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Jim, you mention the Native Americans regarding their use of fire. Although there is no question Native Americans were much more connected to the landscape than we are, they were human beings. They dealt with the land in a manner similar to all other human beings. They modified it as best they could to increase their ability to obtain what they needed to survive. Although we know they certainly applied fire to the landscape, we have no evidence whatsoever as to how much, where they did it, or how they managed the process. It is highly doubtful that they conducted a systematic program to reduce fuel loads.
Evidence for Native American burning is for localized management within a half-day’s walk from villages, not that they were able to reduce the severity and frequency of uncontrolled wildfires. There is little reason to believe Native Americans could prevent the occurrence of large wildfires on the broader landscape. Interestingly, one ethnographic report is of a massive wildfire in San Diego County prior to the time of European contact that resulted in a significant migration of Native American residents to the desert.
You mention Native Americans used “controlled burns.” It should be noted that decades ago fire agencies replaced that term with “prescribed burns” in part because of the recognition that these fires often escape control. First-hand experience has demonstrated that trying to “control” a wildland fire is problematic at best, especially under unpredictable weather conditions that frequent southern California. Such would likely have been the case with Native Americans as well.
The idea that replicating a burning regime similar to what some assume Native American’s artificially created will prevent catastrophic fires such as what happened last October is demonstrably incorrect based on the re-burning of 100,000 acres in 2007 that were scorched during 2002 and 2003 fires.
We will never know exactly what Native Americans did regarding the use of fire in natural ecosystems. One could pose the facetious question, “How did California’s native ecosystems ever survive without human intervention?”
What we do know is there are too many fires today and those fires are threatening the ecological health of the chaparral in addition to endangering lives and property. Instead of basing fire management practices on incomplete records from prehistory, we really need to look forward and formulate plans based on fire science. Adding more fire to a landscape that already suffers from too much is neither desirable for the natural resources nor a realistic option for preventing catastrophic fires.
— RICHARD HALSEY