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Fire Expert On How Indigenous Land Management Could Help With Fires In California

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This year, wildfires have burned more than 4 million acres in California. That's more than any other year since record-keeping began in the 1930s. Long before that, 4 million acres might have burned in a typical year. California's Indigenous people intentionally set fires centuries ago. They were known as cultural burns. Don Hankins is a Plains Miwok fire expert and professor at Chico State University in California. He says cultural burns cleared out forests, helping prevent the megafires we're seeing now, and they helped biodiversity.

DON HANKINS: You know, one of the bigger things that we're really missing in California in terms of habitat conditions is the fine-grained mosaic that fires do create. So that fine-grained mosaic then creates what we'll call habitat heterogeneity, and that heterogeneity then creates biodiversity within the landscape. It provides a lot of niches for different species to be able to utilize. And from a cultural perspective, all those different niches means that, you know, your supermarket, then, and your drugstore is filled with all the different things that you would want on the shelves versus having to travel long distances to find certain things. They're going to be a lot closer to home.

You know, that's one thing that's known from Indigenous burning - is that it did create, in California, a higher level of diversity within the state. And we're one of the most ecologically rich zones in the world. And, you know, we look at other places in the world where Indigenous fire is still happening, and those levels of biodiversity are still high because of the practices of Indigenous burning.

SHAPIRO: And how is that different from prescribed burns that the Forest Service does today?

HANKINS: Prescribed burning is basically following a different set of parameters. It's often set for a more limited range of reasons. So we could think about fire hazard reduction burning or wildlife habitat improvement. But for all the other cultural aspects and the ways of seeing the landscape through that cultural lens, that tends to be lacking in a lot of the prescribed burns that take place.

SHAPIRO: There's an awful racist history here that we need to acknowledge where, in addition to killing and removing Native American people from their lands, there were also laws in California that criminalized Indigenous burning. Some Native Americans were even shot for attempting to do these cultural burns. Do you see a connection between that racist history and the place where we are today in terms of fire suppression and forest management?

HANKINS: There is a connection. In some respects, there's a lot of folks who, within the agencies, have kind of dismissed the applicability of Indigenous fire within the landscape and this attitude that, you know, we'd like to work with tribal people, but we can't because they don't have our level of training. If you know how to read the landscape and you know how to put fire in it, that's a very specific toolset to be able to carry. And if people aren't willing to work with that knowledge set, to me, that's still perpetuating some of those racist ideals within the landscape.

SHAPIRO: There are about 40 million people who live in California today. Do you think the traditional burning practices of centuries ago are compatible with the reality of the California that exists today?

HANKINS: Yeah, it's a complex situation. I recognize there's 40 million people living in the state. I guess the one thing that I, you know, think about - and this is from experience - is that we can burn in urbanized areas. You know, if people are thinking, oh, you can't run fire next to multimillion-dollar homes on the San Francisco Peninsula or the Santa Monica Mountains, I would say you can. And if you know how to do it, you know, it can be done very safely and effectively.

But people need to be comfortable with the idea of the use of fire. They need to accept a little bit of smoke and realize that it's not a wildfire situation that we're creating. It's trying to mitigate for that, and all the other suite of benefits that would come from being able to do that kind of burning is a big part of that.

SHAPIRO: Professor Don Hankins of Chico State University in California is a Plains Miwok fire expert.

Thanks for talking with us today.

HANKINS: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.