Most people don’t understand why California keeps having wildfires or just blame climate change. And climate change is part of it. But there’s also a bigger story here about colonization, invasive plants and the arrogance of Americans.*
The first thing to understand is that biologically speaking, California is distinct from any other part of North America. 60% of the plants that grow here natively grow nowhere else in the world – mountains to the east and a desert in the south acted as barriers for millenia, and so our native ecosystem developed in isolation from the rest of north America. We also have unique weather conditions – It doesn’t rain here in summer & rarely in the fall. Most of the southern half of our country never sees snow. We have a temperate wet season and a hot dry season – and thousands of micro climates because the mountains and hills shape weather. Evolving in relative isolation within these unique conditions, our native species are uniquely adapted to survive here.
Around 6k years ago (possibly further but the evidence is sketchy) native californians (who’ve been here at least 12k years) began seriously developing an incredibly sophisticated system of controlled burns to prevent fuel buildup that could feed wildfires during hot dry summers.
The key point here is this – fire in California is unavoidable, but it can be controlled and used, as native people did for thousands of years. Fire is a critical part of our ecosystem. The iconic Matilja poppy – which was almost made our state flower – can’t germinate its seeds without fire. And for (at least) six thousand years our our native ecosystem was guided and shaped by regular controlled burns.
Spanish colonization introduced a massive number of invasive species – notably grasses – whose seeds were carried across the desert in hay provisions for horses and on the clothing of colonists. Instead of wilting and dying back in summer the way our native grasses do, non-native grasses leave dry flammable material behind. These invasive grasses are a major source of wildfires and the State and counties have to spend large amounts of money every year mowing back the grasses that should not even exist here. Of course grasses aren’t the only problematic invasive by a long shot! For example Eucalyptus trees first introduced by lumber companies have spread like giant weeds along a huge portion of our coasts and have a nasty habit of exploding in fires, sending burning debris everywhere and spreading fires further and faster than any native.
In a very real way, the destruction of our native ecosystem is one of the most pervasive effects of colonization. Many of our native species – plants and animals -are endangered because of settlers who have effectively ‘teraformed’ California, destroying everything in their paths. Not out of malice, but out of ignorance. Even today, there are HOA’s in California that will fine you for planting natives!
A second key piece that is left out of reporting is the fact that almost 70 years ago the settler government banned controlled burns except in extreme circumstances and adopted a suppression-first policy. Banning burns changed the way our forests and grasslands grow in ways that are invisible to people who haven’t studied our native biology. For example, the bans resulted in the loss of almost all of the vernal pools (surface water) that used to dot California, and favoring short-lived fast growing plants that fuel fires. Look at old photos of Yosemite and compare them to modern ones and you’ll notice a stunning difference in the forests. White conservationists thought defending California’s natural beauty meant leaving its forests in their pristine “wilderness” state. But they were wrong – California wasn’t a wilderness at all, it was a garden.
The ban on controlled burns had other unintended consequences. For starters, they allowed fuel that should have been been burned off in small amounts to pile up. For decades. This policy also removed the biggest obstacle to the spread of highly flammable invasive grasses and other species mentioned above.
And then of course the Americans damned our rivers, devastating ocean and forest ecosystems both, and clearcut 98% of our old old growth – removing the big established fire resistant trees and leaving behind tons of (flammable) debris. Replanting, if done at all, often used cheap fast growing pine instead of the local native species.
What I am describing is fundamentally ecocide. An all out sustained war of aggression against California’s native ecosystem by Americans who saw California as a wilderness to be conquered and reshaped in the image of the places they had come from.
If you listen to many American politicians (and Californians who share their mindset) they’ll tell you that the solution to wildfires is to clearcut our few remaining forests. It’s madness. Even the American Forest Service has data showing logging – and clearcuts in particular – INCREASE fire risk. https://fs.fed.us/psw/publications/documents/psw_gtr208en/psw_gtr208en_525-534_stone.pdf
Even if there was no climate change, California would be on fire right now. The Americans conquered paradise and turned our home into a tinderbox. And most of them don’t even know what they’ve done.
And yes, climate change makes everything far far worse – summers have gotten hotter and decades of “once in a century” droughts have pushed our forests to the point of collapse. Especially as rare surface water has been diverted to feed monoculture crops that are mostly exported. The Central Valley is sinking as her aquifers are drained and rivers diverted, and most of the food grown with that scarce water is exported to far wetter places that could grow their own with far less damage. It only makes sense in the bizarre world of American monoculture where the fertile soil of the great plains has been destroyed by decades of heavily subsidized monoculture corn with nary a vegetable in sight. California is sacrificed on the altar of American convenience.
The story of California’s fires is fundamentally a story of genocide against our native people and ecocide against the complex and unique ecosystem they carefully tended for thousands of years. It is a story about colonization.
If we want to stop the fires, we have to decolonize California.
That decolonization must necessarily include restoring the rights of native people and humbly asking for their guidance. The traditional knowledge that the tribes still carry is a critical part of our path out of this mess. We are seeing the smallest baby steps in this direction as California has finally rolled back the disastrous ban on controlled burns – and some counties have formed partnerships with native people to enlist their help. But the scale of the damage will require radical steps to overcome. We need to end the sale of non-native plants outside of agriculture. Eradicate the invasive species that feed wildfires. Tear down the dams and restore our rivers. Protect all remaining old growth and use science-based best practices to help restore the rest of our forest lands. Change our architecture to reduce demand for lumber by shifting to sustainable building techniques (many of which happen to be fireproof). Resume careful controlled burns with active involvement and guidance by native people.
Yes that will be expensive, but so is having entire towns wiped off the map and shutting down half the state every year to hide from the smoke.
For me, this is one of the single biggest reasons I support the Californian independence movement. As long as we are just another part of America, our unique and fragile home will never get its needs prioritized. California must belong to people who will defend her.
* By “Americans” I am referring to people who see California as just another chunk of dirt that’s fundamentally interchangeable with any other part of the empire. Millions of people here, native and otherwise, understand that this place is unique and worth defending.
Teaser photo credit: A ring of redwoods as seen from below. By Goldblattster – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6350998