The CZU Lightning Complex fires burning on August 19, 2020, near Whitehouse Canyon by Año Nuevo State Park. (Photo by Toby Harriman)

Reading the Landscape for Fire

Jan 3, 2021 at 8:00am

Don Hankins, Bay Nature

In the aftermath of the extensive fires that burned across California and the West in the 2020 fire season, there is a lot to reflect upon. People grappling with the trauma of disaster. Communities trying to recover and plan for future fires. Ecosystems responding to fire within the landscape. More carbon dioxide released through combustion and thus further contributing to our already troubling atmospheric conditions. Fires that reinforce the likelihood of more fire by decreasing forest cover, damaging the soil’s health and moisture retention, and contributing dead and dying vegetation to the landscape. These are just some of the cycles that are perpetuating fire until we make change.

Kottot wykeʔ həlsəty waaliʔ – In the beginning, fire burned the world. My Miwkoʔ (Plains Miwok) ancestors have passed this understanding of fire through generations, and it is the foundation of the knowledge I use as a traditional cultural practitioner and pyrogeographer. In my career at California State University Chico, I incorporate this knowledge to study and apply fire’s natural and cultural dimensions in relationship to place and time. Fire is part of my worldview, and I am constantly assessing the world around me for how fire would burn under different conditions, how wildfire might behave in a given location, but also how I would set fire to steward that location for many different results. I have set and stewarded fires in a considerable diversity of ecosystems and landscape conditions largely in an Indigenous cultural context by myself, with family, and with community, but also with agencies and organizational partners in California and across Australia. As a result of reading the landscape for fire in this way, most of this burning has occurred with little to no need for fire suppression tools or tactics—fire trucks, hose lays, soil disturbance—and with individuals and intergenerational family groups from Indigenous communities not living in fear of fire. From this perspective, it is frustrating to know a different potential within the landscape, but recognize the barriers to achieving that potential that exist due to social, policy, and other constraints.   

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