A Large Mushroom Cloud—California Wildfires and the Ohlone Way

Recently, I noticed a large mushroom cloud over the Gabilan Mountain Range, east of Salinas. Like most news junkies these days, I went online to investigate. Apparently, Cal Fire was conducting a large prescribed burn to clear out underbrush on the dry, oak-forested slopes near the small town of Paicines. The reasons for this burn were twofold—to improve tule elk habitat and to lessen the severity of any future wildfires in the area.

As I watched the brown cloud flatten and expand with the prevailing winds, I couldn’t help but think about the Ohlone Indians and their annual practice of torching the dry California landscape in order to encourage the growth of seed-producing grasses that naturally come after an area has been burned. The Ohlone managed their lands with fire, much like we plow fertile fields every spring and sow our crops in the overturned earth. Agriculture all the same.

A little research led to some astounding statistics. In 2020, California had the most devastating wildfire year ever recorded since Spanish colonization—over 4 million acres burned. The fires burned hot and destroyed old-growth timber, chaparral, and thousands of buildings, most of which housed families. But 4 million acres was a small amount compared to upwards of 12 million acres that regularly burned before the Spanish came. In the late autumn months, the sky was more brown than blue due to the “prescribed burns” of the indigenous people. It was all part of their survival as a hunter-gatherer society.

Ever since 1793, when the Spanish outlawed the practice of purposefully burning the land, the policy of fire suppression has prevailed. We are now facing the dire consequences of that practice. We’ve allowed the unsafe proliferation of undergrowth, which acts as an accelerant to high-heat, high-fuel fires that can now destroy trees rather than help them to remain healthy and propagate. We’ve also built our homes in traditionally high, fire-prone areas, meaning a typical wildfire may now cause increased homelessness and sometimes death.

They also noted vast tracts of cindered ground, the blackness juxtaposed against colorful blooms of flowered fields. It was as if portions of the expansive terraces were purposely left unburned, creating a refuge for pollinators and a place for birds to nest.

Five Hundred Moons
Buzz Anderson

Many people say that climate change, drought, and hotter weather is the reason for more destructive fires in California. No doubt they are factors (the Ohlone experienced many droughts during their existence), but the biggest reason for what now seems to be yearly catastrophes is the lack of annual, low-profile burning of our natural landscape, a time-honored approach to safe fire management and sustainability. The Ohlone knew this for thousands of years.

Image: Illustration from Five Hundred Moons

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