Catastrophic Fires, Colonialism, and the Revitalization of Indigenous Cultural Burning in California

From the Series: Firestorm: Critical Approaches to Forest Death and Life

Fires burning across the North American West send smoke pouring into the Pacific, September 10, 2020. Image by the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere.

California is currently facing a growing crisis of unremitting firestorms. The unprecedented inferno of smoke and flames highlighted on the nightly news over the last several years has left in its wake death, massive destruction, and millions of acres of blackened land. Contemporary California has yet to learn to live with fire. Yet this has not always been the case. Indigenous communities initiated sophisticated relationships with the environment that helped to minimize the risks of major conflagrations. In creating well-honed methods for nurturing and stewarding the environment, they perfected the use of “good” fires as a management tool to enhance the productivity, diversity, and sustainability of key plant and animal resources in their territories (Lightfoot and Parrish 2009; Anderson 2018). While the specific methods varied locally, tribes enacted cultural burning across much of California that involved the frequent setting of small, low-intensity surface burns that created patchy mosaics of fecund vegetation at different stages of succession. Not only did these practices greatly enhance the local resources people depended on for foods, medicines, and raw materials, but they reduced fuel loads and created fire breaks after recent burns. Current ecological and archaeological research and Native oral traditions indicate that Indigenous fire management practices were fostered over many centuries. The emerging picture is that California Indians learned about the benefits of using good fires in their daily lives and how to take steps to minimize the risks of catastrophic firestorms on their lands.

Colonialism fundamentally transformed the relationship between fire, the environment, and people in California. Colonists in the late 1700s and early 1800s enacted regulations prohibiting Indigenous cultural burning. American settlers in the late 1800s and 1900s initiated strict fire suppression policies that not only kept Native peoples from tending their lands but made concerted efforts to take fire out of the ecosystem by extinguishing any wildfire by 10 a.m. the next day. The upshot of these fire suppression activities over more than a century has been the emergence of a radically transformed environment. Productive coastal prairies once kept open by cultural burning have been engulfed by shrublands and conifers, while formerly open coniferous forests have become dense, overcrowded masses with lower species diversity.

A significant consequence of these fire suppression practices has been to increase fuel loads throughout much of California. These overgrown landscapes are disasters waiting for a match to light.

It is clear that new approaches are needed to care for the forests and wildlands of California. One approach is to create a coordinated system of ecosystem stewardship programs designed to diminish the threat of major firestorms by reducing fuel loads and other proactive treatments, as well as to revitalize the diversity and health of local biological communities. Locally situated stewardship programs that partner with proximate stakeholders provide an ideal vehicle for bringing back “good” fires to the state. Depending on the local place, its historical ecology, and the nature of the wildland-urban interface, this might include some combination of managed fires where natural fires are allowed to burn, large-scale prescribed burning, and more nuanced Indigenous cultural burning.

A crucial component of these stewardship efforts will be the inclusion of local Indigenous communities across the state. After years of discrimination and fire embargoes, many California Indians are now working to restore good fires back to their tribal territories. In contrast to the “industrial-scale” prescribed burning undertaken by many federal and state resource agencies, Indigenous cultural burning tends to be more refined and oriented toward the enhancement of specific resources, such as berry patches, grasslands, oak trees, and so on. I believe that cultural burning must play an integral role in any proposed plan to mitigate the firestorm crisis. Tribal efforts across the state will contribute to the creation of low-fuel load zones that may slow down the spread of catastrophic firestorms while at the same time regenerating local environments and augmenting the expansion and diversity of Native plants and animals.

There is much that ecologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists can do to advocate for and facilitate the return of Indigenous cultural burning. Working in partnerships with tribes, eco-archaeological research can complement tribal oral traditions and oral histories by documenting past fire regimes; by recording long-term environmental changes before, during, and after colonial fire suppression policies; and by recovering faunal and floral remains that once populated tribal lands under different fire regimes. The construction of regionally specific historical baselines can provide important information for tribes and resource agencies for making decisions about cultural burn programs (e.g., fire return intervals) and the revitalization of biological communities.

For example, I have been privileged to participate in an eco-archaeological program in Central California with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, California State Parks, and scholars from UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz that has detailed how Indigenous communities employed frequent cultural burns over more than 1,200 years to maintain rich, coastal prairies that are now endangered. The recovery of grasses, tarweeds, clover, hazelnuts, and other resources from well dated archaeological sites provides many insights about this world before fire suppression (Cuthrell 2013). This information is now being employed by the tribe and state parks for developing stewardship plans to restore the richness and diversity of Native species, improve the health of biological communities, and bring back good fires to this area.

In conclusion, I believe a coordinated system of regionally directed ecosystem stewardship programs is needed to confront proactively the current firestorm crisis in California. An integral component of these programs should be the support of tribes who choose to restore cultural burning in their traditional lands. While an effective firefighting program will still be needed to extinguish unwanted fires, the funding of separate stewardship programs with strong tribal and local community participation will be ideal to manage our forests and open spaces.


Anderson, M. Kat. 2018. “The Use of Fire by Native Americans in California.” In Fire in California’s Ecosystems, edited by Jan W. van Wagtendonk, Neil G. Sugihara, Scott L. Stephens, Andrea E. Thode, Kevin E. Shaffer, and Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman, 381–97. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cuthrell, Rob Q. 2013. “Archaeobotanical Evidence for Indigenous Burning Practices and Foodways at CA-SMA-113.” California Archaeology 5, no. 2: 265–90.

Lightfoot, Kent G., and Otis Parrish. 2009. California Indians and Their Environment: An Introduction. Berkeley: University of California Press.