The role of Indigenous communities in California fire management

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California saw its two largest wildfires in history within one year — how is this possible? 

As heat waves and droughts devastate communities all across the state, California is experiencing fire seasons that start earlier and end later every year. The August Complex fire, which burned from Aug. 16 to Nov. 12 in 2020, was the first fire in California history to burn over one million acres — precisely 1,032,648. Only eight months later, the Dixie fire started July 13, 2021 in the northern Sierra Nevada. The Dixie fire is the second largest wildfire at 963,309 acres and has reached 100% containment as of Monday, Oct. 25

Fires are natural processes that help to maintain healthy ecosystems. However, the unprecedented severity and longevity of recent wildfires are consequences of climate change and unsustainable land management. As climate change causes more snowmelt and longer rainy seasons, vegetation grows more rapidly. Rising global temperatures are creating longer and warmer heat waves that severely dry out vegetation — providing optimal fuel for extreme wildfires.

Wildfires are both a product and a cause of climate change. Forests play a major role in carbon storage globally, so severe wildfires emit large quantities of carbon into the atmosphere from forests’ biomass and soil. The increasing frequency of wildfires leaves forests unable to fully recover and limits forests’ ability to store carbon. 

Wildfires disproportionately affect minorities and low-income communities, contributing to the long history of structural inequalities. A study conducted by the University of Washington and the Nature Conservancy demonstrated that wildfire vulnerability is unequally distributed based on race and socioeconomic status. Minorities and poor communities are 50% more vulnerable to wildfires, resulting in health disparities due to poor air quality, heat-related illnesses and lack of access to protective measures. 

What is the best solution to this social and environmental catastrophe? It may surprise you that the solution is to fight fire with fire

For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples in California and around the world have practiced controlled burns on their lands. These cultural burns are effective at increasing biodiversity and reducing wildfire risk, and they maintain healthy, balanced ecosystems since fire is an essential ecological process. Indigenous fire stewardship practices developed out of necessity, allowing communities to survive and adapt to their environments; however, controlled burns are also an integral part of many Indigenous cultures.

The colonization of the Western Hemisphere drastically undermined Indigenous fire sovereignty, and fire suppression became common practice. Throughout most of the 20th century, fire management policies were focused on protecting watersheds, communities and the timber supply through fire suppression. In 1886, the National Parks Service implemented policies that banned all fires in national parks, which contributed to more disastrous wildfires such as the McGee fire in 1955.

It was not until 1968 that the National Park Service began to integrate controlled burns into its fire management programs. In 1982, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL FIRE, implemented the Vegetation Management Program. The program is responsible for the use of prescribed fire in California to prevent disastrous wildfires and allow fires to carry out their natural ecological role. 

Recent changes in fire management practices reflect efforts to work with fire rather than against it — as learned from Indigenous practices. Two California bills were introduced this year with the goal of increasing the frequency of prescribed burns. On Oct. 6, Gov. Newsom signed Senate Bill 332, which changes California’s liability laws. According to the bill, people overseeing a controlled fire are immune from liability for damages or injuries unless the fire was conducted in a grossly negligent manner. 

Assembly Bill 642, approved by Gov. Newsom on Sept. 28, is another step in the right direction for California’s fire policies. For the first time, the bill acknowledges the significance of controlled burns rooted in Indigenous culture and ecological knowledge. The bill states that CAL FIRE would be required to actively engage with California’s Native American tribes, Tribal Organizations and cultural fire practitioners to expand the practice of cultural burns and preserve cultural identity. 

While California has seen record-breaking wildfires within the last year, we are also seeing unprecedented policy changes. Environmental activists and politicians hope this will cultivate a more sustainable future for California’s forests. However, these developments are only the start. 

To effectively address the needs of the environment and minority communities, California must continue to break down barriers obstructing the use of controlled fires. Everyone can do their part by amplifying the voices of Indigenous communities and other marginalized groups disproportionately impacted by worsening wildfires. 

Contact Chloe Tiltonat [email protected].