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This Land is Their Land: A Future for Indigenous Fire in Southern California

firefighter lighting the final edige of a prescribed fire in Washington
A firefighter lights the final edge of a prescribed fire on Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge in southern Washington, where fire has historically played an important role in maintaining grassland plant communities. | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
In what we now call Southern California, fire was an everyday tool for Indigenous people for thousands of years. With wildfires happening so frequently, it is time to bring back carefully planned, well-timed, appropriately scaled, deliberate, cultural fires not only to honor Indigenous cultural practitioners, but also the land on which many of us have been settling.
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Here’s a suggestion for fire scientists, environmentalists and anybody else who enjoys the vast outdoor landscapes of Southern California: When you’re out in the field or on the trail, look out for those who have preceded you and pay attention to any clues they have left behind. Not only those just a few yards in front of you, but those far, far ahead — those who traveled this way hundreds or thousands of years ago and those who continue to follow the same paths today. Look not only into the beautiful, “natural” setting that surrounds you, but into the complex history of people’s interactions with their surroundings. Look into what has been a human-created cultural landscape for uncountable years — since time immemorial. Assume the land was full and abundant in the past, and that it could be again.

There’s a common tendency to think of the settlement of California as a discrete historical event that took place a couple of centuries ago and is now over. I would suggest it’s more accurate to think of settlement as a process that takes a thousand years or so to complete. Indigenous people were already settled (and had been settled for a long, long time) when Junipero Serra first set foot here in 1769. Those groups of people who have been here for less than a millennium in what is now known as California are still in the process of settling — we are settlers. Note the active voice folded into the word settler: settlement is not a thing of the past, it is an active, ongoing process today whereby settlers ignore, erase, displace, murder and replace Indigenous people.

As you are out on your walk on the trail, envision the scene of the time prior to Serra’s arrival as filled with settled and yet highly mobile, proudly multilingual, Indigenous people. Assume Natives traveled widely, that their diverse languages and their sundry approaches to burning, harvesting, hunting and other dynamic interactions with the land marked distinctions among peoples but also crosscut the borders that divided them — leading to conflicts at times but often to kinship and reciprocal economic relations with one another.

Take it as a given that the time prior to the late 18th century was one of significant anthropogenic impact on the land in what we now know as California. It was a time of people creating endless spatial variation with their fires and gathering practices, something new to see and experience around each bend in the trail. Burning was widespread and diversified, leading to what many refer to as a finely grained, mosaic-like pattern of plant communities and animal habitats on the land. Over the long run, these mosaics no doubt shifted, sometimes dramatically. If a satellite had been in orbit to record the transformations, the resulting time-lapse film would resemble the patterns seen inside a twisting kaleidoscope more than a static arrangement of tiles. The trail you walk today may seem remote, a trek through an almost forbidding wilderness, but all of these lands were easily accessible to lots and lots of people for thousands of years. Assume that their fires helped to foster diverse communities of plants, water and animals, and that they could do so again today.

Suppressed for over a century, Indigenous cultural burning is still practiced in limited areas today. Learn more in this "Tending the Wild" episode.
Cultural Burning

In what we now call Southern California, fire was an everyday tool for Indigenous people for thousands of years used not only to care for the land but for the promotion of personal health (as with smudge fires to ward away insects), the preparation of food, the processing of raw materials into tools and musical instruments and for warmth. As anyone who has heated their home with wood knows, the amount of fuelwood required can be huge. When settlers suppressed fires and replaced wood with fossil fuels as the energy source for home cooking and heating, the resulting buildup of uncut, unburned fuels on the land was correspondingly huge. In the absence of periodic burns, grasslands converted to impenetrable chaparral. In the absence of wood gathering and regular burning, open shrublands, woodlands and forests transformed into dense thickets of shrubs and trees. It is possible to find many of the locations of former grasslands and open woodlands. Not all of them are covered in concrete. They could be restored along with the Indigenous practices that sustained them.

Unlike in forests, the tree-ring and burn-scar records that scientists depend upon to construct fire histories are few and far between in grasslands and chaparral. However, Indigenous records — stories, songs, verbs and the structure of language itself, and the records embodied by Indigenous people and the practices they sustain — the history they enact — combine with scientifically analyzed records of charcoal and pollen deposits to indicate that fire frequencies have decreased over much of Southern California.

Large-scale, catastrophic wildfires like the Thomas and Woolsey fires are increasing in frequency. Meanwhile, the smaller scale, less intense fires that, for example, encourage the straight, strong growth of plant shoots for basket materials or that keep the oak woodlands open and accessible for acorn harvests, have almost disappeared. While those smaller-scale, frequent Indigenous burns may not prevent a catastrophic fire from igniting and spreading to people’s homes during an extreme Santa Ana Wind event, they would most definitely prepare Indigenous people’s homelands for wildfire. Small, intentional fires would make those homelands and the plants and animals that populate them more resilient in the face of destructive wildfires. Indigenous fire reduced hazardous conditions around villages for thousands of years, but the principal role of Indigenous fire is to create a landscape resilient to the wind-driven fires that will always spread rapidly in diverse Southern California fuel types. In areas that have been prepared with cultural burns or hand cutting, wildfires will burn through without permanently damaging cultural resources such as oaks and elderberry.

Prior to 1769, people Indigenous to the region thrived throughout their histories. Their fires cultivated whole suites of resources and maintained habitat for a host of animals such as deer and grizzly bears. Today, in addition to the good cultural fire work being done in Northern and Central California in forests and foothills, similar work could be done in Southern California in chaparral. Under relatively cool, humid conditions and high fuel moistures, deliberate fire could be safely applied. Broad swaths of the region could regenerate if the land is allowed to interact with Indigenous people as it has for millennia. The transformation and regeneration could be swift. A cultural landscape evolves over a much briefer time period than the eons over which individual species of flora and fauna evolve.

wildlife reutrning to area recently burned by prescribed fire
Use of prescribed fire is widely accepted as a primary tool for land and resource managers. These actions help reduce the risk of devastating wildfires that can threaten people, fish, wildlife and plants. As this photo shows, wildlife very quickly return to recently-burned areas. | Cindy Souders / Mountain-Prairie Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Large fires have always occurred in Southern California, and they will continue to start and spread, especially during Santa Ana wind episodes. What could be re-created in those burned areas would be time-tested Indigenous responses to large fires, like getting back into the areas with frequent cultural burns. One of the challenges of applying deliberate fire in the region has been the likelihood that with too-frequent fire, even more flammable, invasive plants have tended to replace native species. However, when practitioners read the landscape accurately and apply cultural fire at the right frequency, seasonality and scale, they can protect and enhance native biodiversity. It is true that in the chaparral of Southern California, wildfires are burning far more frequently than they once did. The landscape needs less frequent wildfire. It is also true that carefully planned, well-timed, appropriately scaled, deliberate, cultural fires are far too infrequent in Southern California chaparral.

In fact, Indigenous people have always burned for many purposes throughout their homelands. Purposes that are as valid today as in the past, such as: increased production of fruits and seeds, enhanced animal habitat, increased water resources, pathogen control, reduced fire hazard, the creation of open areas to allow light and water to reach the earth and therefore allow room for growth of oak seedlings, etc.

If you’re an ecologist, landowner or land manager, find ways to work with Indigenous people, for practitioners to come gather the deergrass or the rosehips on your land. Look at native plants as more than fire hazards and more than inviolable, fragile, untouchable nature. Wherever you are in Southern California, from the Channel Islands to downtown Los Angeles, from Big Bear Lake to the Algodones Dunes, you are on Indigenous homelands, and the Indigenous people of every location maintain interrelationships with the land.

If you are a settler, you may think of yourself as being located in house or a facility that needs protection from fire or you may think of yourself as a visitor “out in the environment,” in the wilderness, but you are also taking up space within someone’s homeland. These Indigenous people may be interested in gathering together in their homeland to tell stories, exchange ideas and practices, conduct ceremonies and, perhaps, to ignite fires — a fire as small as a hand-held smudge or a cooking fire, or one as large as a broadcast burn.

So, if you are a landowner or land manager, when Indigenous people request access, open the gate. When they request financial support for their work, open the coffers. Try to think of doing so not as a charitable gesture but as paying a fee for professional services. For too long, settlers have ignored and neglected Indigenous people’s land stewardship — an ignorance and neglect motivated by the need to minimize Indigenous land tenure, to see the land as an empty, natural wilderness and therefore open to settlement and development; or on the other hand, ignorance and neglect motivated by a detached, scientific system of environmental preservation, when in fact the land has been settled and nurtured since time immemorial. It is time to attend to and listen to Indigenous cultural practitioners, to cherish them, to pay them.

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