As long as fire strategy prioritises suppression, the valuable knowledge of Indigenous people will continue to be sidelined.
The hazy outline of the Sutter Buttes lingers on the horizon on the drive along Highway 32 connecting the Sierra Nevada Mountains with California’s Sacramento Valley. Volcanic in geology, the Buttes are, according to the Plains Miwok creation story, the source of the ﬁre that burnt the world over. The small mountain range teaches a lesson from a time when people had to learn to use ﬁre as a tool or live in fear of the destruction described in the ancient story.
Fire has played a key role in the land management practices of Indigenous peoples for millennia. This includes Aboriginal Australians and Native Americans who share many similarities in ﬁre knowledge.
At the core of Indigenous approaches to fire is Traditional law and lore. Indigenous law is coded in the lore, the stories that define culture. Both lore and law are rooted in the landscape. According to lore, the landscape will convey its need for burning based on factors such as the accumulation of dead plant material or the decline in resource conditions. These stories may also convey the penalties for not following the laws of the land, as the Buttes do, or as depicted in Aboriginal fire paintings.
Early white settlers noted that in the autumn or at the onset of the rainy season, Indigenous people would burn to ‘clean up’ landscape to remove accumulated woody fuels on the ground and facilitate the growth of luxuriant grasses and herbs. This knowledge shapes how a culture interacts with fire and more specifically how, what, where, when, and why burning occurs for cultural and environmental reasons.
Indigenous fire knowledge is fluid, changing with changing conditions, and the ability to read the landscape comes with proper training. The concept of ‘proper training’, however, arguably plays out differently today from Indigenous fire knowledge of the past due to the impact of history and politics. After millennia of Indigenous cultural burning, colonisation introduced a new kind of law.
Colonisers in both Australia and the USA disrupted Indigenous use of fire through the removal of people from their lands and policy prohibition. Colonial attitudes to fire, forged in the forests of Europe, focused on suppression. Indigenous use of fire, whether for resource harvesting, hunting, vegetation and soil regeneration or maintenance of communal areas, were instead seen as an environmentally degrading practice. Such fires threatened both the property and the social hierarchies of rigidly ordered colonial societies.
To this day, in many parts of Australia and the US, colonisation and 20th Century fire suppression policies are continuing to act against Traditional laws.
Researchers, policymakers and practitioners still have a tendency to dismiss or ignore fire knowledge that is alive today among Indigenous elders and cultural land stewards. This is despite the growing acceptance of Indigenous knowledge of cultivation systems and wildfire protection.
The consequences of the continual dominance of Western environmental narratives over Indigenous land management practices in many fire-prone regions are burning that is illegal under Indigenous law, and catastrophic fires resulting in ecological and economic damage to land and property.
Fire knowledge and memories are retained by Indigenous elders, cultural practitioners, and land stewards. There is far more at stake than just managing the risk of wildfire. Burning and fire knowledge can maintain culture by linking people with natural resources for food and other cultural practices. Patterns of land use and occupancy that have been weakened by changing ecosystems, climate change, and urban expansion, can be re-established. Engaging with Indigenous knowledge through fire allows Indigenous peoples in Australia and the US to re-engage as caretakers of their native lands.
For example, while burns for basket-making resources have been conducted by US fire agencies in California in coordination with weavers from different tribal areas, they are done on agency time with agency rules. More than just burning to stimulate the right grasses, the fires have a cultural tradition attached to them and fire agency burns often do not achieve the desired cultural outcome. Few Tribal leaders are able to guide the burn, given the certification standards required to be on the front line of the fire, and cultural knowledge may at times not be permitted to be shared outside the Tribal laws and traditions.
While we cannot reverse the history of colonisation, the retention, revival and integration of Indigenous fire knowledge with federal fire agencies can inform ongoing debates on how to coexist with fire today. A more cooperative path would, for example, introduce cultural sensitivity training for firefighters as well as awareness of the impacts of not having such training and policies in place. State and federal agencies stand to gain from the knowledge of the Indigenous cultures, which have shaped landscapes since time immemorial. When Indigenous people have not actively asserted customary law and applied fire to care for country, the laws of nature play out through wildfires. Indigenous leaders have recognised the land ‘speaking’ its needs through wildfire.
Current struggles to manage the growing frequency and intensity of devastating wildfires will benefit from a greater recognition of this traditional understanding of the environment, if it is acknowledged by, and incorporated into, the practices of fire management agencies.
Dr Christine Eriksen is a Senior Researcher with the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology (ETH Zurich). She is the author of 2 books and over 75 articles and book chapters that examine social dimensions of disasters in the context of environmental history, cultural norms, and political agendas. Follow her on Twitter: @DrCEriksen.
This article has been republished for a Special Report on Indigenous lessons. It was first published on January 17, 2022.