Bring Back the Good Fires

By Julie Cordero-Lamb, Jared Dahl Aldern, and Teresa Romero

Note: This article is modified from the original published in News from Native California magazine Spring 2018, in Volume 31, Issue 3.

After the fires and the mud, now is the time to bring good, Indigenous fires back to Southern California on a broader scale.

In Santa Barbara County, just below Romero Canyon, lies an old family cemetery in Montecito.  The old cemetery is today unmarked, without headstones, and it carries the remains of ancestors for generations.  The cemetery holds both Chumash and Californio ancestors carrying a distinct cultural history and landscape that is familiar among Tribal communities in Southern California.   The old Romero trail is in actuality an old Chumash trail that led to villages through the Coastal ranges along with many other trails. Stories of these trails have been passed on orally through families for generations.  It is a place where families gathered traditional foods and medicines, including acorns. 

In Romero Canyon. Photo by Teresa Romero.
In Romero Canyon. Photo by Teresa Romero.
Just before the massive Thomas Fire, large manzanita, ceanothus, and other chaparral shrubs filled Romero Canyon from floor to rim. Photo from Ventura County Trails.
Within Romero Canyon and nearby, shrubs encroached on sacred sites and Chumash gathering areas that, prior to settlement and fire-suppression policies, had been kept clear of large shrubs by periodic Chumash cultural burns. Photo by Teresa Romero.

Just before the massive Thomas Fire of December 2017, large manzanita, ceanothus, and other chaparral shrubs filled Romero Canyon from floor to rim. Within the canyon and nearby, these shrubs encroached on sacred sites and Chumash gathering areas that, prior to settlement and fire-suppression policies, had been kept clear of shrubs by periodic Chumash cultural burns.  The ferocious Thomas Fire had no problem clearing the closely packed shrubs, burning out even their large, extensive root systems and leaving only loose ashes in the root holes, which extended, in some places, up to six feet underground. When the heavy rains of January 8 and 9, 2018 rolled off the topsoil that the fire had baked to a waterproof finish and then surged into the underground “pipes” formed by the now-vacant root holes, whole hillsides came loose and they crashed with their mud, boulders, and trees onto houses, living people, plants, and animals, and the bones of ancestors. What the fires had not consumed and the smoke had not choked, the floods, finally, engulfed.

In the face of these catastrophes, it is time for federal, state, and local agencies to ensure a place at the table for the knowledgeable, Indigenous experts on native plant species, fire, and hydrology, and to negotiate cost- and time-efficient agreements to reintroduce cultural fire, ecosystem by ecosystem, microclimate by microclimate, as the traditional, regenerative horticulturalists of Native California have always done. In Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, site of the massive Thomas Fire and the deadly debris flows that followed, modern Chumash practitioners have worked to reclaim their heritage as tenders of the land. Since there are no current agreements regarding the use of cultural fire management between any Chumash tribal organizations and government agencies, traditional horticulturalists do the grueling work of “being the fire” by hand. They choose a tiny area, rich in culturally important plants, acquire permits and secure access, carefully observe plant species and plant-animal interactions, recognize and note interconnections, bloom times, seeding patterns, and soil quality. They say their names, all of them, in Šmuwič, English, and Latin. They sing. Then they do the backbreaking work of pruning, coppicing, hand-grinding, mulching, and weeding out the dead brush and grasses. They use few or no power tools.

Members of the Syuxtun Plant Mentorship Collective pruning back the plant known in Šmuwič as qayas (scientific name: Sambucus caerulea; common name: blue elderberry). San Marcos Preserve. Photo by Julie Cordero-Lamb.
Completed pruning and brush clearing of qayas/Sambucus caerulea/blue elderberry, with upright watersprouts left behind for later harvesting for clappersticks and tools. Photo by Julie Cordero-Lamb.
Members of the Syuxtun Plant Mentorship Collective gather berries from their tended qayas/Sambucus caerulea/blue elderberry. San Marcos Foothills Preserve. Photo by Julie Cordero-Lamb.

The tiny patches tended by Indigenous Californians grow lush, open, species-diverse, and more water-efficient. Fire, when it comes to such managed areas, burns low to the ground and moves through quickly. The tree crowns remain green and healthy. Any structures in such areas are easily defended. After the flames have moved through, the seeds that follow fire germinate at the first rain, since they survived the low-temperature burn.

But when the fire reaches the vast, un-tended zones that surround the green patches of hand-tended gathering areas, the dense, bone-dry fuel loads explode into fires of historic proportions, destroying homes, lives, livelihoods, and ancient landscapes. Severe, extensive burns in thick chaparral, on or near steep slopes with unstable soils, bring a high risk of subsequent mudslides. Closely following, intense rains nearly guarantee those extremely destructive debris flows. Some ecologists and activists argue that this type of fire is “natural,” but saying that chaparral naturally grows to be dense, impenetrable, and explosive is like saying elders and children naturally starve without the work and intervention of those who care for them. These results are only natural when we do not tend to or nurture chaparral, elders, or children. The sheer age of healthy oaks, sycamores, bay trees, and elderberry in Southern California point to a long history of more frequent, less intense burns. Burns like the Thomas Fire kill many of these trees. It is clear that fire is beneficial when it occurs at appropriate frequencies, scales, intensities, and severities. We know – from elders, from knowledge conveyed by songs, stories, and ceremonies, from scientific studies, and from personal, working experience – that the following burn frequencies, with the burns’ acreages properly scaled, are appropriate for their respective plant communities:

  • Annually under oaks and pines where the goals are to ensure good harvest and to control pests and diseases
  • Three times in ten years in oak orchards or pine groves where the goals are to increase the diversity of plants growing under the trees and to encourage young tree seedlings to grow into maturity
  • Annually around springs, maintaining shallow-rooted grasses and annuals (and perhaps one or two shade trees) where the goal is to sustain water level and flow
  • Every three years in grasses and shrubs used for baskets, arrows, and bows, where the goal is to ensure the growth of straight shoots and sprouts in the plant materials
  • Every ten to fifteen years in chaparral, where the goal is to maximize seed and fruit yield and to control pathogens
  • Much longer intervals in sage (which is killed by higher-frequency fire) and in patches of denser vegetation (to maintain them as denning, nesting, or hiding habitat for various animals)

These burning frequencies will vary as the various plant communities intersect with each other, and fire-lighters always keep hydrology in mind: the idea is to balance the distribution of shallow-rooted grasses and annuals with shade trees and shrubs throughout the watershed so that surface water flow is maximized, groundwater is as high as possible, and plants stay as green and fire-resistant as possible. Also, as climates change, fire seasons shift, droughts lengthen, storms intensify, and invasive plants and animals show increasing potential to move into freshly burned areas, Indigenous horticulturalists may adjust the seasonal timing of their burns or follow them up with maintenance programs to hand-clear any undesirable plants that sprout. A current buzz phrase among land managers is adaptive management, by which they mean the systematic improvement of management by learning from the outcomes of past practices on the land. Indigenous horticulturalists have been adaptively interrelating with land since time immemorial, and the environmental dynamics of the twenty-first century are only the latest in a long history of sometimes tumultuous change to which these practitioners have responded. In that sense, they are the ultimate adaptive managers.   

There will always be big fires in Southern California, especially during Santa Ana wind episodes, but when they burn, they do not have to be as destructive as was the Thomas Fire. The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy – a framework for federal, state, local, and tribal fire agencies to collaborate – puts forward three key goals: 1) to respond effectively and efficiently to wildfires; 2) to develop fire-adapted communities, and 3) to restore and maintain landscapes. Much funding, training, and news stories have focused on the first goal (firefighting), even as wildfires appear to be increasing in frequency. Some journalists and columnists have recently focused more attention on the second goal (fire adaptation) – and it is absolutely necessary to better fire-proof our communities and homes with appropriate building materials, rooftop sprinkler systems, and adequate defensible space surrounding them. To extend the idea of defensible space to rural and remote landscapes would be to approach the third goal (fire restoration). When forests and shrublands are thinned and opened (with hand tools, with chainsaws and tractors, or with prescribed and cultural fire), and especially when they are thinned and opened in a targeted, strategic fashion that accounts for wind corridors, potential wildfire behavior, and good locations for cultivating important plants such as oaks and herbaceous foods, medicines, and materials, then not only will groundwater levels rise and will more of these cultural and natural resources survive big fires, but firefighters will have more fuel breaks and safety zones to aid in their defense of lives, homes, and homelands.

It is time for the era of deliberate suppression of cultural burning practices to end. Cultural fire suppression has culminated in a social, unnatural disaster. Chumash people have worked with tribes in Northern California on cultural burns, and they are ready to apply the knowledge gained to cultural burns in Southern California in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire and the Montecito mudslides. For federal, state, and local agencies to help bring the restoration of tribal fire to a broader scale in California, they must collaborate with tribal practitioners at every step in the process (after all, it’s not cultural fire without the culture). And to successfully collaborate with Native people whose practices have so often been ignored or actively suppressed, non-Native fire scientists and managers will need to acknowledge Indigenous knowledge as valid, act in accordance with the diverse, local traditions of the tribes in their areas, and maintain a willingness to share decision-making power and an openness to learn from knowledge that is sometimes shared in unfamiliar formats. The required investment of funds, time, and effort into Indigenous fire will help to prevent a reoccurrence of recent tragedies and will return many other benefits to the people and land of our state.

Julie Cordero-Lamb is a traditional Chumash herbalist and the founder of the Syuxtun Plant Mentorship Collective, through which knowledgeable Chumash practitioners from several Chumash tribal organizations develop partnerships with land agencies and work to return the health of land and indigenous people. 

Jared Dahl Aldern, Ph.D., is an environmental historian and fire practitioner. Retired from educational and tribal government staff careers, he is a lead investigator and research associate with the West on Fire research and education initiative of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and a co-founder of the Sierra-Sequoia Burn Cooperative.

Teresa Romero is a traditional Chumash practitioner who participates with the Syuxtun Plan Mentorship Collective and has worked with Tribes for nearly 20 years on Tribal restoration projects in both Michigan and California.


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