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Cultural Burning: Fighting Fire With Fire

The renaissance of Indigenous fire management and traditional ecological knowledge continues to make headlines as it slowly returns to the fore.

Controlled burning in California
Controlled burning.

For thousands of years, California Indians used fire as a tool for managing natural resources. Throughout the state, Native peoples conducted cultural burns on a wide range of plants and it was their fire regimes that created diverse habitat mosaics that sustained meadows, coastal prairies, and grasslands. The careful application of fire increased fruit and seed production, caused new growth that was better suited for making baskets, and reduced the fuel load that could be burned by naturally occurring wildfires. But starting with the Spanish conquest and continuing today in the form of Forest Service and Cal Fire policies, fire suppression has drastically limited cultural burning.

Now, however, common sense appears to be returning. In Northern California, Indigenous-led “good fire” practices have been reintroduced and are becoming integrated into the policies of state fire agencies. In Southern California, members of Chumash groups are working with researchers to quantify the ecological benefits of ‘fighting fire with fire.’ In the U.S. Pacific Northwest, Indigenous groups are pressing land management agencies and others to allow cultural burning practices for ecological restoration goals and to improve forest resilience to the effects of climate change.

In Montana, artificial intelligence is being paired with good fire practices to help buffer local communities against the risk of large-scale wildfires. Other terms for these traditional forms of fire management include fire-stick farming and fire as medicine.

In Australia, new research reveals how traditional Aboriginal fire practices, also called cultural burning, can promote biodiversity by influencing plant species richness in desert environments.

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