Fighting with fire

Small fern sprouting up from the ground.
A fern regrowing in Swinley Forest, UK, after a fire. (Photo credit: Timo Newton-Syms)


This isn’t a story about how the United States government destroyed pristine, untouched landscapes with their destructive policies (untouched, no, but a lot of destroying was done), or decimated Indigenous populations, or how climate change and wildfires are coming to get us. This is a story of strength, resilience, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK).

Wildfires are not a new phenomenon. They’ve been a part of forest management discourse, and as more fires start and fire season lengthens, wildfires are being covered and talked about more.

The causes of increased wildfires in the Western US are twofold. First, as climate change increases, there has been less rain and snow while temperatures have been higher, making forests drier and more vulnerable to fire events. Second, catastrophic fires are increasing because of the way that stolen land has been managed in the aftermath of colonization.

Summer is the driest season experienced by western states of the United States, during which time they are at risk for wildfires. (Source: Climate Central)
While temperatures have been increasing, snow levels have decreased, making summers hotter and drier, leaving forests more prone to wildfires. (Source: Climate Central)


You might be surprised to learn that before European settlers and agriculture arrived to the east coast of America, Indigenous peoples had already been cultivating the land that we live on right now. Through permaculture and agriculture, and even fire, Indigenous peoples worked in tandem with the land to grow crops, create meadows for hunting, and cultivate oak trees for nuts. Yet settlers deemed that the land was untouched and uninhabited. Settlers not only failed to recognize Indigenous peoples as people but also the love and work put into the land they lived on.

From this relationship with the land, Indigenous people developed land management strategies over a time span of millenia. These land management practices included using fire as a way to maintain ecosystems in their productive state and the benefits of this type of management were seen in the reduction of fuel build up so that the resulting fires were less catastrophic. State and federal land designation policies (such as removing Indigenous people from national park land and “wilderness”) erased Native people from the landscape and their Traditional Knowledge and practices. While state and federal policies focused on full fire suppression (the Wilderness Management Act or 10 a.m. policy). Fire can be  a way to restore the land. The management policy of full fire suppression creates a build up of understory brush, dead branches, and pine needles effectively turning the forest into a tinder pile while prescribed burns result in low intensity burns. Without these types of burns all it takes is one match to create high intensity fires such as the Camp Fire which burned through 150,000 acres in 2018. Climate change is that match. 

A meadow in Swinley Forest, UK, resprouting after a fire. Low intensity fires clear saplings and understory to make room for grass and flower meadows. These are excellent grazing land for deer and other herbivores. (Photo credit: Timo Newton-Syms)


To recap:

  •     Fire is a natural part of forest health (there’s even some trees that can’t produce seeds without fire!)
  •     Indigenous people utilized fire to manage their landscapes
  •     policies from the US government in the early 1900’s created a no burn policy that stopped natural fire regimes as well as limited cultural burning
  •     These policies combined with hotter and drier summer seasons are creating massive wildfires across the West.

 Starting forest fires may sound like a bad idea but some tribes argue that since time immemorial they have used fire in ceremony as a way to tend to the world they are in relation with. These tribes are advocating for returning fire not just as a cultural practice but also as an incredibly important form of land management based on centuries of ecological expertise. Traditional knowledge needs no scientific validation. Still, a study conducted in the mid-Klamath showed that smoke settling in the valley caused a temperature inversion and cooled down stream temperatures to the range where salmon can return. This just goes to show that experts don’t have to have a ph.d behind their name to be experts. 

Fire is not unnatural, evil, or even something to fear when it is respected and understood. It can be a tool to restore forests that have been allowed to tilt too far out of whack. We can allow people who know more than us to lead the way toward better land management practice. In practicing this humility and lifting up the voices of Indigenous experts like the Karuk and other tribes like the Yurok or Aboriginal people in Australia, we are also decolonizing the landscape and our control of it. It’s not going to solve all of the harm settlers have done but it may be a place to start.

Maybe instead of telling people how to live and cultivate the land, for once, we can sit back, and listen.

Click to learn more about the Karuk Tribe’s prescribed burns.

Prescribed burns such as this one performed in conjunction with tribal DNR, US Forest Service, and USGS helps reset forests to their natural fire regime. Allowing more cultural burns can reduce the impact of climate change and massive wildfires. (Photo credit: Evan Gruenes Photography)


To read more on the link between climate change and fire, check out our previous post on fire trends and impacts in California.