News From Native California Volume 31, Issue 3 - Page 18

In Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, site of the mas- sive Thomas Fire and the deadly debris flows that followed, modern Chumash practitioners have worked to reclaim their heritage as tenders of the land. Since there are no current agreements regarding the use of cultural fire management between any Chumash tribal organizations and government agencies, traditional horticulturalists do the grueling work of “being the fire” by hand. They choose a tiny area, rich in culturally important plants, acquire permits and secure access, carefully observe plant species and plant-animal inter- actions, and recognize and note interconnections, bloom times, seeding patterns, and soil quality. They say their names, all of them, in Šmuwič, English, and Latin. They sing. Then they do the backbreaking work of pruning, coppicing, hand- grinding, mulching, and weeding out the dead brush and grasses. They use few or no power tools. The tiny patches tended by Indigenous Californians grow lush, open, species diverse, and more water efficient. Fire, when it comes to such managed areas, burns low to the ground and moves through quickly. The tree crowns remain green and healthy. Any structures in such areas are easily defended. After the flames have moved through, the seeds that follow a fire germinate at the first rain, since they survived the low-temperature burn. But when the fire reaches the vast, untended zones that surround the green patches of hand-tended gathering areas, the dense, bone-dry fuel loads explode into fires of historic proportions, destroying homes, lives, livelihoods, and ancient landscapes. Severe, extensive burns in thick chaparral, on or near steep slopes with unstable soils, bring a high risk of sub- sequent mudslides. Closely following intense rains nearly guarantee those extremely destructive debris flows. Some ecologists and activists argue that this type of fire is “natu- ral,” but saying that chaparral naturally grows to be dense, impenetrable, and explosive is like saying elders and chil- dren naturally starve. These results are only natural when we do not tend to or nurture chaparral, elders, or children. The sheer age of healthy oaks, sycamores, bay trees, and 16 ▼ N E WS F ROM N AT IVE C AL IFO RNIA elderberry in Southern California point to the