Native Californian Fire Use
Fire and Wilderness
This dichotomy of a totally managed landscape and an untouched wilderness is unhelpful in developing successful efforts to respect and preserve Indigenous cultures as well as protecting what wild Nature is still left. In reality, California was both. Some areas were heavily managed to produce the bounty Indigenous Peoples needed. Other areas were rarely, if ever, visited, with whatever human impact left behind was quickly absorbed by Nature. A more accurate view of "Wilderness" is as a legal term that defines and protects natural landscapes that Euro-American colonists have not been able to exploit and destroy. The important issue today is to first acknowledge and apologize for the state's role in the horrors of the past, as Governor Newsom did in 2019. It is also critical to recognize that descendants of the Indigenous Peoples who suffered are still very much still here and continue to fight for self-determination. Finally, we need to dispense with the polarizing dichotomy (all land has been modified or not) that is being used by vested interests to once again exploit Indigenous Peoples for economic gain.
What we Know About Indigenous Use of Fire in California
Archeologist Phil Orr discovered 12 quarts of red maids seed (Calandrinia spp.), called khutash in Chumash, associated with a 600-year-old burial on Santa Rosa Island off the coast of Santa Barbara. Similar finds have been made on the mainland. Chia (Salvia columbariae) and tarweed (Deinandra fasciculata) seeds were also collected in great volumes. Think about that for a moment - 12 quarts of tiny seeds about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Such volumes would be impossible to collect today in large part because much of the landscape upon which they grew is now developed. Secondly, the germination of these plants is encouragedby fire. Actively burning the coastal plain would have likely provided the necessary conditions for their abundant growth. Plants with underground bulbs, corms (Dichelostemma spp.), and tubers that were food sources for the Chumash have explosive post fire blooms, making them easier to locate. According to early 1900s accounts, burning was also done to assist in hunting small game, especially rabbits.