Q&A: Pomona Environmental Analysis professor Char Miller on California wildfires and climate change

Smoky sky with orange colored sun
Char Miller photographs the smokey skies over Claremont. (Courtesy: Char Miller)

After publishing an article last week on how the California wildfires affected 5C students, TSL sat down with Pomona College Professor of Environmental Analysis and History Char Miller to get an expert opinion on the effects of climate change and an Indigenous perspective on this year’s wildfires along the West Coast. 

The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

TSL: What makes this year’s wildfires so important?

CM: What is interesting about this year — more than just the size of these fires and the number of people who have been evacuated or those who have unfortunately died, though that’s true — is that this is maybe the fifth or sixth straight year of pretty significant fire activity throughout the U.S. West. And we’re not done yet. We have, theoretically, at least another four to five months of fires, depending on heat and the like. 

But it has been fascinating — we have had so many years not unlike this that we’re now, as one critic has pointed out, at a climate tipping point. We have not paid much attention or enough attention to climate change, and we haven’t mitigated the issues on the ground, in the United States or elsewhere. The massive fires in Australia and now the massive fires on the West Coast are collectively suggesting that we are at a point where we need to act. But we don’t have the politics to be able to do so.

TSL: How have the fires affected you and your work?

CM: There has been a convergence of reality with the wildfires with my own research that has meant that I get to write a bit about this process and have been able to talk to the media, both national and local. Part of what has helped me in this process is thinking about the long history of fire management in the United States and reaching a conclusion that we have not done very well. I was especially able to affirm many arguments that Indigenous fire management folk in California have been making through an interview that I did with Cap Radio.

To add to this, in the 1920s, there were massive fires in the San Gabriel Mountains right outside of Claremont. One of the bands of Indians situated in San Bernardino wrote a letter to President Calvin Coolidge [advocating for traditional Indigenous fire management]. And the president, through the US Forest Service, wrote back, saying, ‘Sorry, our science is better than your tradition, but you can become firefighters on our team.’ That letter is symptomatic of the problem that we are now confronted with: the assumption that science has all of the answers. In this case, suppressing fires has proved disastrously wrong. We are paying for that misunderstanding of how fire can manage to support us, not to endanger us.

TSL: In your interview with Cap Radio, you talked about forms of Indigenous fire management and how the removal of their narrative from wildfire discussions has been detrimental to environmental protection. How does this affect the Claremont Colleges, as they are also built on land from Indigenous people?

CM: The Claremont Colleges are on Tongva land, and we are essentially a third layer of settler colonialism. The first is the Spanish, who built various missions and manipulated native labor for agricultural purposes — that created a different form of obliteration of the Indigenous landscape. On the second, the Mexicans converted mission land to ranches and used exploited Indian labor to work these large, privatized lands. The third layer happened when the Americans arrived, and, in Claremont, Pomona College is laid down on this. So, there is a way by which you can look at this college as a colonizing force in the same way that missions, ranches and ambition were colonizing forces. 

TSL: How can restructuring the state and federal government better support firefighting?

CM: Firefighting is an intense, expensive piece of work. Numerous helicopters, jets and people are throwing themselves on the line, and that, combined with resources like food, tools, equipment and fire engines makes it a really costly operation. If you are anywhere close to the fire, your only desire is that the fire is put out, and CAL FIRE and the Forest Service are really good at doing that. But what if we proactively use the money to do the kind of fire management work that we know we should be doing, like prescribed burning? So you can send different kinds of signals through a budget and, through Congress or the state legislature, determine where that money gets spent.

The other thing I think needs to happen is stopping the government and city government from green-lighting housing projects like crazy. They don’t have to do that. We are telling people it’s OK to live in a fire zone because we are going to bring in firefighters to protect you when you burn, which is a really poor policy. As a result, part of what I have been trying to do in my media work and my own writing is to suggest different ways to approach this problem and how to change the incentives and signals.

TSL: You mentioned that the fire season can be called a “new normal” or apocalypse of sorts. Why?

CM: In just the last five years, we have seen massive fires, a lot of destruction, way too many deaths and an enormous amount of incinerated property. The fact that this happened has become normal. You could say that is just what happens every summer. You can also call it an apocalypse, because, frankly, it is apocalyptic. The skies over Sacramento, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and, even worse, Portland and Seattle, are dystopic. This looks like the future, even though it’s obviously the present. I understand that, and I know my own photographs suggest that I am engaged with that and respond to it.

But I also think if that is all we say, it takes away our agency to make social change — it takes away our power. We say it’s a dystopic world and so, therefore, that’s what it is. It means we are disempowering ourselves. And I would like to flip that narrative and argue that we have the agency to control our own behavior through politics and the behavior of larger budgets that drive nefarious connections between developers and politicians who pursue growth without thinking about why we grow in the places that we grow in.

I think it’s a call to action on the part of those of us who have experienced this for so many years, and it requires cohesive, collaborative and cross-sector engagement in which we collaborate with Indigenous fire management techniques and with those who would deploy it to rebuild the world. We’ve created the world that is burning, and we can recreate it so that it burns considerably less.

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