Controlled Burns, Indigenous Practices, and the California Wildfires

2,000 year-old trees in one of America’s most storied parks have been fighting for their lives since the California wildfires started raging in the last few weeks. 

Some feel the intensity of these wildfires is another confirming sign of the real presence of the climate crisis. Some feel that the wildfires are a direct response to capitalist farming practices and the prohibition of ancient Native American agricultural methods. Some claim they’re a result of “not cleaning your floors”, or allowing leaves and other flammable organic material to pile up in forests.

While there’s not much truth to the final theory, the real answer can be found in combining all three explanations, and understanding the way unconscious capitalism has created big problems in the natural world. 

(You can think of unconscious capitalism as the opposite of one of our favorite modern ideas – conscious capitalism. Unconscious capitalism values profit and societal advancement at the expense of the natural world and ethical considerations.)

You see, before the government stepped in, there existed a practice for preventing wildfires and controlling the environment through communion with nature as it is, not as we want it to be.

Native Americans arranged for controlled burns – just like in the indigenous peoples of Amazon rainforest do – for the purposes of land management, usually in order to:

  • Reduce flammable organic matter
  • Restore ecosystem balance and health
  • Recycle nutrients
  • Prepare an area for agriculture
  • And more.

But about 100 years ago, the U.S. government forbade indigenous tribes in California from using this land management tool to prevent wildfires, and focused instead on developing technologies to put raging fires out.

It’s important to take note of the way the landscapes of our world, both physical and political, are changing, and to understand what it all means.

How Did Controlled Burning Come About?

In a place like California, or the Amazon, land management is a much bigger deal. California is nearly 33% covered by forests, or one third of the whole state. (By contrast, Brazil is about 62% covered in forest – two thirds.)

For many centuries, native populations experienced a spiritual and symbiotic relationship with the forests here. They understood that fire was a tool that could foster growth just as well as it could cause damage, but European settlers couldn’t get past fire as an evil tool for destruction.

There’s a pervasive idea among those who don’t know that before settling America, the land simply existed without human intervention. 

But that’s not true – and certainly, not all human intervention has the same impact. 

Controlled burns were well-timed, occurring in dry winter periods where heat and wind wouldn’t encourage the fires to spread, and lightning storms were less likely. 

And the burns were ceremonial as well as practical, with deep respect for the plant life affected in order to create a more targeted result. They were also consistent. Since burns occurred regularly, usually once a year, vegetation and roots were accustomed to the heat of the fires and the root stock remained intact, able to resprout once the fires stopped. 

Plus, there are some plants, like cones, that specifically open their cones to dispense seeds in response to great heat.

Burning away underbrush, dead grass and vegetation, or leaf litter and dry branch overflow can not only reduce the amount of flammable material that could contribute to bigger naturally occurring or human-error fires…

It also brings soil mineral layers to the forest floor surface to encourage soil health and makes seedlings grow more easily, layers that get buried under years of dead and unhealthy plant matter, clogging up the works.

And finally, the U.S. government is coming around to the benefits of controlled burning and foregoing their former policies.

The Big Change

Around the turn of the 20th century, American legislation prohibited religious and spiritual practices by native populations in California, and plenty of other states.

And by 1935, the U.S. Forest Service had instituted its “10 a.m. policy.” This ensured that any fires set the day before would have to be put out by 10 the next morning – not ideal for clearing away all of the brush and preventing future fires.

As the U.S. became more dependent on a small rotation of cash crops and more focused on monoculture in our growing practices, the need for controlled fires which kept the ecosystem in balance and encouraged the growth of plants that had no obvious monetary value lessened…

At least according to the government. 

It wasn’t until 1995 that the government started to realize it should have been using fire to prevent fire rather than draining resources in the face of fire emergencies.

And now, thanks to California’s wildfires, the state is no longer policing the practice of spiritual and cultural vegetation fire cleansing.

In fact, they’re partnering with the local, indigenous tribes who can draw on their generational wisdom to effectively manage the forest lands as well as clear what is, effectively, kindling for giant wildfires.

That’s what we like to see – our national programs working with ancient cultures to promote profitable and safe, regenerative use of our collective lands. 

But remember not to try controlled burns yourself! Obviously, it can get out of hand pretty quickly. Leave that up to tribal elders and make sure your local representatives know that you support returning to ancient practices if controlled burns are still prohibited in your state!

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.