California fires, landscapes, and traditional ecological knowledge

Fire season in southern California used to begin late in summer, maybe right before autumn.

Last year our first fires came before June. Every year over the last decade they’ve been arriving earlier.

Last week, mid-May, San Diego was on fire.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the whole place was one fire. These photographs are amazing and appalling.

We’ve had winter wildfires during the last decade, right here in the region of the Transverse Ranges and the high desert valley places in between the mountains.

The mountains of the so-called Transverse Ranges (because they move oddly east to west across the state, not south to north like the magnificent Sierra Nevada) are the San Gabriel Mountains and the San Bernardino Ranges.  I live about five miles east of the magical pass between the two main mountain ranges: the Cajon Pass.

ID it 1 very large shrubs

ID it 1 one red berry

sunflowers and mountains

We live in a fire-adapted zone. I talk about this all of the time on this blog.

Two things dominate my ecological thinking as a high desert dweller: water and fire.

Make that three things. Wind. I have to include wind now. I’m pretty sure it’s not because I’m getting older and I’m tired of the wind (well, maybe that is a factor, but not the main one). Local people who have been here a while agree with me about the wind taking over this place. It’s stronger and more frequent than it was ten years ago, twenty years ago, thirty years ago, even thirty-three years ago. I can’t go back further than that, from personal experience. Before that I lived at the beach, the South Bay. And before that, in Ohio.  I suspect 33 years of ecological observations count for something. I doubt they count for the whole thing, but still. The wind is definitely a thing and we definitely have to consider it.

It’s related to other factors at play in climate change.

So, wind and fire.

They talk about 10 year fires and 500 year fires.  When a region is in a constant state of recovery from fire, I’m not sure what meaning those terms have. Bad fire and worse fire? And near-apocalyptic fire?

cajon fire start3

While much of southern California, especially the chaparral regions and conifer forests, are fire-adapted, fires that occur too often along with continuing urban-ish development, encourage the growth of rapidly spreading, nonnative species. Brome grasses, wild mustards, filaree, all of these dry out when the warm weather hits and become highly flammable.  These plants replace native plants that serve as food and habitat for regional wildlife.

Since all of this ecological change has been occurring apace during the last 100 years, native wildlife hasn’t yet had time to adapt to the new plants. And these plants increase risk of more fire each new year, creating a positive feedback loop of more fire frequency and additional destruction of native plant growth.

ID it 4 yellow flowers closeup

Manzanita crown sprouting after the fires

I’ve already talked on this blog about the Middle Ages in California, with its mega-droughts, lasting 140 years and 220 years.

Seems I never stop talking about how we are living with and growing with false temperature and precipitation norms.  All of the Euro-American settlement of this golden paradise has taken place in one of the mildest and wettest periods of California’s history and prehistory, according to the paleoclimatologists. A day of reckoning is coming (as my dad used to say).

The other drum I never stop banging, and probably won’t, realistically speaking, is how we face a reckoning here in California not only with climate realities, but also with anthropogenic climate change. That’s the impact we humans have made over the last 200 years or so on California’s ecological landscape.

Remember, the UNIPCC climate models have shown us that California will continue to suffer decreased rainfall, shifts in our accustomed seasons (not good for farming in an agricultural state), increased fire dangers, and potential for alternating severe drought and floods. The stuff of more disaster.

So we have a century of fire suppression as public policy. A massive buildup of biomass that is tinder by mid-June.  Nearly a hundred years of filling fire-country hillsides with homes, towns, and cities.

View to east from top of groves_crop

View to East

We’re essentially screwed.

We look for ways to change our fire management policies so that people and their natural surroundings can coexist.

The usual suggestions:

(1) Zoning. Make it fire-safe.

I’ve seen some lovely and pricey housing communities that creep up the south side of the San Gabriels that only have one way in and one way out. Bad zoning. Bad news.

east 20 Oct 04 005

(2) Fire-resistant construction of buildings. You know, the roofing tiles.


The roofing tiles all around are good but the massive swathes of grass are deeply puzzling for a desert.



(2) Defensible space.  Clear the brush around your house.


We get rain and then plants pop up. Along comes the dry weather and everything becomes tinder.


(4) And, finally, the idea of new public policy encouraging a more ecological approach to dealing with wildfire.

Only the last of these begins to get at the root of our fire problems.

Native Americans called the LA Basin “Valley of Smoke” because of the regular hillside fires that burned. Chaparral plants burn. Chaparral needs to burn. But not too much. It doesn’t need to burn too much. My eternal refrain: it’s fire-adapted vegetation.

Up and down the state, Native Americans have fire practices that are time-tested and effective.

When do the appropriate agencies get really serious about listening to tribal groups who have essential traditional ecological knowledge?

view from juniper highland terrace

About rainshadowfarm

West Virginia hillbilly girl grown up. Grew up in northern Ohio. Farmer from birth. Working class academic. Practical agroecologist. Community educator. Single parent of eight. I also teach anthropology at a community college. I like this work and think it's worth doing and doing well. California community college students are some of the most incredible students I have ever known.
This entry was posted in climate change, ethnobotany, fire season, Nature, resilience, socioecological intelligence and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to California fires, landscapes, and traditional ecological knowledge

  1. Pingback: California fires, landscapes, and traditional ecological knowledge | Rainshadow… | TinderNews

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