Violent weather: The active legacy of colonialism and how it has manifested a record-breaking fire season

Photo of smoke billowing from a prescribed burn in the distance behind a fence
Presidio of Monterey/Creative Commons

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ept. 28: My skies have been an apocalyptic, hazy orange on and off for weeks now. I hear helicopters on their way toward the smoke and each time, I send up a tiny prayer that will likely not reach them above the noise of the choppers. Checking weather apps and tuning into interactive fire maps are becoming part of my habitual lifestyle: a weekly activity that is as unenjoyable as it is anxiety-inducing. My eyes scan the Bay Area, searching for red zones and hoping that my home and my friends’ homes are unmarked. Those of us who live on the West Coast have been here long enough to know that these conditions are unusual, to say the least. My parents, who are in their late 50s, haven’t known this intensity of fire danger for as long as they’ve been alive.

Things are better now from where I sit. The skies outside my window are blue in the mornings. The air quality in the North Bay is less appalling, and the sky is no longer filled with orange smoke. But it’s hard not to wonder: When will it happen next? And will it be worse?

Priya Krishnakumar and Swetha Kannan, reporting for the Los Angeles Times, confirmed that 2020 has shattered fire records from all previous years. From 2001-2010, the top 10 largest fires burned a total of 1.5 million acres. In 2020 alone, more than 4 million acres have burned, thousands of people have been evacuated, homes and lives have been lost and the fire season will continue throughout the remainder of the fall and early winter.

In what is gearing up to be an annual pattern, PG&E has been triggering mass power outages in California due to dry conditions and red flag warnings. At the peak of the Public Safety Power Shutoff only just last week, more than 345,000 customers were without power. Unpredictability and impermanence abound. People are tired and weary of isolation. They are anxious about the elections and talk of voter suppression, the political and medical crisis that is COVID-19, state violence against Black Lives Matter protesters and natural disasters that seem to get worse every year.

In this year’s atmosphere of fear and anxiety, I offer some hope: California is supposed to burn. According to NPR reporter Lauren Sommer, “while 4 million acres may seem staggering, studies show it’s on par with California’s natural fire cycle over millennia.” California’s natural environment was shaped by Indigenous peoples who managed the land for hundreds of years prior to colonization. Kent Lightfoot, professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley, said “there were over 80 languages spoken in California and at least several hundred tribes who used stewardship practices to enhance the plants and animals in their territories, of which fire was key.”

Indigenous peoples across California have a deep relationship with the land. To keep the resources that they depended on healthy and vibrant, they often integrated fire into their management strategies. It was a cleansing force, with which they could tame an overgrown forest and allow culturally essential plants the space for rebirth. Younger plants were much better than old, outcompeted ones, and fire renewed the cycle of life, making what was old young again. In the 1700s, an average of 4.5 million acres of California forestlands burned in wildfires each year, a far greater number than the average in recent decades. The 2020 fire season, however, which has burned 4 million acres and counting, is comparable to that historical average.

In a conversation with the Hon. Ron W. Goode, tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe, explained the deep rift that has been cultivated by our disassociation with the land. It’s easy now to go to the pharmacy or store, he said, but “the Indian people have been on this land for a minimum of 8,000 years and not survived but thrived, multiplied.” Later, he noted, “Our shopping mall was our meadows, our watershed.” Goode reported that his tribe has more than 200 cultural resources and 95 food resources.

When Europeans first ran their ships against the sand of the Western coast, they saw only a vast, untamed wilderness. They did not see the carefully curated meadows built to supply open space for hunting or the healthy willow trees along the creeks whose young green boughs built beautiful baskets and cradleboards.

But after years of living as curators of the natural systems that sustained them, European settlers came and began an eradication of California’s Indigenous land stewards. When Europeans first ran their ships against the sand of the Western coast, they saw only a vast, untamed wilderness. They did not see the carefully curated meadows built to supply open space for hunting or the healthy willow trees along the creeks whose young green boughs built beautiful baskets and cradleboards. They did not see the hundreds of different ways to use a Manzanita, or the fibrous root and mycelial systems that unfurled beneath the forest floor, holding precious rainwater. They didn’t see the connections spreading like neurons from a single oak tree: from root to shoot to mouth to hand. “They don’t see what the land used to look like,” Goode explained. “They can’t tell you what they are responsible for.”

Instead, they carved out land that did not belong to them and called it property. They cut down ancient giants, choked the rivers and blew apart mountains for mercury and ore. They killed animals such as the California grizzly alongside Indigenous peoples. As many as 16,000 California Native Americans were killed in the mid-19th century by vigilante groups and even the United States Army. This is without taking into account the thousands of California Native Americans who were forced into Christian missions that stripped tribes of their language and generational heritage. This injury to the Native Americans in the state was not an isolated event, and the violence against them continues.

Many of us living in California who descended from those western colonizers learn only to celebrate them. I knew the name Junipero Serra and the name Christopher Columbus before I knew the name of the tribe whose stolen land my house in Sonoma was built on: the Coast Miwok, whose term for “fire” was “vili” and whose term for “smoke” was “kûal.”  Charitie Ropati, an activist and member of the Native Village of Kongiganak, Alaska, wrote of Western pedagogy: “In Alaska studies, a required course to graduate high school in the state of Alaska, the teacher spoke of my people as if we were of the past, like we were just a picture in a book. The class erased the first inhabitants of this country. It erased me.”

Despite colonial efforts, tribes have resisted and survived, still with deep roots in generational knowledge.“Our culture is a living culture,” writes Goode of his people. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, academia tends to overlook the rich oral traditions that tribal members have held onto over the years. “Because a lot of these oral traditions were not written down, there is a tendency in scholarship to look at them less strongly than hard science or historical records,” Lightfoot said.

The excision of tribes from our history books and collegiate papers carries over to the ways that federal and state agencies determine who gets to manage the land. Federal recognition, according to the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA, forms a relationship between the sovereign tribe and the federal government, entitling them to benefits such as the protection of heritage sites, training and education programs and eligibility for poverty relief programs. Most importantly, it gives them greater access to land. They are absolved of certain regulations that would otherwise debilitate efforts to revitalize Indigenous land-use practices by unrecognized tribes, of which there are more than 55 in California alone — more than any other state.

The excision of tribes from our history books and collegiate papers carries over to the ways that federal and state agencies determine who gets to manage the land.

Between 1851 and 1852, a series of 18 treaties was established that would have increased the landholdings of numerous tribes. The treaties were never ratified, and the tribes were instead given much less than what they were promised. Lightfoot laments this, saying that had they been ratified, “maybe we wouldn’t have the issue we have now. The tribes would have been able to maintain that land in an Indigenous fashion that would have kept fuel loads down and enhanced native plants and animals.”

Without sovereign land, many tribes are hindered in their ability to revitalize traditional practices, including the use of fire as an ecosystem management tool. Instead, they are tangled in miles and miles of red tape and forced into partnerships with state and federal agencies, where they are marginalized in conversations about management.

As a result of years of suppressive fire management strategies, our forests today are thick and dense. There is no spatial heterogeneity. This is why we have seen these huge fires that have devastated the wildland-urban interface these past few years. The Creek Fire, the fourth-largest fire in California history, “exploded like an atom bomb,” Goode described, “and that’s because you had 80 to 90% thickness in that forest that hasn’t seen fire in 120 years.”

Goode explained that “openness is one of the key elements in the forest. You should have 40% canopy or less.” When rain or snow comes, he said, there needs to be space for that water to reach the forest floor so it can be retained by the root system. If there is water stored in the roots, the forest is continually fed throughout the year.

The excessive fuel loads in our California forests not only lead to aggressive, high-severity fires but shepherd in a host of other problems. Overcrowded forests are more susceptible to drought, which weakens the sap defense system in the trees. Without this protection, bark beetles are able to cripple the trees. Dead trees that are killed by bark beetles provide an abundant source of dry fuel and exacerbate the risk of fire. Climate change is also a pressing issue. Every year we see a longer and hotter dry season, which creates perfect conditions for fires to catch and spread. Overall, these high-severity fires lead to an enormous loss in carbon sequestration potential for forests and let off huge amounts of emissions.

Our California firefighting department is built like an aggressive arm of the military. In his book, “Fire in America,” Stephen Pyne, an environmental historian and professor emeritus at Arizona State University, wrote, “the advent of modern fire fighting suppression techniques after the Second World War, including smokejumpers, air tankers, and a military styled fire suppression organization, most likely contributed to the reduction in the number of large fires.”

But citizens and experts are increasingly calling for something new, sounding the call that suppression is not stewardship. Suppression looks at fire as an enemy rather than a tool for regeneration or medicine for a sick forest. It is based on the short-term vision that says, “Where is the fire, and how can we stop it?” rather than seeing the forest as a living, breathing organism that depends on thoughtful stewardship.

But citizens and experts are increasingly calling for something new, sounding the call that suppression is not stewardship.

“This is a long-term process,” Lightfoot said of land management. It’s not just a one-and-done deal. “Once you start doing some of this prescribed burning, you can’t just do it once. It has to be maintained, so there is a certain cost associated with it. There must be recognition that funding has to be set aside for land stewardship. That is the constant cost of living in California.”

Under the pressure of an actively burning state, Gov. Gavin Newsom has been funneling California spending into wildfire management. This past June, Newsom signed the 2020 Budget Act, a spending plan intended to strengthen emergency response in light of the coronavirus. The budget gives $85.6 million to Cal Fire “for firefighting resources and surge capacity,” as well as $50 million for “community powered resiliency.”

Concentration needs to be placed on community-powered resiliency. California is a huge state, and forest land is divided among many different interest groups. To make breakthroughs in management and find ways to reduce fuel loads, partnerships between these interest groups are necessary. Indigenous communities, however, cannot be left behind and pushed to the margins.

Lightfoot affirmed that “tribes are part of the future, and part of the solution. They know these local ecologies, and can be key in thinking about how we can get these fuel loads down and enhance the native plants and animals at the same time.” Many tribes, due to their federally unrecognized status, shortage of land or both, do not have the economic capacity to facilitate cultural stewardship in all the ways that they need. “We all want to save our culture. We all want to save our traditions. We all have a need to take care of our cultural resources,” Goode said. Fire is part of that solution. Who would be better stewards of fire than the Indigenous peoples who have a long, resilient and graceful partnership with the natural world?

Goode’s words reverberate as the noise of record-smashing wildfires, heat waves, elections, coronavirus death counts, police brutality and precipitous extremes quietly roar in the back of my mind: “The land is hungry, hungry for the return of traditions and traditional ways; hungry for “proper fire” back on the land, hungry for spirituality. The land, the spirits of the land have been waiting for decades, for centuries, for this “Ceremonial Fire.”

Contact Aliya Haas Blinman at [email protected].