The wildland fire tragedy in California underscores the risk of living on a flammable planet. In 2017, co-occurring outbreaks cost dozens of lives in both California and Portugal. Australia also endures waves of deadly fire. Even places we do not typically associate with wildfire appear among the rolls of devastated communities. We have global wildfire problems that are varied, urgent and deadly.
As an environmental archaeologist, I know that these flammable landscapes have long human histories, too. I look to this history for examples of successful coexistence between human societies and fire.
I have been working with the Native American community at Jemez Pueblo, whose ancestors lived continuously in fire-prone forests at high population densities akin to modern exurban communities for more than four centuries. What lessons does the past have for the present?
The first lesson is climate matters. Almost every major study of fire activity on every landscape over the last 10,000 years indicates climate drives fire activity, particularly larger fires. However, many examples from traditional societies suggest the role of climate can be buffered or blunted by a patchwork of small, purposeful burns before the peak natural fire season. In the Jemez Mountains, the climate influence was weakened and large fires were rare when Jemez farmers lived there because they used fire pre-emptively in many small patches.
Trees were rare within several football fields around each Pueblo town. Trees did not begin to regrow around the towns until a decade or more after people left.
Small trees within a mile of the Pueblos were probably harvested for heating and lighting their homes. Such thinning around communities provided domestic heat and reduced landscape fuel load, reducing the risk of fires jumping from the surface to the crowns of trees.
The ancient Jemez landscape had large defensible spaces around towns, surrounded by a forest of widely spaced big old trees amid a carpet of grasses checkered with farm fields and lined with trails. Lessons for today? Protect your home and community with a defensible space to reduce the risk that fires will have much fuel by the time they reach you. Remove small trees to reduce the risk of more volatile and intense fires. Use fire on the landscape in good weather conditions before it burns in dangerous ones. If this burning is done in a patchwork, it can blunt fire spread when wildfires occur.
This requires changing our relationship to smoke. We will have to accept much more smoke from an annual patchwork of fire to avoid the fumigation and destruction of uncontrollable megafires.
Looking to the past also indicates that we must tackle climate change. The heating of the planet makes droughts hotter and drier, fire seasons longer and dried-out fuels more combustible. We must take immediate action to reduce our combustion of fossil fuels or our other efforts to coexist with fire will be undermined.
Although implementing these changes will not be easy, the good news is that programs are in place that advocate for community adaptations and defensible space, such as Firewise USA, as well as for thinning and prescribed burning at the federal and state levels. They are underfunded and understaffed – funding for fuels treatment are a very small fraction of firefighting costs – but the institutions are there if we could find the cultural and political will to adequately support them.
Our future coexistence with fire will involve a lot of smoke, a lot of fire, and a lot of lifestyle changes for those of us who live in wildlands. It is no longer a question of whether or not we want to live with fire, but what kind of fire we want to live with. The Jemez people were proactive in this and lived sustainably with fire for centuries. With some lifestyle changes and political will, we can, too.
Dr. Christopher Roos specializes in studying the long-term interactions between human societies, fire and climate in the Southwest U.S.