Who do we blame for California’s wildfires?

With fires raging throughout California, people are being displaced, personal property is being destroyed, and it’s tempting to try to find someone or something to blame.  Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, and right-wing Youtuber Dave Rubin blame the fires on California’s “going woke.”  They don’t provide a coherent argument to back up their assessment.

Others are blaming the fires on climate change (and on a system that enriches individuals at the cost of severe environmental degradation), or on PG&E’s poor infrastructure maintenance (and on a system that privatizes profits from essential utilities while failing to force private companies to actually provide those same essential utilities we pay them to provide).

Both of these takes are, I think, pretty fair.

One source of blame that I haven’t seem much discussion of is a particular mixture of colonialism and bad science.  California is, of course, a settler colonialist state.  US Americans have only controlled the region known as California for the last 175 years, give or take—in ecological terms a very finite amount of time.  When colonizers come to a new region, they bring certain ideas about how nature should behave, along with land management technology that was developed for their native region.  They then go about trying to force the natural world to conform to their expectations, so that they can live familiar lives, eating familiar crops, in this new and vastly different place.

This is a general phenomenon.  Recent imperial powers have done it (I’ll probably post at some point soon about British colonial river policy), and much older expansionist states have done it too (ancient Roman or Hellenistic settlement was generally followed by river delta growth as their environmental policies caused increased erosion upstream).

The settlement of California by US Americans meant both the displacement of indigenous peoples (who up until this point had been using their own land management technologies) and the implementation of land-management technologies that had never been tested in any environment similar to California’s semi-arid chaparral.

Chaparral, if left without human intervention, will go through relatively frequent burn and regrowth cycles (recurrence interval of about a decade).  It’s clear to anyone who knows much about Californian ecology that the plants are specifically adapted for frequent fires.  Our redwoods, for example, are unusually fire resistant, and they use fire as a cue to germinate, so that the seedlings won’t be suffocated by underbrush.

How did American Indians deal with this type of ecosystem?  They basically took over the natural cycle, with controlled burns that cleared undergrowth without the risk to human life that comes along with a real wildfire.

For the first several decades of US American presence in California, the indigenous nations continued their land management practices.  Then, in 1911 the US federal government banned controlled burning on public lands, and started stamping down on “renegade Indian[s]” who were setting fires through “pure cussedness.”  US fire policy became a strict policy of fire suppression. In the past 100 years, without fires to clear out plant growth, the under-story of California’s forests has grown thick, choking out large fauna like the black bear.  Giant Sequoias have stopped germinating.  Our undeveloped land is covered in dry brush.

Throughout this whole period, American Indians have voiced their anxieties about the potential for wildfire. They’ve pointed out that the state of California is basically covered in kindling. They’ve been ignored.  When they’ve tried to continue their old land management practices, even on their own land, they’ve been arrested, fined, or both.

And now, finally, California is having huge destructive wildfires, basically every year.

The United States policy of fire suppression is wrong.  Morally wrong.  And also factually wrong: The policy is based on factually incorrect assumptions.  The US acted, and continues to act, with the assumption of technological and scientific superiority.  Fire is clearly dangerous; fire suppression is clearly a good idea; the US is bringing development and progress to California, and these American Indians who think that fire management should be done differently clearly have no idea what they’re talking about.

Powerful institutions, like the US federal government, are able to grant themselves academic legitimacy.  The US federal government is able to act under a veneer of scientific correctness, even though of course there is nothing scientific about ignoring place-specific ecology.  This veneer of science is part of what allowed (and continues to allow) the US to justify its subjugation of indigenous nations.  But it comes with unforeseen costs: This veneer of scientific legitimacy, and the coupled denigration of American Indian knowledge, enabled a policy of land management that has caused displacement, destruction, and loss of life.

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