Fighting fire with fire: A Q&A with Kent Lightfoot

As catastrophic wildfires rip through California, it is easy to forget that flames are not always a thing to fight. At a panel discussion on Thursday Sept. 27, top experts from UC Berkeley’s Archaeological Research Facility and the U.S. Forest Service — including anthropology professor Kent Lightfoot, an expert on native peoples of California — will explore humanity’s long relationship with fire, and its capacity both for destruction and renewal. Other panelists include Tim Gill, Ruth Tringham, John Holson and Linn Gassaway

In advance of the event, UC Berkeley News spoke with Lightfoot to learn about how the landscape management practices of California’s indigenous communities — including the use of prescribed burning — can be applied to curb the severity of wildfires in the state.

An aerial view of a pine forest that is on fire.

Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo by  Mike Lewelling, National Park Service)

How did the native peoples of California use fire for landscape management?
Fire had a number of different purposes for native Californians, but on the landscape scale, the key thing they used it for was to enhance the productivity of the plants and animals. They would create patchworks of grasslands, scrubland, conifer and oak woodlands, and that allowed them to control the succession of plants.

For example, if you have a lot of scrubland, you can burn it out and turn it into grasslands, and grasslands produce highly productive plants that provide food for people and attract deer and rabbit that can be hunted. I don’t know if fire management was a goal of these practices, but they probably did reduce some of these major fires.

How did prescribed burning prevent major wildfires?
The key thing is fuel reduction. When fires are suppressed, and there is no thinning or burning of areas, it creates a huge fuel load. Then when you get fires and winds and the right temperatures, the thing explodes and creates this huge amount of fire. And so prescribed burning and thinning can reduce fuel loads and produce fuel breaks, and I think these were a way to basically minimize catastrophic fires.

When did the practice of fire suppression start?
Proclamations prohibiting native peoples from burning woodlands go back to the 1700s, and when California became a state, it began prohibiting anyone from burning the woodlands. But according to our data sets, you really start to see evidence of fire suppression in the 1890s, when the federal government took over Yosemite and Sequoia. They had the cavalry out there, and they stopped any kind of burning going on. In the 1900s, when the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies were developed, they had a whole debate about how they were going to deal with fires, but fire suppression was really the policy that emerged.

How can indigenous practices be applied to prevent wildfires?
Some of our tribal partners, particularly the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band in the Monterey Bay area, are working closely with archaeologists, ecologists and other fire scientists to think about what types of plants and animals used to inhabit these areas and explore whether they can be brought back. There may be some areas where they can tend to the land, basically opening up the forest again, and some of that maintenance might involve prescribed burning. And while some lands are too close to urban areas for burning, there are other ways of mechanized thinning of fuel that can be done. We are trying to apply what we found through our archaeological and anthropological work and with our tribal scholars with these programs.

What are some of the challenges facing these programs?
There are three big challenges. One challenge is that we are not trying to reconstruct what the world was like 500 or 1,000 years ago — it is never going to happen. The world today is very different — just look at all the foreign plants and animals. When you manage an area today, not only are you trying to manage the indigenous plants and animals, but you have all these foreign plants and animals as well.

The second challenge is climate change. We are going into a warming period, and the thing about warming patterns is it increases the severity of fires. More of the fuels dry out faster and you get more droughts.

The third challenge is the whole issue of fires, smoke and health. Wherever you are in California you are not far from some kind of residential area. How can you implement these kinds of programs when people have colonized most areas of the state?

My own feeling is that it can be tailored depending upon the context. Some of the kinds of practices that were done in the past can’t be reproduced the way they were entirely, but certainly some of the kernels of the ideas can be employed in very new contexts.