The ecology of fire and man is a complex relationship. Everyone engaged on the front lines of the current debate about how to deal with wildfire has some of the answers.
History indicates that fire was used by native people for small and large scale landscape management, and wind events were not necessarily unfavorable. Wind-driven fires move so quickly through a landscape that the understory burns while many larger plants are merely singed. When that fire hits something solid, be it a thick grove of trees or a building, its characteristics change. Knowing this, the importance of individual effort and responsibility cannot be overlooked.
Homeowners can “harden” their homes against fire in a number of ways. Cal Fire provides a simple overview at readyforwildfire.org. And UC Berkeley has a fabulous website that illustrates how fire impacts structures and materials at its builders’ wildfire mitigation guide website: firecenterbeta.berkeley.edu/bwmg/.
Fire roads, fire breaks, and access roads into open spaces often cannot stop a wind-driven fire. But they can offer an escape route for first responders in an emergency. Fire breaks and transportation infrastructure should be maintained. Bulldozing an access road with an emergency situation unfolding puts lives at risk. Maintaining our infrastructure is a much better solution.
The long-term suppression of fire from our open spaces has had detrimental impacts on some plant communities. But there is a great deal of variation in those communities. A healthy forest of trees might have around 40 trees per acre and is characterized by open, accessible space in between trees. If you are looking at a stand of trees and wondering if and how you are going to find your way through it, it’s probably overgrown to a state of unhealthiness and some kind of thinning needs to happen to correct that. The goal of allowing logging to occur should be improving the health of forests by selective thinning of designated areas.
Chaparral plant communities are remarkable evergreen forests of drought-resistant plants that are not well understood and, as a result, undervalued. They are a fire climax plant community, meaning that fire is what ultimately resets their growth cycle; but fire needs to occur at appropriate intervals or those plant communities can be lost forever, replaced by invasive species that are not desirable on any level. Twenty years is a minimum fire interval for most chaparral; when fire occurs more frequently, the plants are not able to regenerate or reach seed-bearing maturity. Even a rudimentary understanding of what chaparral is can help develop a social consciousness that is empathetic to and appreciative of these plant communities and facilitate management policies that don’t damage them.
Fire is an integral part of the long-term health of ecosystems, and we have no mechanical means of duplicating its benefits. When we masticate plant material, it becomes its own fuel, a hot mass of debris which, if ignited, can heat the soil intensely, damaging tree roots and all the biomass beneath it. Thick layers of mulch produce the same effect if ignited. We need to accept that the reintroduction of fire through controlled burns makes good environmental sense.
Critically, we need to embrace the idea of the “mosaic” in wilderness management, leaving some areas completely alone. Managing others in a way that creates a fuel break in the event of a fire — a place where a fire comes back to the ground, places where fires can be accessed and confronted. We need to maintain defensible space as best as we can in population centers and keep wilderness areas connected for the long-term survival of key predator species such as mountain lions. We need to embrace an understanding of nature that does not exclude ourselves and further the separation that has already made us uninformed stewards.
We cannot archive nature. We cannot hold a landscape or a wilderness in an unchanging state, expecting it to remain as we remembered it in our youth. Ecosystems are living, breathing entities. They mature, they climax, they are reborn, often by fire. Preservation efforts that exist without an understanding of the historical symbiosis of mankind and nature are efforts that will ultimately fail the habitats they seek to enshrine. We will become better stewards of the land when we embrace impermanence: the cycle and the circle of life.
Native American land management practices included fire for thousands of years. Their wisdom, and that of life-long foresters whose hands have touched the land for decades, whose knowledge is real, and forged from experience, need to be engaged, heard, and respected in this dialogue. We have gotten to where we are now by thinking we knew better. It’s time to invite the wisdom keepers back to the conversation.
Corina Roberts is the founder of Redbird, which promotes the awareness and celebration of indigenous cultures and people and creating a sustainable future.