“A number of unique factors this year combined with long-term trends to create the devastating and unprecedented fires of 2020. But a major reason for the massive scale of the destruction is that natural fires and burning practices first developed by Indigenous people have been suppressed for generations.
Wildfires are essential to many Western ecosystems, restoring nutrients to the soil, clearing decaying brush, and helping plants germinate. Without these fires, vegetation in woodlands, grasslands, and chaparral shrublands accumulates, so more fuel is available to burn, especially when a megadrought keeps drying the fuel out, year after year. A debt to the landscape starts to mount, and when it comes due, there is hell to pay.
“If we’re not using fire in the same way that this landscape evolved with over millennia, then we could be creating a situation where we’re creating a further imbalance,” said Don Hankins, an environmental geographer at California State University Chico and a Plains Miwok Indigenous fire practitioner.”
“With the suppression of natural fires and indigenous burning practices, some sections of the forest grew to be anywhere from twice as dense to 10 times as dense as they were when fires were more frequent, increasing the likelihood of what’s known as a “stand-replacing fire.” These are massive blazes that can wipe out almost all of the living trees in an area, including towering overstory trees. When there’s a drought, more trees means there’s less water to go around, leading to drier and more flammable vegetation.”
“The question now is how to scale up these Indigenous burning practices across federal, state, and private land and develop an appreciation for the knowledge behind them. Even with the record-breaking blazes across the United States in recent years, there are still millions of acres of wildlands that have yet to burn and could still be devoured in megafires. And as the climate changes, more areas will become primed to ignite.”