Wildfires: A Perspective from a Firefighter & Indigenous Peoples

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Wildfires are indeed worsening around the world. It's terrifying. Let's focus on what we can do to turn this trend around. We checked in with a friend, Alexandru Oraceau, a firefighter and ecological landscaper to get some expert insight —

※ Our forests, the 'lungs of the world', are threatened

Manifestations of this include: 

 Stand homogeneity - a.k.a the loss of biodiversity ↠ When we need regenerative agriculture and intact forests.

 More persistent problems with pests and disease (yep, the Coronavirus pandemic has to do with us chopping down the forest

 Unhealthy, 'dead' soil 

 Severe WILDFIRES

California takes the lead once again, shattering its records with the second, third, and forth largest fires in its history last month alone. One of them, threatening our beloved community in Santa Cruz home to the Anato studio and our team. 

※ Why are current land management policies failing us?

Can you imagine a California landscape with naturally thinned out forests, with smoky skies as the norm for a few months of the year? As a culture accustomed to fire suppression, it may be hard for us to reckon that we inhabit a landscape that is dependent on regular fires

Prehistoric times, as recent as 500 years ago, saw 4.4-11.8 million acres of land burn every year. And this was a healthy and natural land management practice that kept mega-fires at bay. Yet some more recent years have had as little as 13,000 acres burn (1). This means our forests are loaded with a backlog of flammable fuels - a threatening and terrifying reality.

So where does the fire suppression attitude come from?

 A militaristic mentality of “fighting” nature

 Wildfires were seen as the enemy to loggers, goldrushers, and mountain men

 In 1910 the Big Burn, a fire that torched 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana, cemented the newly formed US Forest Service into being a fire suppression army.

Rather than a strict fire suppression attitude, we instead need to consider the ecology and allow fires to burn through built up fuels in areas where there is no threat to human life.

A healthy forest is one that is 'thinned out' leaving the most robust, healthiest trees standing (think about those redwoods you've seen that are still standing strong but half burnt).  

 What can we learn from indigenous land management practices?

California's rich biodiverse landscape is a fire-adapted environment. Indigenous peoples’, specifically The Karuk tribe native to northwest California, regularly set low-intensity fires. This practice of thinning the forest not only prevented megafires, it also nurtured healthy ecosystems that provided the needed resources for humans and other animals. 

Tim Ingalsbee, a firefighter and the founder of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, & Ecology clearly states what land management practice we need to implement from the indigenous people: “We need to get good fire on the ground and whittle down some of that fuel load.”

 

Ecological benefits of low-intensity wildfires:

⫸ Kill off insects, pests, and other diseases that damage plants 

⫸ Clears out shrubs and underbrush that would otherwise accumulate as dangerous fuels for mega-fires

⫸ Opens up canopy space, allowing more sunlight to the forest floors which gives smaller plants and herbs a chance to thrive

⫸ Directly benefits fire-dependent tree species that only spread their seeds with fire

⫸ Adds nutrients to the forest floor (3)

 So what can we do at home? 

Firefighter Alexandru's best tips: 

1.  Eradicate invasive plants from your yard: Invasive grasses and plants are not suited for a fire-adapted landscape and can add unnecessary fuel to wildfires.

2.  Plant native and fire resistant species. Gardening styles, like those based in permaculture and holistic land management, emphasize native plants for many reasons. 

3.  Regularly rake up and clear your yard of dried grasses, underbrush, and shrubs: This will minimize built up fuels to feed a wildfire.

4. Prune trees from the ground up: This may help the vertical spread of a fire.

5.Keep your plants well-watered if there is an active threat of wildfire.

Bonus: Build healthy SOIL ! Watch this awesome 4 minute video from Kiss The Ground on the critical role of Soil integrity

With all this in mind, let's remember that as devastating as fires are, they are part of the natural cycle of life. And after a fire, comes regeneration. 

 

 

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REFERENCES:

1) Weil, Elizabeth. “They know how to prevent megafires why won’t anybody listen?” ProPublica. August 28th, 2020.

2) Tripp, Bill. “What western states can learn from native american wildfire management strategies.” The Conversation. October 29, 2019.

3) National Geographic Encylopedia: Wildfires

Firefighter Alexandru Oraceau is a friend from college back when I was studying plant science. We brought him on for this blog post because he's had a passion for prescribed fire land management since he was a teen. After studying ecological landscaping, he became a trained firefighter and has been traveling all across the US for the last 5 years fighting wildfires, and observing landscapes' response to fires. 

He has a wealth of knowledge on the topic of assisted burning, practiced by indigenous peoples, to reduce forests' vulnerability to severe wildfires. I am taking the opportunity with this blog post to thank all the firefighters out there who risk their lives to save homes, and who, unfortunately, work with poor support systems for the mentally taxing job that is fighting fires. 

~ Céline, founder of Anato

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