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.