A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
Dec 6, 2007 Volume 38 / Number 3


Go for the Burn

Ancient Burn Practice Offers a Solution to Modern Wildfires

Fire is an integral part of living in the American West. The recent wildfires, including the Moonlight fire near Susanville and numerous fires throughout Southern California, have made us witnesses to a natural process in our regional ecosystems. The devastation of wildfires (often caused by arsonists, particularly in our valley, foothill, and coastal areas, where incidence of lightning are rare) has sparked a lot of discussion about planning regulations, the role of climate change, and responsibilities of agencies as the managers of our wildlands. Rather than view fire as a threat, my area of research includes the use of fire as a management and conservation tool by indigenous peoples throughout the American West, Australia, Africa, Brazil, and other places. During the recent wildfire conflagration in Southern California, I was interviewed by several media sources. The following is a modified response I provided to an e-mail interview by Elizabeth Stitt, a student reporter for the California Aggie, UC Davis’s college newspaper.
– Don Hankins, Geography

In light of our current wildfire problem, it is important to educate people about indigenous people’s fire-use practices, which were an integral part of our region’s ecosystems for millennia. California Indians used fire year round to minimize the risk of large fires. At a landscape scale (fires from 1,000 to 10,000 acres, for example), indigenous use of fire is not practiced in the American West due to restricting policies dating back to Spanish Settlement in California in 1769. Before that, these fires ranged in scale from individual plants to landscape.

Indigenous fire use is a complex affair. It took into account possibility of wildfire and mitigated that risk by burning at times that are generally safer—while there is still high live fuel moisture in plants, for example. This allowed for the application of fire to fuel fragments within the landscape. Plant phenology (e.g., flowering or leaf fall) was a key factor in determining appropriate times to burn. Historically, smaller fires were lit in the early part of the dry season, and larger fires were lit across the landscape as the dry season progressed. The smaller fires were lit more often for conservation of areas (settlements, rare ecosystems, etc.), while larger fires were primarily set for maintenance purposes. These fires would burn out on their own by burning into areas with higher fuel moisture or into areas where fuel continuity was low, often because they had been burned recently.

Generally, these fires were quite patchy, which resulted in a heterogenous landscape. The Australian government recently awarded recognition to Aboriginal communities in Arnhem Land for their fire-use practices. Those practices are reducing greenhouse gas emissions of methane and carbon monoxide. Instead of having a wildfire consume a continuous fuelbed, the patchy consumption of fuels by indigenous fires reduces fire emissions per unit area and also supports a greater diversity of species.

For nearly the past 100 years, we have done well to extinguish wildfire, which has largely created the current situation of large fires. What is the current situation? As a contemporary mitigation measure, state law in California now requires property owners in the wildland urban interface to establish a defensible space of 100-foot clearance and thinning around structures. This alone will not work. Plants will continue to grow and fuels will continue to accumulate. A fire mitigation method, such as prescribed burning, is needed to maintain areas with natural plant communities. Just as a massive education program allowed a Smokey Bear mentality to infiltrate the mindset of society, a new education program is needed to educate the public about fire use. Ideally, communities could be collaboratively burning to create fire protection zones around their homes and communities and to maintain vegetation. Once black, there is really nothing left to feed a fire until fuels accumulate again.

More Questions for Don Hankins on Prescribed Burning

Don Hankins

What are some of people’s fears?

There are two main concerns: 1) Fire will burn the house down, and 2) there is liability associated with fire escaping beyond a given parcel.

Isn’t it possible for controlled burns to get out of hand?
If environmental parameters are not paid attention to, it is possible for fire escape. However, if the model of indigenous burning is in place, the possibility for escape is greatly diminished. It is important to recognize that landowners need to be educated about how to identify the proper times to burn and learn proper implementation techniques. Fuels in many areas may not have experienced fires in many years, so a precautionary approach is necessary to introduce fire to such areas. Furthermore, if every landowner were participating, then there would not be an opportunity for fire escape.

Isn’t the landscape ugly (not so ugly as what is left after a massive wildfire, but I can imagine people resist burns for aesthetic reasons)?
This depends on the plant community being burned. In conifer forests there will be a few months of charred leaf matter and pinecones on the ground. At my house, there was a greater abundance of wildflowers in areas that burned the previous winter. Native Californians burned the perennial grasslands as they began to dry out. These plant communities responded by greening up again drawing from carbohydrate reserves in the root system. (The Spanish noted that the hills of California were green year-round because of this burning.) Much wildlife, such as deer, respond positively to regrowth in burned areas, thus wildlife lovers will enjoy more wildlife observations.

Do you have sources people could go to learn more?
Butte County Fire Safe Council http://buttefiresafe.org/. Association for Fire Ecology http://www.fireecology.net/. Center for Fire Research and Outreach http://firecenter.berkeley.edu/.

Where does the Forest Service stand on controlled burns? Federal agencies including the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all have programs for prescribed burning. There is a lot of variation on implementation depending upon staff and location. The problem is generally not the agencies but air quality regulations.

How do you use them in populated areas—Lake Tahoe, for example?

See response to second question above. I heard a radio interview with a fire captain from Incline Village over the summer. He indicated that his district is actively burning to protect the homes and landscapes of willing participants. The Orleans-Somes Bar Fire Safe Council is also working with landowners to implement burns as a method of fuel-reduction–zone maintenance. This fire safe council is largely comprised of Karuk tribal members.

Don Hankins is an assistant professor in geography and planning. He joined the faculty at CSU, Chico in fall 2005 upon completion of his doctoral research on fire in riparian ecosystems. He has worked professionally for a variety of federal, tribal, and nongovernmental agencies as a wildlife biologist and environmental planner. Hankins’s interest in fire for wildlife management and conservation extends back to his undergraduate years. He has recently collaborated with Australian filmmaker Victor Steffensen on the documentary Fire and the Story, which is intended to educate people about Aboriginal fire-use practices. A chapter of this film features Hankins’s dissertation research site near Woodland, California. A preview to this film is viewable at http://www.blackvine.com.au/popup2go/fire.html. Hankins also is the vice president of the California Association of Fire Ecology and a member of the Butte County Fire Safe Council.