California: Waging War on Wildfire

Not so long ago, the people of what is now called California lived with and by fire. It was the element that allowed them to thrive in an environment that did not give up its riches easily. They harvested new grasses and fresh forbs out of burnt lands. Using fire, they sculpted landscapes in which they could hunt their prey, predominantly mule deer, and, of course, they cooked by its heat. Lightning-struck wildfire, when it came, found landscapes where fuel loads had been limited by this careful management of food plants, the creation of hunting meadows and the clearing of tangled woodlands where particular trees were privileged over the competing biomass. Elsewhere, perhaps in the rocky hinterlands thick with chaparral or heavy with ancient redwoods, wild fires ran their course; but this was not land in which the native peoples lived, except in those favored spots along the tumbling creeks that were laced across the wild.

The entangled shrubs of the chaparral do not make for easy human passage. When travelling to higher ground where they might summer beneath pinyon pines, native peoples traveled along narrow deer trails or broad Grizzly pathways or, where neither were available, crawled on all fours beneath the dwarfish canopy. When wildfires swept across these lands, as they invariably did once, twice or even three times a century, the going was easy. The game would be scarce, but it was at such times that new connections might be made with the exposed topography, its…

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