Tue September 4, 2012
Health, Science, Environment

Commentary: A state on fire

Here in California, the wildfire is an emblem of catastrophic carelessness. A single cigarette butt, dropped in moronic innocence, can easily set off something like the fires we've seen this summer in Lake, Shasta, Tehama, San Diego, Mendocino and Riverside Counties; Joshua Tree, Plumas National Forest, Yosemite, etc.

Our hazy skies are nothing new: 400 years ago, the landscape here was similarly defined by fire. In 1602, the Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno said there were "so many columns of smoke on the [California] mainland that at night it looked like a procession and in the daytime the sky was overcast."

This was the case more or less across the entire state. But there's a key difference between then and now. What Vizcaino saw were contained fires, set deliberately by the people who lived in California at the time (in this case, probably the Kumeyaay).

By now I think most people have worked out that regular, small-scale burns protect against the out-of-control variety, by preventing fuel buildup. That's why the National Park Service uses them, at least when Smokey is off on the lecture circuit. But it's not actually why Native Californians set fires. Their burns were the cornerstone of what you could call an alternate approach to agriculture, very different from old world farming. Burns increased the growth of edible seed-bearing grasses. They encouraged plants like sourberry and button willow to grow straight branches that could be used to make tools. They concentrated deer and rabbit populations into convenient pastures, making them easier to hunt, and they killed off parasites in food trees like the California fan palm and the tanbark oak.

Over time, these burns had some unintended ecological effects – you don't work a region over for thousands of years without seeing some changes. But they weren’t necessarily what you’d expect. The standard progression of human agriculture more or less goes like this: man begins farming... man inadvertently starts killing off every damn thing he isn't farming. Fire-based agriculture works differently, by creating the kind of mosaic landscape that actually benefits biodiversity. In some cases, it may have even been necessary for it: some researchers think that chaparral, everyone's favorite endemic coastal evergreen scrubland, seems dependent enough on small, controlled fires that it likely co-evolved with them.

This annoyingly balanced bit of ecology was thrown out as soon as Europeans got a foothold in the region. Efforts to stamp out the Indians’ madcap, frivolous arson started early: California’s first ban on burning vegetation showed up in 1793, and was mainly intended to keep all those flames from impinging on the kind of orderly agriculture the Spanish preferred. But it was the subsequent disruptions of traditional life – forcible relocation into missions, devastating epidemics, land grabs – that ended up putting out these fires more or less for good.

The cost of this shift wasn’t just the occasional massive conflagration. As the planned burns went, so went these highly productive native ecosystems. Less fire-adapted, often invasive, species gained the upper hand, in some cases dramatically changing the California landscape. And now, with more and more people living near wildlands, bringing them back is impractical – and potentially deadly.

Today’s wildfires are symbols of carelessness. But truly thorough, comprehensive carelessness isn't just about doing stupid things you're not supposed to do. It's also about dereliction of duty. When we put our minds to it, humans have the capacity to be ecological team players. Which I’m sure is a great comfort if you’re watching the red glow rising over Lassen. 


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