Bay Nature magazineWinter 2021


Reading the Landscape for Fire

Fire is part of my worldview. It is codified in the law of the land, and it has been so since time immemorial.

January 3, 2021

In the aftermath of the extensive fires that burned across California and the West in the 2020 fire season, there is a lot to reflect upon. People grappling with the trauma of disaster. Communities trying to recover and plan for future fires. Ecosystems responding to fire within the landscape. More carbon dioxide released through combustion and thus further contributing to our already troubling atmospheric conditions. Fires that reinforce the likelihood of more fire by decreasing forest cover, damaging the soil’s health and moisture retention, and contributing dead and dying vegetation to the landscape. These are just some of the cycles that are perpetuating fire until we make change.

Kottot wykeʔ həlsəty waaliʔ – In the beginning, fire burned the world. My Miwkoʔ (Plains Miwok) ancestors have passed this understanding of fire through generations, and it is the foundation of the knowledge I use as a traditional cultural practitioner and pyrogeographer. In my career at California State University Chico, I incorporate this knowledge to study and apply fire’s natural and cultural dimensions in relationship to place and time. Fire is part of my worldview, and I am constantly assessing the world around me for how fire would burn under different conditions, how wildfire might behave in a given location, but also how I would set fire to steward that location for many different results. I have set and stewarded fires in a considerable diversity of ecosystems and landscape conditions largely in an Indigenous cultural context by myself, with family, and with community, but also with agencies and organizational partners in California and across Australia. As a result of reading the landscape for fire in this way, most of this burning has occurred with little to no need for fire suppression tools or tactics—fire trucks, hose lays, soil disturbance—and with individuals and intergenerational family groups from Indigenous communities not living in fear of fire. From this perspective, it is frustrating to know a different potential within the landscape, but recognize the barriers to achieving that potential that exist due to social, policy, and other constraints.   

Fire is codified in the law of the land, and it has been so since time immemorial; it has always been here and always will be. To live in balance with this land, one must embrace and accept fire’s presence. With respect to Indigenous cultures, and without delving into the depths of the sacred knowledge of fire, which has been passed down as story of the tribulations and musings of ancestral beings, fire is tied to the sacred geography of our storyscapes—the physical places these stories describe from the time of creation. Each tribal group may have its own story, told with a different suite of ancestral beings associated with its storyscapes. Imagine the countries of central California Indigenous peoples, such as Wappo, Wintun, Ohlone, Bay Miwok, Coast Miwok, Pomo, each group with a story unique to its environment. 

Whose Law?

Drawing loosely from these narratives, the first fires burned over the world and caused its inhabitants to retreat into fireproof shelters to await a time for the landscape to recover and become habitable again. To lose the world to fire is an unfathomable experience: the basic necessities of life nowhere to be found as far as the eye can see. The stories go on to explain how plants and animals respond to fire and even provided the sacred gift of fire for humans to use to steward the world. The relationships with fire between and among species emerged as lessons for how to live with fire. The complex nuances of interactions, roles, and responses of species, soil, water, and other environmental parameters to fire became ingrained in the fabric of Indigenous cultures to the point of interdependence. Rather than waiting for the rare lightning ignitions, people wielded fire as a process central to the landscape’s ecological function and structure. Over millennia, species and landscapes evolved with this very type of fire, and people developed fire-dependent cultures. They were truly coupled human-natural systems in balance that buffered the stochastic cycles of environmental change dating back to the last glacial period and likely beyond. 

The extent and impact of recent wildfires are reminders of where two and a half centuries of colonial laws come into conflict with the law of the land. From an Indigenous perspective, the dominant society is now living the first fire story the ancestral beings experienced. Such fires reinforce the need for social change, for us to collectively become a fire-dependent culture and use fire as a tool to make change. To see the landscape burn at an eco-region scale in the course of days to weeks, such as in the Mendocino Complex in 2018 and August Complex this year, begs the questions: where did we go wrong, and what can we do differently to live in this land? To recognize that fire is the law of the land is to recognize that it is part of the laws of nature. As sure as water flows down a stream, the tides rise and fall, or an acorn drops from the oak, it is expected that fire will and should graze the landscape. In the basics of fire science, fire requires fuel, oxygen, and heat to exist. The frequency and behavior of fire are driven by the fuel, weather, and topography. Indigenous fire knowledge encompasses a complex understanding of the environment and reading of a landscape’s needs and indicators for when, where, and what type of fire should be used to achieve desired outcomes for the land. All of the applications of fire are rooted in knowing the laws of the land and interpreting them through seasonal cues, such as plant flowering, leaf drop, or wildlife activity. 

From an Indigenous perspective, the dominant society is now living the first fire story the ancestral beings experienced. Such fires reinforce the need for social change.

The decoupling of the coupled human-natural system began with Spanish colonization. Early visitors to California noted the presence of smoke, burned landscapes, luxuriant grasses, and open woodlands—all indicators of the Indigenous people’s relationships to their country and a legacy of stewardship responsibilities passed down through generations. Following the arrival of the Spanish, many factors played into fire’s reduction in California, including disease, genocidal acts, and policy. The frequency and location of these changes is noticeable in tree ring samples dating almost to the year missions were established from Baja California through Alta California. 

The Spanish coveted green pastures for grazing their livestock, but the grass could only be maintained with periodic fires set by Indigenous peoples. However, these necessary fires were simultaneously seen as a threat to the interests of early colonists, and in 1793, Spain’s Governor of California José Joaquín de Arrillaga established policy banning burning, with the most extreme penalties imposed. In 1850, the fledgling California government under American rule reinforced the policies against burning. Surprisingly, some types of burning were still carried out, particularly by Indian vaqueros as they moved livestock down from the high country in fall and set fires there that would ensure quality forage the following spring. 

Ultimately, the United States embraced a policy of fire suppression beginning in 1910. By this time, California Indian populations were at an all-time low. Indigenous burning traditions became increasingly scarce, and in some areas the knowledge of fire was maintained only through older generations sharing accounts of their family’s and community’s use of fire. Some people continued to apply fire in more remote areas or on private lands. Across the state, settler families who had learned to burn from Indigenous practitioners continued burning primarily for range benefit, but these practices also began to decrease through the 1950s, and by the 1980s even fewer acres were burned as more policy restrictions were imposed.  

tribal burn in Cosumnes River Preserve
A tribal burn to restore fire to valley oak woodlands and grasslands conducted in partnership and training with agency fire personnel at the Cosumnes River Preserve in the Central Valley 20 miles south of Sacramento. (Photo by Don Hankins)

Indigenous Burning

Through the years, I have had the opportunity to talk, learn, and burn with traditional cultural practitioners, ranchers, and others who carried the knowledge of burning either through story or application. It’s common knowledge among them, and often stated, that fire was traditionally set to “clean up” the landscape. Cleaning up the landscape means to reduce the accumulation of dead biomass, reinvigorate the landscape, and make it aesthetically pleasing. It achieves the “park-like” setting many early visitors noted. Not surprisingly, I have encountered this idea of cleaning up across all the areas and continents where I have studied fire. It is the most basic reason people set fires, and even prescribed burning today is most frequently set to reduce fire hazards.  

However, Indigenous burning is more complex than that. Beyond the cleanup burns, fire traditionally could be used for dozens of reasons, including to maintain travel corridors, sustain game, steward food, fiber, and medicinal plants, conserve and enhance biodiversity, and protect villages, sacred sites, and other fire-sensitive areas. Burning is not a haphazard affair; it is set at various scales across seasons by reading the needs of the plants, animals, and other parameters of a place. Burning is objective driven: you have to know what outcome you want from any given fire. It might be increased seed production from perennial grasses, slender and supple shoots from willows, or fruit production from shrubs and trees. Tending to the needs of the landscape requires knowing how the components of that landscape will respond to the fire. For instance, burning at different times of the year will yield different fire effects with differing outcomes for species within the same landscape. Burning under valley oaks in the fall can be useful for acorn collection and reduction of oak pests, but summer burning might be used to stimulate shoot production for baskets. In a period of dormancy, many plants will be largely unscathed by fire, but during the growing season, the fire may damage or kill plant tissues. Each ecosystem has a range of seasons and reasons for burning to achieve desirable outcomes. 

Traditionally this knowledge accumulates over a lifetime. The removal of Indigenous communities from the land and anti-fire policies have limited the ability of communities to transfer knowledge as it should have been transferred to maintain the traditions. But today, many communities are reconnecting to their ancestral traditions and lands. There may be specific terms related to fire knowledge in the languages and specific fire practices within the cultures of local tribes. While a community might work together to burn, the governance of fire was often overseen by those with the most experience and knowledge of fire. Like any knowledge base, the application through time and under different circumstances leads to mastery.

The practical experience of burning in over 20 different ecosystems between North America and Australia gives me a broad perspective in knowing fire in those and analogous ecosystems on quite intimate terms. In most cases, the places I burn are places I have a relationship with or responsibility to. This is a difference that sets Indigenous burning apart from other burning practices; being able to return to the burned area to collect plant materials or hunt for mushrooms or wildlife is a reward of careful stewardship. It ensures accountability. It ensures burning that is holistic and inclusive of long-range planning.

Many of California’s diverse ecosystems have been shaped with and by fire.  Generally, some of the most fire-prone and adapted ecosystems include chaparral, oak woodlands, and conifer forests. Given the role of Indigenous stewardship in these ecosystems for millennia, the approach to reading the landscape through a cultural lens is important to understanding fire in these systems, and it is complex. I’ll provide some insight into this with the following examples.  


Fire in chaparral ecosystems frequently conjures images of explosive combustion—walls of fire with intense heat release. Vegetation such as manzanita, chamise, and ceanothus are noted for their volatility under wildfire conditions. Certainly many of these shrubs are naturally suited to burn, given the waxy leaf coats, dense woody structure, and production of aromatic oils many species exhibit. However, they aren’t like the fumes of gasoline exposed to a spark, and under certain conditions, they can be quite difficult to ignite. This bit of knowledge informs the strategies used by Indigenous peoples when burning in chaparral ecosystems for specific outcomes.  

Plant phenology is a tremendous indicator of an area’s receptivity to burning. On February 11, 2003, I stood on Mallory Ridge within Morgan Territory Regional Preserve dressed in flame-resistant Nomex, as part of a group set to burn a patch of chaparral to reduce the fire threat to the nearby wildland-urban interface, but also to improve habitat for rare species such as the Alameda whipsnake and other chaparral-associated species endemic to the East Bay. It was a big affair, a suite of firefighters, researchers, agency personnel, a helicopter, and a few media representatives. Listening to the pre-fire safety briefing, I distinctly recall the concern for safety due to the perceived volatility of the vegetation and how quickly the fire would move through the intended burn area.  

We can create a fine-grained mosaic of habitats in chaparral by applying fire at the right times and places to support higher levels of biodiversity.

Having walked through the unit before the pre-fire briefing, I noticed the manzanita and other shrubs flowering. I was familiar with the traditional knowledge on burning in chaparral ecosystems according to season, topography, aspect, and other factors, but was also very well aware of the combustible nature of chaparral fires under wildfire conditions. As a precaution, only the ignitions specialists were allowed on the fire line, and as I stood by to watch the ignitions, the traditional knowledge of chaparral burning played out in my mind. As the ignitions began along the edge of the hilltop, the fire crept in about 10 feet, laid down, and extinguished on its own. Without a hillside slope or wind, the ability for moist vegetation to burn is limited, and the flowers indicated the shrubs had plenty of moisture. The take-home message for me was an affirmation of the ancestral knowledge, but also a vision of how to restore a fine-grain mosaic of vegetation in chaparral communities using fire. Indigenous peoples maintained such a mosaic of vegetation—one that includes different plant species and communities of different ages—to ensure they had access to materials they needed to survive and to support higher levels of biodiversity in those areas. As a note to the reader, the 2020 SCU Lightning Complex–Ohlone Fire burned to the edge of the 2003 burn unit, separated by a road.

In the elapsed years, I have spent considerable time talking with ranchers, cultural practitioners, and agency fire personnel, among others, about how to manage fire in chaparral ecosystems. In some areas where intervals of fire have been too frequent, invasive grasses threaten our potential to burn for beneficial outcomes. Frequently, fire surrogates, such as thinning of vegetation, are used to create fire breaks in the thickening patches of chaparral, which have reclaimed the hills and valleys of the coastal ranges and foothills surrounding the Central Valley in the absence of fires set by Indigenous peoples. Examples of such fire breaks are visible in many places around San Francisco Bay, including Sweeney Ridge in San Bruno and Grizzly Peak in Berkeley. 

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However, we can also create a fine-grained mosaic in chaparral by applying fire at the right times and places within the landscape. Many researchers and chaparral advocates have argued that fire is not necessary to maintain chaparral ecosystems, but from an eco-cultural perspective the fine-grained mosaic ensures ready availability of sticks, fruits, seeds, and other materials needed for cultural use. Small burned patches in different stages of regeneration create diverse habitats within an area, which in turn support higher levels of biodiversity. The frequency of fire there also matters. For instance, a long-unburned patch of manzanita could be useful as an “orchard” for manzanita berries or manzanita wood for cooking, while a more frequently burned area might produce edible seed crops or better hunting opportunities for herbivores seeking the nutritious growth of regenerating shrubs. There are many survival mechanisms for chaparral species. Some require smoke or ash to germinate, others sprout prolifically following fire, and some require longer fire-free periods to ensure sufficient seed in the soil for maintaining a population. Such considerations are imperative to achieving desirable eco-cultural outcomes. The resulting mosaic can be more resistant to fire too, as different ages of regenerating chaparral will have diverse levels of biomass, moisture needs, and structure suitable to burning.  

manzanita burn
Don Hankins and others applied traditional knowledge to burn through 20-year-old manzanita and toyon growing beneath gray pines and interior live oak on a hillslope in February 2020. (Photo courtesy Don Hankins)

While I have thought through and talked about traditional burning in chaparral ecosystems, it wasn’t until February of this year that I had the opportunity to apply the knowledge myself. The Woodland Fire in 1999 was a summer lightning ignition that burned portions of Big Chico Creek Canyon (now part of the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve) near Forest Ranch, California. Chaparral composed mostly of manzanitas, toyon, and deer brush that has regrown since the fire now stands in large patches, dominating portions of the landscape. Seeing a need to restore the fine-grained mosaic here, the reserve’s staff and I identified a hillside within the reserve where we could burn approximately three acres, using traditional knowledge as a guide to how and when we ignited the fire. The site was somewhat remote, accessible along a foot trail some distance from roads that fire trucks and larger equipment could easily access. In early February 2020, with manzanitas and deer brush beginning to flower, we hiked in with saws, backpack sprayers, and a few hand tools. Ignitions toward the top of the slope were set to test the vegetation’s receptivity to carrying fire. Only the leaves and twigs on the ground burned. We needed to use the slope—burn uphill versus from the top down—to our advantage to have a successful burn. Given the vegetation’s high moisture, we ignited the fire from an exposed trail lateraling downslope, with pockets of dead manzanita as cured fuels along the trail’s lower edge to carry the fire slowly upslope and burn the area with great precision. As I walked away from the burn later that day, I considered how much time it could be before that same area might be burned again. It may be a few generations before it is burned again, and I tried to imagine the relationship that generation might have with fire. Rebuilding the mosaic will occur incrementally, and maintaining and transferring the knowledge to the next generations is an important step in that process.  

Oak Woodlands and Grasslands

Grasslands are among the most widespread vegetation types globally, so, naturally, most fires occur in grass-dominated systems. This is particularly true in California, where oak woodlands and native grasslands are among the ecosystems that historically experienced frequent fires. Grasses and forbs commonly grow under the canopy of oaks, making this combination a characteristic of oak woodlands. Together these ecosystems provide some of the most significant resources used by California Indians, but are also home to a diversity of wildlife, often used by ranchers for grazing livestock and valued by many for their beauty. The burning of grasslands and oak woodlands, as frequently as every few years in some places, has maintained oaks across the state during periods of unsuitable climate conditions, such as wetter and cooler periods over geologic time. Generally, oaks are incredibly resilient to fire, but seasonal timing of burns is important in determining how they may respond.  

In California’s grasslands and oak woodlands, a flush of green follows the rain or consistent dew. The initial flush of mostly nonnative annual grasses and forbs typically occurs weeks before the native species begin to sprout. While burning occurred at various times of the year in pre-contact times, now the presence of invasive species poses a particular stewardship conundrum. How best to burn to achieve native species diversity and abundance while also conserving the oak ecosystem? I have burned and studied extensively in oak woodlands—including interior live, valley, blue, black, and canyon live—and in grasslands from the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta to the Sierra and Cascade foothills specifically to achieve these outcomes. Burning to enhance native species in a particular area involves paying close attention to germination patterns and other cues from plants and animals in the area. This guides the timing and approach to applying fire with the right intensity and patterning to achieve the desired benefits for native species. 

 It is never a one-and-done situation. To maintain the conditions created by fire will always require additional fire and effort. I have been fortunate to steward some oak woodlands and grasslands with repeated burning as needed to enhance and maintain native species. Under the conditions in which I most frequently burn, slight changes in topography, exposure to sunlight, shifts in vegetation communities, and animal trails can be enough to limit where the fire will move. Through my research and observations, I have noted how frequent burns (e.g., two to five years) at the right time of the season can increase cover of native species, many of which are culturally significant: meadows of yellow starthistle have transformed to be dominated by blue wild rye, elegant tarweed, and turkey mullein. These native species are generally green through the greater part of the dry season, and some of the deep-rooted perennials will resprout almost immediately if burned around the time the flower culms cure. This flush of green is important to herbivores and is also resistant to fire during a long period of the dry season.

In pre-contact times, Indigenous peoples applied fire to small areas that dried first in the landscape. As the season progressed, patches of burned grass would either resprout if they were perennial species or remain blackened or sparse until the next rains if they were dominated by annuals. Given this selective practice, it is understandable how fires later in the season, deliberately set to harvest grasshoppers or started by lightning, could be kept in check, since fewer grasses and forbs covered the surrounding areas. Where native species dominate the landscape today, fires could still be applied nearly year-round, but such places are rare, and the effects of fire on the nonnative species that may be present need to be understood to ensure they do not invade into the area following fire. If one is not stewarding the land with the mindset for understanding native grasses and forbs, these species will likely disappear. This perhaps is one of the greatest risks to native species in grasslands: wildfires and even poorly timed prescribed burns. The ubiquitous presence of nonnative grasses creates a receptive tinder beginning early in the dry season for a vast area across California’s landscapes.  

Oaks are incredibly resistant and resilient to fire. Even individuals with burned crowns will frequently resprout from the base of the trunk, and some may sprout along the trunk or branches. Sometimes this process takes several years, as was the case with one valley oak I observed recovering from wildfire on the San Joaquin River. However, the trees generally don’t tolerate such impacts if they are frequent, and the recurrence of multiple wildfires in the same oak woodlands in a matter of years is concerning. Already a reduction in oak woodlands is noticeable in places where frequent high-severity fires have occurred in short intervals. Presumably, we will see this in the aftermath of the 2020 fires, but there is still an opportunity to intervene with corrective fires to help ensure the conservation and recovery of those areas.

Mixed Conifer and Redwoods

Seeing the forest for the trees is an important skill. As a kid, I appreciated the catfaces in fire-scarred trees for the refuge they provided. I specifically remember seeking them out during visits to Memorial Park, Jones Gulch, the Mount Tamalpais Watershed, and UC Santa Cruz, among other places. In a redwood forest, the evidence of fire history, adaptations, and when there is a need for fire are all visible upon close examination. Thick bark protects the trunk of redwoods, but the fibrous nature of the bark can carry fire up to the canopy or cause it to smolder into the trunk of the tree, and repeated fires may hollow out the base to create the catface. Trees removed by fire may regenerate via sprouting from the burl to create fairy rings—circular clusters of trees—while trees scorched by crown fire may respond by prolific sprouting along the trunk. Even the establishment of these giant trees from a tiny seed is somewhat dependent on fire to reduce the forest duff and enable the root to reach the soil. These characteristics point to the coevolution of redwoods with fire.  

The geographic distribution of redwoods follows the extent of coastal summer fog, which helps keep the forest floor moist. However, seasonal and prolonged periods of drought provide us an opportunity to apply fire in the redwood forest. Throughout their range, studies of redwood growth rings indicate that fires occurred roughly every decade or less in pre-European times. These fires maintain the forest by thinning out young and diseased trees and providing suitable conditions for species like California hazelnut, evergreen huckleberry, sword ferns, and redwood sorrel to thrive in the understory. Among the reasons Indigenous peoples burn these forested systems is to cultivate some of these associated species that respond to fire by growing vigorously and fruiting. In some areas, the frequent burning historically created grass balds within the forested system and maintained associated oak woodlands and conifer woodlands. In the absence of frequent fire, woody species may encroach back into the grassland patches. In areas with less frequent fires, more shade-tolerant species and fire-sensitive species, such as Douglas fir, can be found. At a landscape scale, pockets of fire-sensitive species were part of the redwood forest. Without frequent fires, fire-sensitive species and fuel loads have increased across landscapes that were once maintained with fire.      

Before the lightning ignitions this season, I had envisioned opportunities for restoring fire to some of these areas now within the fire footprint in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Nearly every trip through the Santa Cruz Mountains was a reminder of the impacts fire could have on the region. Having burned extensively in the mixed-conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada and Cascades, I saw the potential for what could be, and I also saw what was at risk under different fire conditions. Before the lightning ignitions in August 2020, I had been considering the progress by the Amah Mutsun Land Trust and its partners in the area, while reflecting on past projects I’d been involved with to support burning for endangered species habitat enhancement at Año Nuevo State Park, Russian Ridge Preserve, and Cloverdale Ranch in San Mateo County—all important projects, which ultimately need to be followed with more fire for maintenance. It is not all a loss. Already the forests are responding, but the effects of climate change may ultimately decide how and where these forests persist into the future. My understanding is that the places the Amah Mutsun Land Trust had been working were quite resistant to the CZU Lightning Complex; the fire burned at lower intensities along the ground rather than scorching the canopy, and it is under these conditions we can hope for the forest to persist in future generations.  

Fire-Dependent Futures

Looking ahead, we need to act upon the work nature has provided through the 2020 fires and earlier fires to correct for climate shifts, fuels accumulation, and a deficit of fire. What opportunities could there be to put fire into more areas to steward the chaparral, grasslands, oak woodlands, mixed conifers, and redwoods while building social acceptance of fire in the adjacent wildland-urban interface communities? Just as I have used the California State University Chico Ecological Reserves to teach, research, and steward with fire, there are more opportunities to restore fire regionally. There is great potential for learning, enhancing, and healing with fire. Burning in our local environments and publicly accessible places provides a visual reminder of fire’s role in our landscape. In wildfire protection planning, there is often discussion about assets at risk. It should be clear that beyond the homes and infrastructure, there is so much more at risk: species, ecosystems, social systems, physical and mental health are all part of it.    

Looking ahead, we need to act upon the work nature has provided through the 2020 fires and earlier fires to correct for climate shifts, fuels accumulation, and a deficit of fire.

Fire will always be part of our landscape. Wildfires returning to areas burned in recent years demonstrate that it does not take long for similar fire behavior and risks to threaten our communities and landscapes again. The fires of 2020 and those occurring recently all pose an opportunity to work with what natural and non-natural ignitions have provided. Similarly, the long-unburned places are vulnerable, and they should be strategically evaluated for restoration of fire to those areas too. It is time to rise to the occasion to build a relationship with fire, to be stewards of our lands and our shared future. We cannot expect government agencies and others to do this work alone; rather, it will require diverse partnerships between tribes and cultural practitioners—ideally leading the way and supported by—the public, universities, nongovernmental organizations, and agencies and a keen skill set based on ecological and cultural awareness of fire to make the necessary change. This is entirely attainable for even the most difficult locations. The challenge is to build capacity and funding to implement the necessary stewardship before the next unplanned ignitions occur. As each day passes this season, we are nearer to a flush of new growth, regeneration within the landscape, and as the seasons and years pass, so too will the opportunity for change. Time is ticking. 

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.