California is Feeling Hot! Hot! Hot!

California’s “Wildfire” Strategy and Native American Burnings 

Mary Kelley, Scarlet Staff

California is currently burning. Already unbearably hot, the stretch from August to October is typically known as California’s burning season; however, the deadly combination of dry air and extreme heat have caused the current unprecedented forest fires.

There are a certain amount of preventative fires done by professional firefighters.

However, there is also a rich history of ceremonial burnings done by indigenous people during this season that have been outlawed. The general action plan with forest fires is to prevent and contain them, which has proven difficult in the ongoing current waves of fires. Since the heat waves in late August of this year, over 3.7 million acres of land have been burned, with 26  civilian casualties.

According to the California Fire department, a large portion of this fire is located in Santa Rosa, which includes areas of California’s wine country that the months of dry weather have morphed into acres of tinder. The fires have increased the humidity in the surrounding areas by approximately 10 degrees.

The rest of California is still experiencing temperatures as high as 114 degrees, as well as the increasing air pollution and the orange tint of the sky. With a population of nearly 40 million people living in California, a quarter of the population lives in Los Angeles, which has experienced some of the worst wealth disparities in our country, leaving the homeless fighting for shade to escape the scalding heat.

In southern California, the beautiful beaches of Malibu are burning while the tenement districts in Westlake are lined with melting concrete and ruined housing. These fires are disproportionately affecting the lower-class residents of California, who are effectively dismissed and outcast by the celebrities who are able to afford the residences and better able to escape the scorching heat and oncoming fires. Yet there have always been fires in these areas, and Malibu is the recurrent forest fire capital of the United States. In addition, climate change has exacerbated these blazes; not to mention the constantly growing population in California. This region is prone to naturally occurring forest fires that prolonged heat and dry climates quickly ignite into flames. Californians have long withstood and have witnessed many recorded burnings over time and are emblematic in U.S. history. However, in the last 100 years, these burnings have increased exponentially with rampant air pollution and the increasing population of the state.

The Washington Post found that “California’s frequency of fall days with extreme fire-weather conditions has already more than doubled since the 1980s.”  While this year’s rainfall in California was 50 percent lower than previous years leading to average fire-safe areas, the damp and cooler regions have yet to witness an increase in charred bark and small spontaneous fires.

Nevertheless, there have been benefits to having billionaires owning land in Malibu, spending thousands of dollars on taxes and insurance policies while the urban poor residents face bad housing standards and landlords who are “too cheap” to apply proper safety protocols for low-income residents.

Mike Davis’ “The Case For Letting Malibu Burn” dives into detail about the disparities of Californian populations and makes a connection to the frequent burnings and the potential dangers in the region. Davis also denotes the new nature of these fires and how they are separate from California’s natural fires. Davis is among many others who have studied the Californian forest fires epidemic and prioritizes the indigenous people of the area and how they had protected themselves throughout California’s early history. The Karuk, an indigenous group, have a rich history of preventative ceremonial fires which have been outlawed by the National Forest System (NFS) during the 1850s when the Karuk were being actively persecuted until the 1930s. Although the NFS was acting in the pursuit of fire suppression, they unknowingly prevented a fire and dismissed the indigenous preventative measures of forest fires. The Karuk tribe has had sovereign land in California (not reservation land, but their own tribal land) where they have been continuing their traditional burnings. Most importantly, the Karuk have addressed their concerns to the NFS that today, most environmentalists accept as a dire need and a natural method for preventative fires before peak season.

Nevertheless, the Karuk continue to be hard-pressed by the “proper clearance” of forests and the insufficient number of firefighters to oversee the overwhelming burnings—these are smaller-scale fires, used to clear bushes and dead plants which are bound to spark during California’s dry season each year.

Presently, the Karuk are unsettled by the hurdles they have to face daily from the federal government when they are working to prevent millions of dollars worth of damages and avoid preventable deaths in the first place. Other indigenous groups facing similar hurdles include the Yurok, Karuk, Hupa, Miwok, and Chumash, who are among hundreds of indigenous groups across California. Ultimately, these indigenous groups understand the medicinal need for fire for intentional burns that do wonders for regrowth and sustainability in the regions with controlled burns and have proven to prevent large scale and uncontrolled fires.

The most illuminating aspect of the current forest fires plaguing California is that these fires and the continuing sparks are completely preventable. In El Dorado, a family set off a “pyrotechnic” device as a means to reveal the gender of their unborn baby. This caused over 7,000 acres to burn in the city and was only added recently to the current fires being fought. The family has not yet been charged, as the extent of the damages are still unknown (beyond the fact that it took approximately 600 firefighters to fight this fire with at least one residential structure completely destroyed). Even so, this was not the first gender reveal party to end in millions of dollars worth of property damage, and it is unlikely that this will be the last considering how climate change has been increasingly affecting California.

Comedian Drew Gooden concludes the cause of the El Dorado fire by saying, “Only you care about the gender of your baby, please put down the explosive device!”.

QR Code for Davis’ Essay “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn”

Editor’s Note

As you read this article, there is an important distinction between “wildfire(s)” and “forest fire(s).” Apparently, the term “forest fire(s)” was eventually replaced with “wildfire(s)” by “professional firefighters” in the United States. This could indicate a type of erasure in other cultures, specifically indigenous groups and their connection to nature and the Californian forests. The Scarlet wants to maintain this connection and acknowledges the traditions of the past from indeginous groups that have worked hard and have been marginalized, people who continue to work to provide a pre-existing solution to the plaguing fires. Let this story inform these issues and raise awareness to the blatant disregard for others and their voices.

Luis Santos, News Editor