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Fighting Fire with Fire: The Role of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Managing the Wildland Urban Interface

Neil Heacox | February 15, 2022

Burned landscape in Fall 2020 near Big Sur, California. The current ecological health of the hillside and past fire cycles will determine if native chaparral will recover, or if nonnative annual grasses and other invasive plants will take its place.

The Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) is broadly defined as the transition zone between wilderness and areas of human settlement, and in California it is prone to wildfires. Approximately 25% of the state’s residents live in these high-risk areas, and WUIs are the fastest growing land use types in the USA according to research from the US Forest Service. Attempts to protect these communities from wildfires seem decreasingly effective, as the sheer number and size of blazes shatter records annually. The eight largest fires in California history have occurred in the last five years, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Climate change, expanding populations, and invasive plants are contributing to an increase in fire ignitions and are expected to worsen the problem in the future. So how can we protect these vulnerable communities? Current scientific research points toward prescribed burning and traditional ecological knowledge from Indigenous Californians as a solution. To hear science advocate for indigenous practices as a way to reduce fires might surprise some people; shifting our understanding and relationship to fire might be the only known way to safely live within WUIs.

Indigenous Fire Experience & Colonial Mismanagement

In Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness, Omer C. Stewart describes how accounts of fire began the moment the Spanish started exploring California in 1542. From Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s first sightings by ship, to 16th and 17th century explorations by Spanish soldiers on foot, their diaries curiously mentioned expansive fires alerting them to indigenous presence. They were surprised to find whole regions of the coast completely burned.

During the mission period, where the coastal indigenous were rounded up and enslaved, prescribed burning was such an integral part of indigenous life that the Santa Barbara Mission published a proclamation “punishing anyone who commits such [offense].” By 1840, these bans on fire had begun to change the ecosystem, as new visitors recorded more woody growth “in the vicinity than…sixty years earlier.” With this change in land management, “grazing and fire suppression had allowed the chaparral to invade the grasslands.” This European smothering of indigenous peoples and fire continued under California’s first session of Congress in 1850, with the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, and the California Volunteer Act, where “over 20,000 Indigenous peoples were enslaved.”

The book Fire in California’s Ecosystems asserts that Europeans hadn’t perviously encountered controlled burning as a management tool, and since it didn’t align with their goals for the land, they suppressed its use. Permanent buildings needed protecting, and fire threatened the settlers’ agricultural, ranching, lumbering, and gold-mining plans. The “pristine wilderness” Europeans had convinced themselves they discovered (ignoring the “savages” they had rounded up) was actually a mosaic of various plant communities deliberately planned by the indigenous, whose influence on California’s ecosystem was incredibly profound. Indigenous Americans were so instrumental in determining the locations and diversity of their ecosystems that prescribed burning was “likely to have influenced organisms at the genetic level…playing a role in the evolution of the flora.” Scientists today assert that 5,000 years of prescribed burns means that “entire habitats may be dependent upon this continued human intervention for their survival; these include coastal prairies, open woodlands, and forests.”

In fact, the scope of historical human impact on landscape can be difficult to comprehend. Of the 5.7-12.4 million acres of California (6-16%) estimated to be burned annually, the vast majority showed evidence of being managed by indigenous peoples. They converted many forests and chaparral to open woodland or native herbaceous grassland, primarily around their villages and hunting grounds. Indigenous food and tool material supplies primarily relied upon fire management, making it the only way California could have supported the estimated 310,000 indigenous peoples living in prehistoric times.

There were countless ways everyday indigenous life used fire. Expanding herbaceous grasslands for hunting, promoting specific food and medicinal species, recycling plants into minerals and nutrients for agriculture, reducing woody buildup to aid travel and decrease catastrophic fires, and prompting salmon migration by using smoke to cool river temperatures. Their fire use also felled trees, managed pests and pathogens, and promoted ecosystem diversity.

A recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes research conducted on an ancient WUI in the southwest. The Jemez-Pueblo made their home in this region for centuries by using “ecologically savvy intensive burning and wood collection to make [it] resistant to…extreme fire behavior.” This method of fuel collection and burning maintenance reduced tree mortality and positively impacted wildfire size and intensity. Jemez land differed from today’s WUI communities in two key ways: it was a working landscape where wood and fire supported residents’ lives, and there was more cultural acceptance of the benefits of fire and smoke.

Contemporary Challenges

While the history of indigenous land management illustrates the benefits of prescribed burning, enacting such practices today to prevent catastrophic fires is stalled by our current dangerous cycle of catastrophic fires. These frequent, out-of-control fire seasons often drain financial resources and the political will to do anything preventative. Everyone’s focus is on reacting to these catastrophes and seeking to put out the fire. Lauren Kim argues that there are other reasons for resisting prescribed burning: low coordination between governmental organizations, funding, resistance from private landowners, overgrown and highly vulnerable areas, weather limitations, and air quality concerns. However, weather limitations and overgrown area concerns can be minimized through planning. Lower-temperature prescribed fires create less smoke than wildfires that burn down homes with toxic substances. Ultimately, management alternatives that shift from state agencies toward local homeowners, planners, and policy-makers are often more effective at reducing community fire risk and protecting resources.

The Nature Conservancy has been working with tribes in Northern California to develop multi-agency partnerships to bring back prescribed burns. Various tribal leaders were eager to affirm, maintain, or strengthen their fire cultures. Beth Rose Middleton-Manning, a Native American studies professor at UC Davis, stressed how important it was to not focus on obtaining or taking indigenous knowledge, but that native people need to be included and allowed to lead prescribed burnings.

Climate change and invasive plants are recent environmental changes to consider in future management. Severe weather contributes to the majority of large landscape burns. Increased invasive grasslands are also driving greater burn acreage, since these annuals die in summer and create more flammable fuel, as opposed to native perrennial bunchgrasses and herbs. These fires then help those invasive grasses expand, creating a grass-fire-cycle feedback loop. Nonnative transformations are likely irreversible, so returning to pre-nonnative ecosystems presumably won’t succeed. These fires also increase soil erosion into streams.

Data suggests climate instability will cause noticeable changes such as conifer tree ranges contracting, allowing expanding deciduous oaks further up into foothills and threatening ecosystem diversity. Rain variability will increase fires twofold: more fuel accumulation in wetter years, and therefore worse fires in drier ones.

Removal of Indigenous Californians and their fire has resulted in ecological changes and increases in severe wildfires. This departure from established human-ecological patterns has led to additional ecological shifts, with little resemblance to balanced, low-fire ecosystems indigenous people would have recognized. Ecosystems are changing beyond what’s known, leading to great management challenges ahead, especially with fire’s infamous unpredictability. But new variables and changing contexts must be accounted for, and indigenous practices may combat diversity decline and aid in habitat recovery. This could reverse the trend of worsening wildfires. Indeed, as far as science suggests, indigenous practices might be the only effective tools we have left to try.

Neil Heacox is a Masters student studying landscape architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and is interested in the systemic function of Southern California’s native ecosystems. His focus is on ecological design, sustainability, and green infrastructure as ways to bring nature back into our urban fabric. He hopes this will not only improve residents’ wellbeing and community resilience, but also help solidify a sense of identity and place that inspires future generations.