How We Can Avoid More Catastrophic Wildfires Like the Inferno in Yosemite

News & Politics

So far this year, California has had nearly 5,000 wildfires. And of them, there is probably only one you’ve heard of, and that will be spoken of for decades to come: the Rim Fire.

The Rim Fire began on August 17 in Stanislaus National Forest. To date, it has burned more than 348 square miles (over 220,000 acres), an area larger than New York City. At its peak, the fire burned at a rate of 3,000 acres an hour. More than 5,115 firefighters are fighting it and yet it is only 40 percent contained. The cost, so far, has reached more than $47 million. By current estimates, the fire will continue to burn until September 10.

The fire—and the many others like it in the state’s recent history (such as the Cedar Fire of 2003)—is emblematic of our troubled relationship with nature and the consequences we suffer as a result. California’s flag is practically a symbol of this: it features the once abundant grizzly bear, which has not roamed the state since the last one was shot in 1922.

When Europeans first came to California several centuries ago, they were awed by the abundance and magnificence of nature’s bounty and beauty. But the state’s natural resources were not placed there by chance; they were carefully managed and nurtured by the Native Americans who lived in the state for the last 10,000 years. By hunting, fishing, tilling, harvesting, planting, pruning, and especially by setting fires, Native Americans shaped, and indeed, co-evolved with the ecosystems in the state. They carry the knowledge of how to steward natural resources and prevent catastrophic wildfires like the Rim Fire and the state ignores them at its peril.

The misconception of California’s “natural” beauty, untouched by human hands, is described by M. Kat Anderson in her book Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources. “Staring in awe at the lengthy vistas of his beloved Yosemite Valley, or the extensive beds of golden and purple flowers in the Central Valley,” she writes, “[John] Muir was eyeing what were really the fertile seed, bulb, and greens gathering grounds of the Miwok and Yokuts Indians, kept open and productive by centuries of carefully planned indigenous burning, harvesting, and seed scattering.”

Initially, Europeans—and later, Americans—treated the “God-given” abundance as a bottomless resource to be exploited. Forests were cut down, bears and elk shot, and rivers dammed. The national park land now at stake in the Rim Fire was preserved as conservationists like John Muir pushed for a new paradigm. But, as Anderson writes:

“Muir's view of California nature was a necessary counterweight to the view that had prevailed before—that nature was there to be used, exploited, and commodified—but it left us with a schizophrenic approach to the natural world: humans either conquer nature and destroy its integrity, or they visit it as an outsider, idealizing its beauty and largely leaving it alone. These seemingly contradictory attitudes—to idolize nature or commodify it—are really two sides of the same coin... Both positions treat nature as an abstraction—separate from humans and not understood, not real.”

Native Americans did neither. Nature was there to be used, but used properly. Nature provided them with everything from food, clothing, and shelter to musical instruments, toys, and games.

Historically, naturally occurring fires and fires set by Native Americans killed off pests and disease, released nutrients back to the soil, spurs new plant growth, and got rid of brush that was blocking sunlight from any new plants that grew. With the dead brush gone, there were more clearings where grasses would grow, attracting animals, and making it easy to see and hunt them. What's more, periodic or frequent light burning ensures that there is no fuel buildup that could result in a huge blaze later.

The conservationists did not follow the ways of the Native Americans to care for the landscape they loved. For three-quarters of a century, in an effort to save nature by leaving it alone, Calfornia aimed at fire suppression. Naturally occurring and manmade fires were put out as quickly as possible, and Native Americans could no longer burn the landscape as they once had. Although the tide has turned in the last two to three decades, our history of fire suppression is directly linked to problematic wildfires today.

Native vegetation throughout California is adapted to its mild, wet winters and dry, hot summers. To prevent water loss during the dry months, many plants appear dead and dormant, only to perk up again once rain returns. Annual grasses and flowers die as the summer begins, leaving behind their seeds to germinate the following year. These adaptations serve the plants well, but they also generate an incredible amount of fuel for a fire, should a rogue spark, bolt of lightening, or carelessly discarded cigarette start one.

But the flammability of California’s native plants is a feature, not a bug. California ecosystems are designed to burn, and many species actually rely on fire in order to survive or reproduce. Some plants, like laurel sumac, burn above ground but survive below ground during a fire. Return to a charred area a month after a fire and you will see new growth as the laurel sumac regenerates after the fire. Other species die off during a fire but their seeds survive. In fact, some seeds, like those of the fire poppy, require fire in order to germinate.

Without fire, trees and shrubs overtake grasslands, and meadows give way to sage scrub, chaparral or forest. When fires are suppressed, species and even entire ecosystems that rely on fire begin to disappear. What’s more, the amount of fuel builds up in between infrequent, unplanned fires results in uncontrollable, extremely destructive fires like the Rim Fire.

Instead of serving a beneficial role in the ecosystem, these powerful, hot fires kill the seeds and the underground root systems of plants that would usually survive a less powerful fire. They can also kill grand old trees like California’s oaks, pines and giant sequoias, whereas smaller fires set regularly would not. And, needless to say, a fire burning out of control is more likely to threaten infrastructure and homes.

What’s at stake are not just endangered species and historic sequoia groves. The Rim Fire has destroyed 111 structures and threatens 4,500 more. It also poses a threat to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which holds the drinking water for 2.6 million people in the Bay Area. And it damaged two hydroelectric power stations, which have been shut down. By August 27, supplemental power racked up costs of $600,000.

Then there’s the question of recreation and health. The fire started in Stanislaus National Forest and spread into Yosemite National Park. Both are popular spots for camping, hiking and other outdoor activities. Several areas within Stanislaus National Forest are closed due to the fire, and nature lovers watch with bated breath, hoping for minimal damage within Yosemite.

Fire suppression even affects water availability. Anderson quotes James Rust, a Southern Sierra Miwok, speaking about Yosemite. He said, “In the old days there used to be lots more game—deer, quail, grey squirrels, rabbits. They burned to keep down the brush. The fires wouldn’t get away from you. It wouldn’t take all the timber like it would now. In those times the creeks ran all year round. You could take fish all season. Now you can’t because there’s no water. Timber and brush now take all the water… I remember Yosemite when I was a kid. You could see from one end of the Valley to the other. Now you can’t even see off the road.”

To add insult to injury, the climate is warming and bringing with it more wildfires, longer wildfires and longer wildfire seasons. Reduced precipitation and hotter summer temperatures combine to provide drier vegetation, serving as fuel for fires.

After decades of fire suppression followed by occasional catastrophic fires, those in charge have learned their lesson. Sort of. Fire management plans for both Yosemite and Stanislaus recognize the beneficial role of more frequent, less severe fires.

For example, the Yosemite Fire Management Plan for 2009 states that “fire helps maintain meadows, scenic areas, cultural landscapes, and plant communities used by American Indians. In addition, it can discourage invasion by non-native plants” and “archaeological and historical sites, ethnographic resources, and cultural landscapes are more at risk when heavy fuel loads burn than when frequent fires burn in light fuel accumulations.”

Similarly, the Ecological Restoration implementation Strategy for Stanislaus National Forest notes, “the Stanislaus National Forest has used prescribed burns on thousands of acres over the past 20 years as part of our effort to reduce fuels and restore natural fire regimes to the forest.” However, it cautions that lack of funding has limited its efforts and warns that the very location where the Rim Fire broke out “has a high potential to burn.”

Yosemite National Park’s 2009 fire management plan offers up a sophisticated and detailed explanation of the consequences of fire suppression and the benefits of returning fire to the ecosystem. And yet, it states, “a crucial goal of Yosemite’s fire management program is to restore or maintain natural fire regimes so that ecosystems can function essentially unimpaired by human interference.”

Unimpaired by human interference? As Anderson writes, “Restoring landscapes and ecosystems to a “natural” condition may be impossible if that natural condition never existed (at least not in the last ten thousand to twelve thousand years).”

Yosemite has received accolades for its forward-thinking policy of re-introducing fire to the landscape as a necessary tool. And there have been some efforts to involve Native Americans in planning and land management decisions, such as in the design of Stanislaus National Forest’s Wa Ka Luu Hep Yoo campground. But we’ve got a long way to go and a lot at stake if we wish to prevent the next Rim Fire from occurring. 

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