Taking fire back: Why California must combat fire suppression

Kelly Baird/File

In October of my senior year of high school, I listened to the death toll from the Tubbs Fire climb on the drive to school each morning. The number stuck at 22, making it the deadliest fire since the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire. The smoke that traveled 60 miles from Sonoma and Napa counties to reach my East Bay hometown filtered the morning sunlight on those drives in an orange haze.

In November, my roommates opened the curtains to our college residence hall room. The hazy morning sunlight flushed our room with the same, haunting orange. It was November, just over a year after the Tubbs Fire. On my walk to class that morning I listened to NPR journalists report Camp Fire deaths. At the time, there were 56 deaths, surpassing Tubbs to be the deadliest in California history. That number would continue to climb to 85.

Although fall fires occur like clockwork every year, it must be said that the significant increase in fire-related deaths and devastations over the past two decades is far from normal — or acceptable. Scientists agree that in recent years, fires have increased dramatically in size and devastation because of fire suppression policies, the zero tolerance of fire in natural landscapes and the immediate squashing of naturally occurring forest fires.

A history of fire suppression

First introduced to California during the Spanish missionization period, fire suppression has since become federal law and the general public’s expectation of fire management.

Before colonization, many indigenous groups not only allowed for natural fires but also intentionally burned the landscape. They used fire for pest control, to create walkable paths and natural fire breaks through dense vegetation and to help cycle important nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen through their landscapes. They also used fire to promote the growth of fire following grasses and herbs, plants that store their seeds in the soil for years between fires, waiting for a burn to clear away bigger vegetation and allow the seeds access to sunlight. These plants, sprouting immediately after fires pass through a region, attracted huntable herbivores and provided materials for crafts such as basket weaving.

…it must be said that the significant increase in fire-related deaths and devastations over the past two decades is far from normal — or acceptable.

But when Spaniards began to colonize California in 1769, they took the population needed to set fires away from tribes and put them into missions as slave laborers. Without the possibility of setting controlled burns, many indigenous peoples lost the ability to control their own systems of food production and were forced to rely on their colonizers for foodstuffs and nutrition. They also lost the ability to perform cultural practices associated with fire and burnings, such as basket weaving.

The discouraging practices that took shape in early colonial days only escalated as colonialists assumed full control of the land and its management. During the gold-rush era, state-sanctioned genocide depleted the California Native American population by more than 95 percent. Colonizers forced Native Americans off the land they had tended for centuries.

This violent development, devastating from every ethical perspective, also subsequently led to a loss of what is known to ecologists and anthropologists as traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK. TEK is a term that refers to the wealth of knowledge about ecosystems and land management that indigenous groups have accumulated through centuries of interacting with their landscapes. Without their presence to pass that knowledge on, much of this generational wisdom, especially that with regard to fire ecology, was lost. The restoration of cultural burning today is much more difficult for it.

In the early 1900s, fire suppression became a national policy. Today, California is incredibly effective when it comes to fire suppression — as remarked in “California: A Fire Survey” by Stephen J. Pyne, only 2 to 3 percent of fires escape the powerful paramilitary tools and techniques employed by firefighters. It is these 2 to 3 percent, however, that burn out of control and cause deaths and devastation to California homeowners and strip forests and shrublands to just their soil.

The harms of fire suppression

Fire serves as a periodic cleanser for its ecosystem. Without it, ecosystems become untidy — in the literal sense. Dead organic matter from decaying animals and plants collects on the forest floor for decades, turning it into the perfect kindling to grow stray sparks into flames. Vegetation and foliage in eras where sustained burning is not the norm are also denser. Flames, spreading from ground to tree, are able to leap between branches until they cover entire landscapes in wildfire.

Today, California is incredibly effective when it comes to fire suppression…

Fire suppression also comes at a financial cost. From 2017 to 2018, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the government agency in charge of managing firefighting in much of California’s nonurban landscapes, estimates it spent $974.4 million on fire suppression and emergency funds to fight megafires such as 2018’s Camp Fire and 2017’s Tubbs Fire.

It is because of fire suppression that Paradise, California is still in the beginning stages of restoring the former vibrancy of a 25,000-person population — four months after being leveled to a moonscape by the Camp Fire.

Based on historical documentation of precolonial forests and the observed effects of fire suppression on today’s California landscapes, scientists agree that it is vital for forest and shrubland health to restore fires immediately. As stated in a paper published by Actionbioscience, fires historically regulated the vegetation and debris in forests, which decreased the intensity of subsequent fires and allowed for a greater survival rate of mature trees.

But laws regulating environmental and air quality conditions during a prescribed burn are incredibly restricting. Liability and budget constraints limit the amount of vegetation that government agencies such as the United State Forest Service, or USFS, are willing to burn, and regulations on conditions such as humidity and air quality create narrow time frames during which it is legal to perform a prescribed burn.

Regulations on air quality prohibit burning in order to prevent smoke from affecting nearby communities. According to Oregon State University Extension Service, “In general, wildfires are far more likely to result in harmful air quality and public health impacts than prescribed fires because they are unplanned and typically are much larger.”

Systemic and bureaucratic problems such as these will only change once the public puts pressure on legislators. Currently, however, public pressure is weak. Californians are still generally in support of fire suppression because of the lack of understanding that fire is integral to California ecosystems, and without small fires, there will inevitably be the catastrophic fires we see today.

Ironically, the population least supportive of prescribed burning is also the most threatened by fire suppression. This population is the homeowners of the wildland-urban interface, or WUI, where houses and communities intermix with or bump up against forests, shrublands or grasslands. More than a third of California lives in the WUI, and it is continually expanding as individuals seek to escape the confines of the city for more idyllic living.

As science correspondent Miles O’Brien reported on PBS, “The opposition, the most heated opposition, comes from the people most affected. It’s the people living in the woods who don’t want to have their view changed by thinning or to have the smoke that’s caused by the prescribed burns.”

WUI homeowners are scared of prescribed burns because while they are often the first and those most devastatingly affected by fire suppression-related wildfires, they are also the first and most devastatingly affected in the event of an escaped prescribed burn. From their perspective, the logic is simple — why play with fire?

Californians are still generally in support of fire suppression because of the lack of understanding that fire is integral to California ecosystems…

According to a report by USFS scientist Sarah M. McCaffrey, “smoke, concerns about escape, and trust are key issues” in “shaping support” for prescribed burning. She goes on to say that prescribed burning, while objectionable at first, can be seen as acceptable through further conversations regarding its minimal impacts. Scientists and land managers are now concerned with how to best go about communicating information about prescribed burning.

One way could be through storytelling.

Myths in California fire suppression history

Fire suppression supporters have historically pointed to myths such as the Great Fire of 1910 in the western United States and Smokey Bear to qualify their arguments.

The Great Fire of 1910, a true event in itself, was elevated to the level of myth by media coverage. Newspapers ran bold headlines and featured articles in which “details were frequently over-exaggerated,” according to a 1994 article by Evergreen Foundation co-founder Jim Petersen. In the article, Petersen explains that this coverage not only reflected but also promoted the fear of fire and that the USFS capitalized on this fear to successfully lobby Congress into making fire suppression national policy 14 years later.

Before stepping into the limelight to, by their interpretation, save the American people from wildfires, the USFS was a tiny, brand-new government agency. It was created just five years before the 1910 fire to provide clean water and timber for the benefit of the government, and it had little power. The USFS found its purpose — encouraging fire suppression — by way of mass hysteria after the 1910 fire. Today, the USFS still does not have as many prescribed burning efforts as other land management agencies such as the National Park Service.

Mascots such as the iconic Smokey Bear were used to perpetuate the false idea that forest fires are inherently harmful with posters, myths and even songs that place the viewers into a narrative about an anthropomorphized bear whose home is at stake. Smokey’s slogan “only you can prevent forest fires” reflects the false ideas that all fires are destructive and unnatural. If only humans can prevent forest fires, only humans can cause forest fires. This, of course, is false. Lighting fires has been common for millennia, and both anthropogenic and natural fires are integral to California ecosystems.

The precursor to Smokey Bear was Tokio Kid, a caricature of a Japanese man that served as the antagonist in a slew of racist, anti-Japanese World War II propaganda materials. Tokio Kid played on American hatred and fear of the Japanese. Pictured with squinty eyes and stringy drool and often bearing a bloody dagger that mirrored his enormous, sharp teeth, Tokio Kid’s purpose was to encourage fear and anger in the already Japanese-hating American population. Slogans on the posters such as “Tokio Kid say if not working hard for E’s making Jap so happy please” frequently used the racial slur “Jap” to further degrade Japanese people and Japanese Americans.

Among these posters was one put out by the USFS to promote forest fire prevention. This poster overlayed menacing Tokio Kid and Adolf Hitler caricatures onto a forest engulfed in flames. Below the scene was the slogan, “Our carelessness, their secret weapon. Prevent forest fires.” This again tied the idea of fire with racist ideology, portraying both burnings and Japanese Americans as inherently evil.

A new story

Despite storytelling’s historical uses when it comes to fire management, it is possible to use narratives to communicate facts. In a paper titled, “Making Science Meaningful for Broad Audiences through Stories,” UC Berkeley integrated biology doctoral student Sara J. ElShafie explains that stories “help an audience to comprehend, recall, and care about the content presented.”

Lighting fires has been common for millennia, and both anthropogenic and natural fires are integral to California ecosystems.

In the wake of the November Camp Fire’s record-setting death toll and President Donald Trump’s false, inflammatory tweet that said California could prevent fires if land managers only raked their forests like Finland, many scientists and indigenous peoples believe now is the time to use the heightened attention directed toward fires in California to fuel a discussion on fire management best practices.

Today, private and public land management agencies, scientists and indigenous groups are working together to restore fire to California landscapes. The National Park Service is currently implementing prescribed burning practices in Yosemite National Park. The Amah Mutsun Tribe of the Santa Cruz Mountains has established the Amah Mutsun Land Trust in order to restore the knowledge and application of cultural practices such as prescribed burning by working with scientists and anthropologists.

Leaf Hillman, natural resources and environmental policy director for the Karuk Tribe, told YES! Magazine in 2017, “If I had to make up a new story for today … I would tell how the federal government has taken fire from the people. Now we have to take it back.”

Contact Hannah Frances Johansson at [email protected]

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