California has been stuck under the spell of wildfires for months now, but they’re finally getting under control — mostly. A new fire broke out near Santa Barbara at East Camino Cielo and Painted Cave Road, which is situated in the Los Padres National Forest. 3,800 acres have already gone up in smoke, and the fire is nowhere close to being contained. People are starting to ask why this keeps happening.
It turns out that Native Americans might have the answers, if we’re willing to listen.
Santa Barbara County is in a state of emergency thanks to the new fire. Officials have requested that California Governor Gavin Newsom announce the same. The county wrote that the fire is “causing conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property within Santa Barbara County.” This is nothing new for California.
Ironically, it’s the state’s own fire prevention methods that are most to blame for the constant outbreaks — not the dry conditions, heat, or high winds. That’s because our methods don’t include prescribed burns, which ironically prevent the spread of unplanned forest fires that often rage completely out of control, potentially demolishing homes. But Native Americans were purposely setting fire to the countryside before European settlers even showed up.
These prescribed fires do more than just prevent uncontrolled burn. In addition to clearing away dangerous areas of dry brush, they also help maintain balance in animal populations and create natural meadows where animals, wild and farmed alike, can graze.
The concept of “fighting fire” was developed from the 1880s until peaking in 1910 after a spate of wildfires were responsible for 86 deaths and a number of destroyed communities. Millions of acres of wooded area in Idaho and Montana disappeared in a flash. The event compelled the US Forest Service to extinguish similar fires in the future via new fire fighting methods. This also led to steep fines for everyone who used prescribed fires to reduce the surface area of dry brush — resulting in yet more fires.
Those fire prevention methods were largely unsuccessful. By 1968, our officials noticed that giant sequoias in California were on the decline. Our logic tells us that fire is a destructive force, but sequoias actually depend on it. Dry areas are “reset” when fire destroys the brush, and those areas typically grow up greener and stronger than before. Contrary to popular belief, fire is a necessary component of a healthy ecosystem. But we prevent them.
Scientists have long argued about the benefits of prescribed fires in preventing worse ones, but per usual, policymakers have declined to listen to the brightest minds — or the most experienced — we have at our disposal.