Controlled Burning: How Native Americans Solved California's Wildfires Centuries Ago

By | September 6, 2020

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(U.S. Department of Agriculture/Wikimedia Commons)

Wildfires are an unfortunate part of life in California. Each summer brings a new series of devastating fires that destroy millions of acres of land while presenting dangers to people and animals in the form of smoke inhalation, downed power lines, and debris. But wildfires have always existed, and Pacific Coast natives knew how to control them. Today, they're helping the state get wildfires under control with methods that were cemented generations ago.

Controlled Wildfires?

Long before European settlers came to the West Coast, the indigenous people of California used controlled burns to maintain wildlife habitats and tame the unruly landscape. This hard work not only created the gorgeous landscapes that define the region but also maintained the natural cycle of birth and death. Old vegetation was cleared to make way for new life without destroying the homes of the indigenous people or local animals.

To control the fires, tribes across California—including the Yurok, Karuk, Hupa, Miwok, and Chumash—carefully placed the flames in areas where the underbrush and moss had grown thick. The fire burned away dead and parasitic growth to make way for stronger plant life, allowed local food sources to be replenished, and reduced the risk of out-of-control wildfires.

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(Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Hundreds Of Years Of Neglect

When European settlers arrived in California in the 1500s, they were astounded by the natural beauty of the region, but they didn't understand that the native people dedicated their lives to controlling its growth patterns through carefully planned fires. They thought the tribes were just setting things on fire for funsies. Running the indigenous people off their land without finding out how to maintain it inevitably proved disastrousThe downfall of California's woodlands didn't happen immediately, but over a few hundred years of neglect, they developed the perfect conditions for rampant summer wildfires.