplace where the cooks would hang a cast iron pot of water or food to heat in the open flame. When we ran out of propane, we placed our oven grates in the fireplace and cooked our meals in it too. My brother and I learned at an early age what most people might feel is an outmoded lesson for the 1980s; we learned how to use fire for life.
The blaze burned for a long time, but I never had a sense of fear or thought that we might be in danger...We merely witnessed and were subdued by the awe-inspiring power of fire.Theresa Gregor, descendant of the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel
Fire, in Iipay Áa (our Kumeyaay language) is the word 'aaw. It is the root word in our greeting, haawka, which means "I see the fire (breath of life) burning inside you." The suffix 'a' signals a question; thus, our greeting is both a recognition of and an inquiry into the person's life or liveliness. I think another, more specific translation of the word could be "How is the fire burning in you?" or"Is there fire burning in you?"
Before our ceremonial practices were banned in the 18th century, the Kuseyaays (cultural/spiritual leaders) and elders regularly held a Fire Dance to accompany the closing of ceremonies. The dancers drank a special tea made from willow bark and demonstrated their relationship to and respect for fire by dancing closely, intimately, with it until, at the end of the ceremony, through their song, dance, and interactions, they extinguished it. Historical accounts of the dance observe that oftentimes the fire would be reduced to ash and embers that the People would easily walk through and touch without injuring themselves.
Fire was also used for cremations, to clear trails for travel and to clear fields to propagate seeds and remove pests. It was also used as a tool to aid in hunting. In the story "Chaup", First Woman teaches her creator twin sons to hunt deer by positioning one child at the top of a ridge and the other at the bottom. Then she sets a fire and tells them to wait and hunt the deer as they run away from the flames. These stories are being revitalized and retold in our contemporary context. They are being studied to learn more Traditional Ecological Knowledge about how to steward the land and our plant and animal relatives.
Sadly, my experience and memories of fire from childhood and the attendant lessons I learned from my Kumeyaay culture about 'aaw are not the dominant narratives we hear and read about fire today. Fires today are "catastrophic, monstrous, life-threatening, raging complexes." They cause region-wide devastation, loss of life and the destruction of entire towns and neighborhoods.
As an adult, my professional relationship with fire developed after the 2007 Witch Creek and Poomacha Fires burned across San Diego County. The reservation I am from, the Santa Ysabel Indian Reservation, was evacuated for a week, and we had no power or water for several more. My nonprofit work with the Inter Tribal Long Term Recovery Foundation began initially as a response to the 2007 Witch Creek and Poomacha Fires, facilitating recovery for my tribe and for neighboring tribal communities. I rapidly learned that fire recovery was only one part of a much more complex process of fire prevention and safety, which, in California, means living with year-round vigilance, preparing to to evacuate in a moment's notice, fire-hardening your home and maintaining appropriate fire insurance, among other safety habits. I also learned how wide the gap is between tribal governments and their adjacent non-Native communities in terms of access to resources to protect their homelands. One of the biggest obstacles was that, for nearly half a century, tribal nations in California were not signatories to the state’s Master Mutual Aid (MMA) or Emergency Services Act. Senate Bill 816, introduced by the Committee on Governmental Organization, passed both state legislative houses in 2021 and is awaiting gubernatorial approval to include California tribal nations as parties to the MMA.
What, if any, material and procedural changes Bill 816 will provide Indian Nations to improve their capacity to respond to and utilize fire in manners consistent with their customs and traditions remains to be seen. What I do know is that more state and federal agencies, private land conservancies and private landowners are increasingly open to have a dialogue and build relationships with California Indian people as “cooperative managers” of lands. While these developments are a step in the right direction, the ongoing risk and threat of catastrophic wildfires leave me wondering how we can all learn to better tend to fire? How can we restore our practices of dancing with fire with care and respect so that it lives and dies in a good way? Is it possible to construct policies and practices that see fire as a generative life source instead of a force of destruction? Will Californians ever be able to look at fire, as I did as a child, without fear and dread?
Don Laylander, Listen to the Raven: The Southern California Ethnography of Constance Goddard Dubois (Coyote Press, 2004).
Steven M. Shackley, The Early Ethnography of the Kumeyaay, (Berkeley, UC Regents, 2004).
T.T. Waterman, "The Religious Practices of the Diegueño Indians", American Archaeology and Ethnology. Vol. 8, No. 6, (March 1910); 21-28.