Opinion: Wildfires, cultural burning, and fireworks

Undoubtedly, fireworks are already going off to celebrate Independence Day. Most people are likely being responsible about their use of pyrotechnics, but many others are not. In cities, especially here in the Central Valley where everything is extremely dry, we can expect some roof fires and hope that these will be quickly contained by our fire departments. We’ll probably also have a few brush fires.


But, outside our cities and especially in our forests, fire can and does spread quickly, leaping across roads, and often overwhelming fire breaks. This dynamic is due to hot, dry wind that often occurs from spring through late fall. In the northern part of the state, Diablo winds fan wildfires; in the south, flames are fed by the Santa Anas.


Cultural burning


According to Cal Fire, “While wildfires are a natural part of California’s landscape, the fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year.” Before 1800, about 4.5 million acres burned annually. Of course, at that time, California was thinly populated.


With about 40 million current residents, it’s hard to imagine that California had only about 157,000 people when gold was discovered in 1848. According to estimates, 150,000 were Native American, 6,500 were of Mexican descent, and fewer than 800 were of European descent.


At that time, Native Americans used the technique of controlled burns to regenerate the land and clear dead brush and other debris from the forests. Ron Good, tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono, told National Public Radio (NPR), “We don’t put fire on the ground and not know how it’s going to turn out. That’s what makes it cultural burning, because we cultivate.”


From 1849 on, California’s non-native population soared because of the gold rush. California became a state in 1850, and the population of European descent mushroomed. Immigrant residents quickly took control of the new government and banned certain Native American religious ceremonies, including the sacred controlled burns.


Fire suppression backfired. As NPR pointed out, “Without regular burns, the landscape grew thick with vegetation that dries out every summer, creating kindling for the fires that have recently destroyed California communities.”


A new partnership


Today, government in California is trying to forge new partnerships with tribal leaders in order to restore traditional practices and save hundreds of thousands of acres. “Tribes,” according to NPR, “are eager to gain access to those ancestral lands to restore traditional burning.” Ron Goode explains, “This is old land. It’s been in use for thousands and thousands of years. And so what we’re doing out here is restoring life.”


The federal government is also interested in partnering with native peoples who have a history of cultural burning. Jonathan Long, an ecologist with the Forest Service’s Southwest Research Station, told NPR, “Fire is a wicked problem when you have years of suppression, because the longer you don’t have fire in the system, the harder it is to put it back in.”


In order to treat the land according to traditional values and to manage wildfires, the Forest Service is also calling on the ancestral skills of the Karuk and Yurok people in Northern California. Long said, “By having partnerships with the tribes, I think we can get that very frequent use of fire back in the system.”


Like Jonathan Long, Jennifer Montgomery, director of California’s Forest Management Task Force, welcomes the chance to partner with native peoples. “It’s an opportunity for me to see how effective cultural fire can be in addressing the issues we have around uncontrolled wildfire.”


The North Fork Mono’s Ron Good exclaimed, “I’m excited.” Following a cultural burn, he elaborated, “I’m elated. I’m looking around at what we’ve done. How beautiful the land is looking. It is. It is.”


Uncontrolled burning


Unfortunately, celebrating our country’s independence from Great Britain with fireworks can lead to billions of dollars of destruction. Just as printing “Healthy and Nutritious” on the box in which food is packaged doesn’t necessarily mean that what’s inside the box is good for us, calling certain fireworks “Safe and Sane” doesn’t mean the contents aren’t dangerous. A sparkler or a Whistling Pete can touch off a blaze that destroys forests, homes, and lives.


This year, we need to be especially careful. January 2021 was one of the driest January’s in California’s recorded history. The Fire Service predicts that our fire season will be worse than 2020 because of the lack of rain and snow. Our reservoirs are low, heat has been dramatically high, and twice as many acres have already burned this year as compared to last year at this time.


The fact is that California has been in a state of drought for the past two decades. We need to start thinking of our state as being in a continual drought, and we need to consider that our fire season begins each year on January 1 and ends on December 31. We have occasional respites, but the constant — the recurring reality — is that there will be drought.


This year’s drought is severe. Because of our paucity of rain and long stretches of triple digit weather, the land is parched. California is a tinder box waiting to explode in flame. I hope you’ll keep this in mind when you put a match to fireworks on Sunday evening. And, please, don’t even think about discharging a firearm into the air. It’s illegal and lethally dangerous.


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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.