It’s time to listen to Indigenous peoples about wildfires

It’s time to listen to Indigenous peoples about wildfires
U.S. National Guard aircraft drops retardant at the site of the Thomas Fire. U.S. Department of Agriculture via Wikimedia Commons

America has had an ugly history of disregarding Indigenous people, ranging from displacement to genocide. The relatively young United States government has consistently ignored the longest standing inhabitants of the land, even when they had promised to work with the tribes.

That disregarding has yet to cease, as Indigenous voices often go unheard even today. The environment, for example, is a major sector where the American government has felt their 400-some years of incomplete learning is preferable over the thousands of years of knowledge passed down throughout Indigenous cultures.

Picture this: The eastern foothills and canyons of the Santa Ana Mountains in Orange County, California. A desert-like chaparral ecosystem blankets the rolling hills and valleys that seem to be fairly untouched by capitalist sprawl. Dirt trails lead visitors throughout the various scenic views of the area. One would assume that there is nothing wrong with what they see, but that idea is incorrect.

In the past 300 years, nearly all of rural California has been subject to massive brush overgrowing. Former legislation prevented controlled burns for decades and has since left a stigma against the practice. Letting brush grow freely with no regulation creates unprecedented amounts of fire fuel, allowing a wildfire to easily rip through the Southern California landscape.

Due to the continued disdain for the proven practice, California is far behind in any type of effort to keep fuels in check via prescribed burning. In a February 2020 report, Nature Sustainability suggested that 20 million of the state’s 100 million acres would need to be burned in order to regain a respectable standing in brush regulation.

Even beyond scientific reasoning, controlled burns would help alleviate the ballooning budget of Cal Fire and other wildfire agencies.

“There is an urgency,” said Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist with The University of Idaho, in an interview with Mother Jones. “We are seeing every single year now, highly destructive and sometimes fatal wildfires. A lot of the [wildfire solutions] take a lot of time and a lot of money. [But] prescribed fire is much cheaper. It ends up being this thing that we can do now if we have the political willpower.”

Cal Fire was granted $2.5 billion in the 2020-21 California state budget, hundreds of millions more than it received only a decade ago. Much of that money could be saved and reallocated through proactive fire response in place of the status quo reactive fire response.

Firefighters using drip torches for a controlled burn in Miramar, California. Scott Taylor via Wikimedia Commons

Cal Fire focused a fair chunk of their wildfire efforts this past year in the same location in eastern Orange County. Two separate fires–the Silverado Fire in late October and the Bond Fire in early December–tore through the rural stretch between Irvine and Silverado, as well as the surroundings of Silverado and Modjeska Canyons.

“The winds were extraordinary even by Santa Ana standards,” said Brian Fennessey, an Orange County Fire Authority chief, according to NBC News. “Fire spread is exceeding more than anything I’ve seen in my 44 years.”

The Silverado Fire burn scar reportedly halted the westward progress of the later Bond Fire, perhaps Mother Nature’s harsh way of saying “controlled burns work!”

In August 2020, members of the North Fork Mono tribe from near the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Northern California were permitted to conduct a controlled burn of the overgrown brush in the area. The event was successful and a sign of Indigenous peoples’ ability to properly manage the land through their knowledge of it.

“I think it’s really important that we don’t think about traditional burning as: what information can we learn from native people and then exclude people and move on with non-natives managing the land,” said Beth Rose Middleton Manning, a professor of Native American studies at the University of California, Davis, in an interview with NPR. “But that native people are at the forefront and leading.”

The precedent set by the North Fork Mono tribe, among other tribes throughout the state conducting controlled burns, should serve as an example for the Orange County locale, showing how to properly manage the natural habitat in which they are so closely intertwined. Perhaps fire officials could reach out to the local Acjachemen and Tongva populations, some 2,000 and 4,000 in number, respectively, for their input on prescribed burns.

Beyond strategy itself, valuing the cultural knowledge of the Acjachemen population would be a good start to repairing the broken relationship between inhabitant and state, one exemplified by a 2004 approval of JSerra Catholic High School’s plans to build an athletic complex on top of a historic burial ground belonging to the tribe. Despite protests by Indigenous groups against the plans, the school was allowed to build a gym and football field on the site where Indigenous burial remains were found.

Going forward, Orange County has a great opportunity to restore Indigenous people to their position of environmental leadership that they had held for hundreds of years prior. The effects of improper wildfire management have been readily observed in the past year, and the growth of those effects have zero cause to stop. The bickering about which newfangled process should be utilized has gone on for too long while the historically proven method of controlled burns has been written off.

If Orange County wants to properly manage their land to minimize the destruction of their next wildfire, they should look to the people who know the land best.