Bay Nature magazineSummer 2021


Beyond the Plume of Smoke

There are choices in how and when we are exposed to smoke from fires.

June 23, 2021

On the morning of September 9, 2020, I awoke at 8 a.m. to a pitch-black sky with a red-orange glow on the horizon. I had slept well past my normal waking time with the rising sun. The smoke that morning in the foothills northeast of Chico was so dense, it completely obscured the sun, and only the red-orange glow of filtered light was visible below the plume of the North Complex fire. By this time approximately 150,000 acres and two towns had burned—most within the prior 24 hours during the initial run. The air outside was saturated with smoke from the burned vegetation and communities in its path. In the past decade, similar experiences have become more common. It is not a local problem. Where we have excluded fire from the landscape, we have created the potential for greater amounts of smoke, especially during uncontrolled wildfires. The unhealthy concentrations of smoke generated by the 2020 wildfires requires a serious consideration of the alternatives. For those of us living in a fire-prone region, smoke is and will continue to be present in our lives, but there are choices in how and when we and our environment are exposed to smoke from fires.

Smoke is a human health concern. Specifically, acute exposure to smoke’s particulates and gases may cause decreased lung function, asthma attacks, and heart failure—particularly for at-risk individuals. A great body of knowledge is emerging from wildfire smoke studies. It is not just humans affected by smoke, either. Some of these studies suggest potential intergenerational health impacts from acute smoke exposure. Beyond health concerns there are considerations about haze that obscures scenic vistas in our landscapes. For these reasons, emissions from fire are regulated under federal, state, and tribal laws.

Fire—and by default smoke—is a natural part of our environment. In the early 2000s, the Western Regional Air Partnership established policy recommendations and guidance to identify sources of regulated and unregulated types of smoke. The recommended regulated sources of smoke include agricultural and prescribed burning activities. However, wildfire and Native American (Indigenous) cultural burning are considered unregulated sources. These latter types of fire can result in vastly differing amounts and types of smoke. Wildfire has the potential to produce dense smoke caused by extensive burning over a relatively short time period—similar to what California and elsewhere experienced during the 2020 wildfire season. Wildfire smoke can differ from prescribed fire or cultural fire smoke based on what’s burned and physical aspects of the burn—potentially including burned buildings along with vegetation. Indigenous cultural burning typically produces a mostly localized smoke, because of the conditions the fire is set under. These fires tend to burn at lower intensity and are small and patchy. The resulting smoke could be spread out over the course of the year and could cause local haze that occasionally lingers for a short time during certain conditions. 

While virtually all readers have experienced wildfire smoke, it is unlikely many have experienced smoke from Indigenous cultural burning. Due to legacies of settlement, policy, land access, and current capacity, Indigenous cultural burning is an insignificant portion of the fire that occurs in the state. However, Indigenous cultural burning was historically a major activity. Research by Scott Stephens and others suggests that a total of 4.5 to 12 million acres of the state burned annually prior to European and American settlement in California. This estimate provides a sense of the extent of burning under Indigenous stewardship and wildfires. For a variety of reasons, it is really difficult to quantify the historic contributions of greenhouse gas emissions, let alone smoke, across California’s landscapes and time. What is certain is that Indigenous burning and wildfires during pre-contact and pre-fire suppression times kept fuel loads—the amount of burnable materials—low, so that emissions per acre were also vastly lower than we are currently observing with wildfires. 

There is growing recognition among fire scientists, air regulators, and policy makers that we need to return to controlled burning—Indigenous cultural and prescribed fires, which gives us more choice in the timing and quantity of smoke we are exposed to. Fire has always been part of California’s landscape, so we can either embrace the opportunity to use it on our own terms—as Indigenous cultural burns have done for millennia by working with nature—or continue to be subject to the fire nature will inevitably bring. This is a fundamental understanding I draw upon as a Plains Miwok cultural fire practitioner to inform my work as a pyrogeographer in my career at CSU Chico. I seek to guide the stewardship of landscapes with fire, and I have been fortunate to do so in diverse environments between North America and Australia—mostly through Indigenous cultural fires. Increased biodiversity and wildfire-resistant landscapes are some of the outcomes from such practices. I strive to achieve desired future conditions within our landscapes through Indigenous cultural fire. 

Consider that uncontrolled wildfire tends to occur under certain conditions, such as in dry and windy weather, during infrequent lightning events, or more commonly due to human activity —about 95 percent of California’s wildfires are started by human activity, such as careless use of power equipment, campfires, fireworks, and power lines. In comparison, Indigenous fire stewardship is a year-round activity placing fire into different areas of the landscape based on the seasonal needs of those ecosystems and their inhabitants and during conditions when fire behavior is most favorable to desired outcomes. For instance, a small spring burn in chaparral to promote the growth of seeds and basket-weaving sticks; a ring of fire burned in a grassland patch to collect grasshoppers during the summer; a fall burn in the understory of an oak stand to facilitate acorn collecting; and a large landscape cleanup burn set in the high country conifer forests as the first big storms of the wet season bring rain or snow. These examples represent the seasonal timing of fire and smoke under Indigenous stewardship. Where wildfires today might burn an entire ecoregion, Indigenous fires occur at a finer scale—from a single plant to perhaps a few thousand acres. Individually, Indigenous fires are mostly small, but across the landscape and seasons, and with some lightning fires contributing, each year they added up—they burned more than we have experienced annually in the time since fire suppression began in the early 1900s in California. 

Acres burned is often the metric used to describe a fire’s extent and impact, but it is a poor indicator of their effects and the smoke they produce. Knowing approximately 4.2 million acres burned in California during 2020 does not easily translate to knowing how much smoke was produced by those fires—the California Air Resources Board estimates the carbon dioxide emissions alone were approximately 112 million metric tons. The by-products of burning are primarily carbon dioxide and water but also include other gases like carbon monoxide, compounds, and particulates. The actual emissions from any fire depend on factors like the amount, condition, and type of materials burned. Some factors that influence combustion, smoke production, and particulate size are fuel moisture, temperature, and the amount of material available to burn.

Cultural Considerations of Smoke

Smoke is something we have evolved with and integrated into our lives and cultures, environmental interactions and practices. Some of our collective experiences and memories are undoubtedly connected to smoke: the faint smell lingering from a campfire in the early morning hours, the aroma and taste of foods cooked in a smokehouse, the calming effect of incense. Among many Indigenous peoples in California, smoke is used to cleanse an area, being, or object; to convey prayers; as medicine; as traditional communication; and as an environmental stewardship tool. In all applications, smoke creates the connection to inextricably intertwine us with the world around us.

It is somewhat ironic that the English word smudge describes the practice of applying smoke for cleansing and protection. Smudge connotes tarnish or imperfection; however, the Indigenous use of smoke removes impurities. Smoke from different herbs, leaves, or roots help to “clean-up,” and some have specific purposes, such as protection from negative energy. The smoke becomes part of you—it is in the air you breathe, it is in and on your body. The smoke provides a conduit into the space of creation—it merges the physical and metaphysical world. When an area is burned within the landscape in fulfillment of ancestral obligations, the smoke provides a visible connection to those elements.

Less intuitively, smoke is medicine for humans and also the world around us. There are a lot of different applications of smoke with the intent to heal. For humans, when exposed to smoke we may experience watery eyes, a runny nose, a sense of calm. The smoke of certain native plants may be traditionally used to create calm, alleviate headaches, or sooth a cough, among other things. Within the landscape, smoke can be produced to enhance environmental health, too, such as the control of pests and parasites. For instance, a lingering smoke under inversion conditions provides fumigation to reduce presence of mistletoe or treat the forest canopy for insects. Some of this knowledge is noted in tribal oak restoration research summarized by Jonathan Long and others.

Smoke is traditionally recognized as a powerful agent. It can change the weather, improve the survival of plants and animals during droughts, reduce pest and parasite populations, spread spores and seeds, and cause germination of plants. These are just a subset of what is traditionally known about smoke in the environment. 

Perhaps one of the greatest applications of smoke is weather control, locally or regionally. While wildland firefighters recognize some relationships between smoke, weather, and fire behavior, knowledge of smoke and atmospheric conditions is part of the larger base of information that is integrated into Indigenous burning. The particulate matter in diffuse smoke across the landscape can cause condensation, as moisture in the air clings to it; it’s a form of cloud seeding. The use of this knowledge was traditionally important to generate rain to control fires or put them out and also to replenish water to the landscape. Even without the production of rain, smoke can aid in cloud formation to create cooling. Similarly, smoke or any associated cloud cover can provide shade, reducing temperatures. 

Research by Aaron David and others demonstrated that the shading and cooling caused by smoke extends to water temperature. This is particularly true in mountainous areas where prolonged drought and heat stress on rivers can be detrimental to aquatic life, such as spring run Chinook salmon, who require cool water to oversummer in streams before they spawn in fall. During prolonged warm periods, smoke can be a real lifesaver. Plants can also benefit from smoke. Reduced moisture loss from plants and the landscape can also increase groundwater flows in streams while lowering drought stress on plants. Smoke can increase plant productivity and efficiency by minimizing moisture loss. Certain species of plants—including many chaparral species—have seeds that readily germinate after exposure to smoke. Smoke may play an important role in the transport of and deposition of nutrients, bacteria, spores, and seeds of certain organisms. This transport of microbes via smoke has become a focal area of research for Leda Kobziar and others.

Smoke in Moderation

Due to my relationship with fire and smoke, I recognize their benefits and the challenges of acceptance of them by the broader society. I appreciate the distinct smells of different types of vegetation burning while despising the acrid toxic plumes from nonnatural fuels and dense smoke smothering the land. When burning the land, I prefer to be upwind, but pay attention to the production of smoke, its density, and its movement. It is intended to heal the land, and the smoke will provide its benefits in that process too. As the smoke rises, I am conscious that it can trigger memories of traumatic experiences with regional wildfires, or be anxiety-inducing for the public, regardless of time of year. With each fire I set, it is done with purpose for the needs of that place. 

For the broader society, it may be difficult to reconcile the message of Smokey Bear with the holistic view of fire and smoke that I maintain. To navigate this, I invite participation by those most fearful of fire or smoke. Such individuals can have positive experiences and begin to recognize the benefits of fire and smoke, their presence in the environment, through building a firsthand association. I have been amazed by the positive relationships smoke-sensitive individuals can develop with fire, too. But to those present, it is therapeutic—the stressors of daily life are lifted away with the smoke as fire is placed upon the land.

While acute smoke is bad for human and environmental health, smoke in moderation can be part of human and environmental health and well-being. There is no way around it: smoke is part of our world, and it is up to us as a society to decide how we want our smoke. I’ll have mine in small doses connected to landscape stewardship and associated traditional cultural practices. 

About the Author

Don Hankins, a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at California State University, Chico, is an expert in pyrogeography, water resources, and conservation. Don is a Miwkoʔ (Plains Miwok) traditional cultural practitioner. Combining his academic and cultural interests, he is particularly focused on applying indigenous land management practices as a keystone process that aids in the conservation and management of resources. He is currently engaged in fire and water research involving indigenous California and Aboriginal Australian communities.