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Wildfire Ecology Part 2: A Native American's Thoughts on Forest Fire

Dr. Darryl Babe Wilson, PhDThe following post was written by Sul’ma’ejote, aka Dr. Darryl “Babe” Wilson, PhD.  Sul’ma’ejote was born in 1939 in Qatsade (Fall River Valley) on the north bank of Sul’ma’ejote (Fall River), a stone toss from It’ajuma (Pit River) in far northern California. He has written several books, including The Morning the Sun Went Down, about the early times of his life which were not only marked by the tragedy of a native “family shadowed in and out of civilization”, but the death of his mother who was killed in a lumber truck-automobile accident. Sul’ma’ejote blogs at Hay’dutsi’la.

July 19, 2008:  Fires in Hyampom Still Crackling

Could we flip back through history to a hundred-thousand years before Columbus or ten minutes before landfall, we would find immense forests, some three-hundred feet tall and thirty-five feet around, most of the forests appearing like a manicured Federal Park, clear of underbrush, deaf falls and dry limbs and needles and leaves turning to duff just waiting for a spark.

The forests, like most life on this continent, were not an accident.  That they looked like they were manicured is because they had been forever before the penetration of Europeans.  Forests were full of life and were like a super market for the natives.  Animals, birds, eggs, nuts, excitement and adventure flourished everywhere.  It was a duty for the natives to clean the forests and encourage life to visit there, and it was an honor to “talk for” the forests in ceremony and prayer.  Loving earth with a deep respect has always been the “way” of mountain and coast indigenous.

During fall season, tribes went into the forests and gathered the dead limbs and debris, the brush and leaves and cones.  They made piles of the dead and drying materials and covered the piles with bark slabs, abundant on an old windfall where much of the debris was piled.  Then they waited for the proper time.  At the proper time they took pitch torches into the forest and set the forest piles on fire.

Why, then, didn’t the fire “get away” and burn millions of acres, maybe for months, since there was no fire crew or helicopters or foam and other fire retardants?  It is because “the right time” to burn the forest piles was during first snow.  First snow:  the wind is usually calm, forest is damp, humidity perfect.

Today the little town of Hyampom is surrounded by fire and evacuation alerts are constant, as fire rushes with the wind and calmly eats its way up or down the ridge, thriving under duff, and sparks of duff are carried across fire lines that a crew of a hundred men have been all week establishing.  The spark touches tinder and grows quickly to become a threat.

The old timers knew “first snow” routine and followed it.  U. S. Forest Service and modern civilization seem to be attracted to forests matted with undergrowth and deadfalls, while spending much money to get control of a fire that should never had the opportunity to start by lightning or by match.

Sul’ma’ejote

Also read:
Wildfire Ecology Part 1: Almost 4 Weeks Later, 489 California Wildfires Still Burning

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3 comments
  1. DC Butterfield

    Native American peoples have helped shape environments for untold millennia, and their accumulated ecological expertise and experiences with diverse organisms and varied biotas will be critical for building a sustainable and just future.

    Also, a large number of Native Americans maintain cultural traditions of environmental interactions begun millennia ago. Native American ecology of this sort is not simply passive environmental steward-ship maintaining natural, that is, “human-free,” ecological patterns. Rather, indigenous/environmental relations are active. Environments that at first appear to be “natural” may have a marked anthropogenic component under closer examination. For example, the ecological role of fire in vegetation dynamics and the human use of “controlled burns” to modify habitats have received much attention from ecologists (see Collins and Wallace 1990; Russell 1983 and wesite: http://americanindianoriginals.com ).

    Those concerned with biodiversity conservation, resource management, and sustainable development would be better served if local Native Americans were involved in ecological plans and land development projects.

    These are my thoughts. Please comment. DC

  2. Samuel Warren

    Miss Lance,

    I appreciated your article on the Forest Fire.

    When I was a child in the 1960s, my uncle, my mother and other southwest Missouri farmers would in the late autumn evenings burn the brush and leaves that had gathered in the fields. The Old Timers swore that it had to be done.

    The other evening I went down in the holler and burned a small leaf bed, near a pond. The Old Timers are right.

    If the burns aren’t done every now and then the risk of a fire getting out of control by a lightning strike of nature or a careless hunter leaving an unattended campfire is just a crisis waiting to happen.

    Samuel Warren

  3. cchiovitti

    One would have hoped that the great Yellowstone fires would have taught us a lesson. Apparently not. Even here, out on the plains, I opened my drapes 2 nights ago to see the horizon on fire. Fortunately, conditions did not allow it to rage out of control or burn for very long, but I’m surprised it wasn’t much worse – out here we have developers come in and plow many acres of land, only to then allow it to fall in to neglect so that the only vegetation that proliferates is the weeds which dry out and burn, unlike the hearty native brush. So scary and sad.

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