Fire Management -- Two Approaches: Native and Non-Native

We own land on both sides of the little road we live on, and we recently hired the redoubtable Huerta Brothers crew to partly clear a ten foot strip along the far side of the road, thus completing the major chaparral thinning we are doing in order to make our home more defensible.

Above: Before.

Above: Same view, after.

Above: Looking back along the road.

But the native Americans who lived here for upwards of 10,000 years took a different approach: they used controlled burns to stimulate the regrowth of food plants. I'll leave you with some extensive and very interesting quotes about how the native Californians managed the land, taken from California Indians and Their Environment: An Introduction by Kent G. Lightfoot and Otis Parrish. It's an academic introduction from UC Press - and I'll review it one of these days in this space. According to the authors, California indians were not "simple hunter gatherers who passively collected food from a wild, unmodified landscape." They were "nurturing land managers who constructed anthropogenic landscapes through controlled burns, tillage, pruning, seed broadcasting, irrigation, and weeding."
"[T]he cornerstone of Native California management practices revolved around fires. From the outset, we need to recognize that the Mediterranean climate of California is a classic fire-enabler. .. California Indians recognized many centuries ago that fires can augment the growth and diversity of many economic plants, including roots, tubers, fruits, greens, nuts, and seeds, as well as provide forage that attracts both small and large birds and mammals. Fires control insects and pests, remove detritus from the ground surface, open up pathways in forests and woodlands, and fertilize the soil with nutrients. Fires encourage young, straight sprouts and other useable raw materials that can be incorporated into the production of cordage, baskets, and other household materials. Periodic fires also can facilitate the collection of many resources, such as acorns and mesquite beans, by burning off the underbrush. … California Indians began to enhance and modify these natural fire regimes by the strategic setting of prescribed burns. … The upshot of systematic programs of controlled burns was the creation of fire mosaics that contained a diverse patchwork of habitats containing resources of critical importance to California Indians…. Vegetation in the local region –grasslands, chaparral, oak woodlands, montane meadows, conifer forests—might be burned at different intervals to augment a patchwork of distinctive habitats with different succession rates of plants and animals."

“Multiyear rotational cycles would have enhanced biological diversity and productivity through the creation and enhancement of environmental mosaics—complex quiltlike environments with multifaceted habitats—teeming with varied kinds of food, medicinal, and basketry resources. The already incredible diversity of the natural world of Native California would have been multiplied many times over by Indian communities regularly burning many small separate parcels at different intervals.”

“[S]ome scholars claim that several of the signature plant types we know and love in California, such as the coastal prairies, valley oak savannas, open montane forests, and montane meadows, were created and maintained largely through Indian intervention over many hundreds or thousands of years. The termination of indigenous management practices, because of demographic decline, the removal of Indian groups to reservations, government policies prohibiting prescribed burning, or by restricting Indian access to private and public lands, typically resulted in the breakdown of these vegetation types, as other, less-desirable plants colonized habitat areas.

"Because of the devastating effects of colonization on the native population, the small remainder are not aware themselves of the richness and diversity of their ancestors’ practices, and thus our image of native Indian life is also impoverished. We think of them as eating salmon, deer, and acorns and not much else. Also because burning was prohibited by the mission fathers and other incomers, the Indian’s whole land management strategies were disrupted (to say nothing of the effect of missionization of the Indian population)."
This was not kind of “proto-agriculture.” Agriculture focusses on a relatively few plants and animals, but the Indians used an astonishing variety of plants and animals. They are better described as “complex hunter-gatherers.” The book uses this quote from a Karuk elder:
“Our kind of people never used to plow, they never used to grub up the ground, they never used to sow anything except tobacco. All that they used to do was to burn the brush at various places, so that good things will grow up.”


NellJean said…
Much research continues on fire management methods.

Bill, the nephew of the people who own the part of the woods that is not ours across the highway has already started the controlled burns that foresters use to maintain southern pine forests.

Susie, who maintains the gardens at the Jones Ecological Lab north of here, told me the Muhly grass she gave me would fare best if burned rather than cut back in spring.

We'll have a small permitted burn of the meadows, soon. The only plowed ground areas are firebreaks. since we don't plant tobacco, lol.

As Dr. Peng used to say about certain medical methods, "Old way the best."
Brad said…
Interesting post. Thank you. I've known for a while about the natives use of fire, but I often wondered, where, when, how often. It's interesting to think of the quilt-like pattern of habitat in different stages of fire recovery. I also wonder if certain areas, or plants were spared to provide future mature oaks etc. I'm afraid so much has been lost.
Country Mouse said…
True controlled burns are used for various purposes. In our area, there is a lot of controversy around controlled burns of chaparral. The Indians apparently used kind of flash fires that didn't burn so intensely so the mature vegetation would not die, and they were doing it on a multi-year schedule. The vegetation wasn't so thick because it was regularly burned. When they do controlled burns of chaparral, however, mature chaparral goes up in smoke, which is too bad.

I also wonder about the effect of all that burning. But since mature oak trees were needed for acorns etc, I would think the Indians would take care to maintain lots! When I visited Yosemite a few years ago, a ranger pointed out the difference in the landscape now the Indians are not doing all that burning, and they were considering what to do - let the bushes grow back, or what. I'll have to do a little more research to find out more.
Congratulations on getting your property more defensible...seems like it's a never ending task here, but an important one no less!

I've always been impressed at the Native American's diverse use of plants, and their approach to management of the lands. Daniel E. Moerman's text "Native American Ethnobotany" makes for a fascinating, albeit hefty read in regards to the myriad of uses of many of our common natives if you happen to chance upon a copy.

In some respects I think it's unfortunate that we don't manage some of the wild-lands here with controlled burns anymore. So much fuel accumulates now, that when fires do start, they quickly become raging out of control infernos.
Country Mouse said…
Yes, never ending - in fact I'm looking forward to going in to that cleared area and tidying up a bit more. I had asked Huerta's to come back and take the chips off of the trunks where they had let it pile up, and they did that this morning in fact. I'll do a little more selective pruning on the part that is left thick so it doesn't look quite so - hacked. That book you mention sounds interesting. The book I quoted from has a lot of info in its second half about the plants used (not as in depth no doubt as the ethnobotany tome you mention), and it led me to wondering if I could do some native edible plant cultivation, even just in a small way, and explore that aspect of native plants. Be an interesting stall at the farmer's market, eh?!
debsgarden said…
It seems that the practice of controlled burning would help to diminish the devastating wild fires seen in modern times, as well as preserve the natural flora and fauna of the region.
It's always fascinating reading posts about areas in which fire is a danger. Here in SE Michigan, the city of Ann Arbor uses controlled burns (as did the native Americans, as you discuss) to control invasive populations. Some native plants even require fire to thrive. I find fire fascinating and friendly, and even though I live somewhere with only a 6-month growing season, I'm glad I never have to think of fire in fear!!
susan morrison said…
Two years ago, someone abandoned a car and set it on fire right in front of our house. Although nothing in my front yard caught on fire, by the time the fire department came, a lot of the plants were scorched. I noticed that within a few months plants that are normally well behaved had reseeded prolifically and I wondered if it was a response to the fire.
NellJean said…
Here are two links that someone might find helpful. The first is from Bugwood, intended for the Southeastern States, but with principles that may apply anywhere:

Prescribed Burns

the second is a link to National Interagency Fire Center's Quadrennial Fire Review:

Fire Review
Elephant's Eye said…
For us non-Californians - what is that tree/shrub in your pictures? Is chaparral an actual plant, as well as a type of vegetation? Those burnished bronze 'twisted willow' branches look eminently garden worthy!
Town Mouse said…
Ah, those are Arctostaphylos or Manzanita. Country Mouse has done several posts about the Arctostaphylos on her property, just search the blog.

Chaparral is a plant community. Here's a link with more info than you might want
Country Mouse said…
Yes, we both posted on manzanita as native plant of the month in January in fact -

We are so lucky to have so many mature indigenous ones. The ones you buy are also very pretty and I think they would do well in South Africa - My neighbor grows many South African plants on the area that used to be chaparral on his property. They can be slow growing, but very rewarding I think.