OPINION: Surge in California’s wildfires is abnormal and colonization is to blame

As I begin writing this article, there are currently half a dozen wildfires burning across California. California is home to more than 39.5 million people and a portion of that population is made up of 187 California Indian tribes, 109 federally recognized and 78 petitioning for recognition. 

While the explanation of the increasing wildfires over the past several years has been often attributed to climate change, rightfully so, an unacknowledged factor in the discussion is the ongoing settler colonization of California.

California Indians and many indigenous people across the diaspora have a unique relationship with the land and the environment, some often describing indigenous people as stewards of the land. In comparison to the capitalist and colonial concept of “private property” where human beings “own” land, many indigenous people share a relationship with the land, a responsibility to live in balance with the environment.

An important and relevant example of this is the California Indian tribal tradition of prescribed burns to the land during the offseason for wildfires. A prescribed burn is described as “a planned fire; it is also sometimes called a ‘controlled burn’ or ‘prescribed burn,’ and is used to meet management objectives.” California Indians were historically responsible for expansive amounts of prescribed burns and would use prescribed burns for various ecological purposes.

Prescribed burns were useful for eliminating invasive species, clearing areas for new plants to grow, diminishing overflow of flammable shrubbery, pest control and most relevant to our discussion: prevention of major wildfires.

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This is not to suggest that before colonization California Indians never saw an extreme wildfire. However, my argument lies in the frequency and enormity of the wildfires we see today that are compounded by climate change.

My own elder shares stories with me of our tribal ancestors traveling to the hills to conduct prescribed burns to manage the abundant shrubbery in the area. However, these traditions have not been passed down in my community and are the case for many other California Indians as California laws eventually prevented the public from conducting prescribed burns.

In many ways, our stewardship was robbed from us, but the most related example is how California has reserved fire management to solely the government and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). As California Indians, this has been our homeland for thousands of years and our responsibility to protect and preserve this land for the wellbeing of all living creations is still a foundation of our values.

CAL FIRE has expressed before that they don’t have enough bodies and volunteers to do prescribed burns, but there are plenty of California Indians and our relatives included who are earnestly wondering how we can contribute in the efforts to save our land.

If the California government and people are seriously thinking about what we can do to prepare and prevent the wildfires we are inevitably going to face in the future, we should very seriously consider consulting the multitude of California Indian tribes across the state for collaboration efforts on how to revitalize traditional fire ecological methods. And I emphasize a collaboration, because California Indians are obviously no longer the sole inhabitants of this land, but we are the original and have years of experience tending to this earth. 

Carolann Jane Duro SC ’20 is from the Maara’yam tribe in Southern California. They love spending time playing with their husky and collecting records.

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