On colonization, Indigenous knowledge, and how we learned to cook the planet.

By Ryan Schnurr 

 TRANSCRIPT

HOST: In March 2022, a group of people assembled at Verbena Fields, a twenty-acre park in Chico, California. They were there to conduct the first cultural burn inside the Chico city limits in more than a century.

[TAPE] ALI MEDERS-KNIGHT: Cultural burning is something that we have to just do. That’s what we want to do. We’re not into fire suppression…

HOST: Ali Meders-Knight is a Mechoopda Tribal Citizen and master Traditional Ecological Knowledge practitioner who is leading the event. This audio comes from a video posted on the website of her organization, TEK Chico.

[TAPE] AMK: And hopefully this is the first burn that will establish the next hundred years of burning, hundreds of years of burning, not only on this land, but in other places within the city.

HOST: Chico is a transitional landscape—on the edge of California’s central valley, at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas. The Mechoopda practiced cultural burning here for generations, until it was outlawed in the state of California in 1850, part of the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. But on January 1, 2022, a new law went into effect affirming the right to cultural burns.

[TAPE] Don Hankins: Don Hankins, for those of you that don’t know me. I’m Miwok from down in the Delta. That’s where my ancestors are from.

HOST: Don Hankins is a professor of geography at Chico State, where he directs the ecological reserves. He’s an expert on cultural burns. A cultural burn is different than a prescribed burn—forest management agencies use prescribed burns to reduce fuel and control a fire’s spread, but a cultural burn is a tool of ecological stewardship: a small-scale, targeted ignition to restore the health of the landscape.

[TAPE] DH: I’ve also brought some traditional tools with us today, like pitch sticks. And we can use the pitch sticks for lighting. And I’ve also brought some shredded bark from cottonwood that we can use as well—bundle it up tight, light it, and then just keep it burning kind of slow to spread that fire around.

HOST: Ali Meders-Knight—jeans, boots, work gloves—kneels down by a tuft of deergrass, pitch stick in hand.

[TAPE] AMD: All right…

[TAPE] DH: I see some active fire on this side.

[TAPE] GROUP: Yee! Woo! Amazing! Gorgeous!

[TAPE] DH: All right, well, it ain’t a spectator sport. Get in there!

[TAPE] GROUP: Let’s do it!

HOST: Another thing that makes this event significant is that just a few miles away, up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, is the town of Paradise, the epicenter of the 2018 Camp Fire—the deadliest American wildfire in a hundred years.

# MUSIC: THEME

Host: From Belt Magazine, this is Fire—a podcast about industrial fires and American life. I’m Ryan Schnurr. This episode, episode five, is on the Camp Fire, which was, at the time, the largest fire in California history, burning more than a hundred and fifty thousand acres and killing at least eighty-five people. The fire began in November 2018, when an electric transmission line ripped loose from its tower and set the ground aflame.

But part of what makes the Camp Fire so important, I think, is that it wasn’t an isolated incident. Over the past few years, megafires have been tearing across the American west, smoking out ecosystems, blocking the sun for days at a time, and racking up billions of dollars in damage. In California alone, according to the state’s own website, eighteen of the twenty-five largest fires in its history have occurred in the past two decades—and the top seven all came in the past five years. And it’s not just the west. THis past summer, smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted south, to the Midwest and Northeast.

So, not great. But to understand what’s happening here—to understand why Ali Meders-Knight and her team were out in Verbena Fields that day in 2022—we have to go a lot further back, locating the Camp Fire in a long tradition of colonialism, industrialization, and general mismanagement of the landscape that created our contemporary moment.

# MUSIC

Jared Aldern: Well, the short way to put it is that fires are getting worse…And the fire season, the wildfire season is also extending so that, you know, a lot of folks would say we have a year-round fire season at this point because of the warming and drying climate.

HOST: That’s Jared Dahl Aldern.

JA: I’m an environmental historian and lead investigator and research associate with the Huntington USC Institute on California and the West, and their West on Fire project.

HOST: Fire has always been part of life in California. And, for a long time, it was in what Aldern calls a state of “dynamic equilibrium.” Fires, including cultural fires, would come and go as part of the regular rhythm of an ecosystem.

JA: Prior to California, or prior to the place called California… you have forests and oak woodlands and chaparral, or shrublands, and grassland, and….Vegetation patterns being influenced also by fire—both natural fire or lightning strikes, and just thousands upon thousands of years of intentional ignitions by people, by indigenous people…

HOST: This is a story, of course, about climate change. And we’ll get to that later in the episode. But Aldern says the story of our contemporary fire disasters begins, like so many of these kinds of stories, with colonization.

JA: With the arrival of first the Spaniards and the Russians, and then eventually American settlers in the mid-nineteenth century, you had immediate disruptions in those indigenous fire practices or fire regimens, you know, the regular habits that people had of really tending.

HOST: As they spread into the western U.S., settlers were setting a lot of new fires—some of them on purpose, others not so much. Steam engines presented a new and powerful ignition source, shooting sparks and smoke into forests and grasslands all over the continent. The country entered an era of megafires, culminating in October, 1871, when two substantial fires occurred on the same day: the Great Chicago Fire, which you already know about, and the Peshtigo Fire, blazing one state north in Wisconsin. The Peshtigo Fire killed more than a thousand people. It’s the deadliest wildfire in American history.

JA: We can sort of fast forward to the policy that came about in about 1910, from the Forest Service.

HOST: That year, a fire known as the “Big Burn” torched 3.2 million acres from Montana to Washington. In his book of the same name, Timothy Egan explains that, in response, congress doubled the budget of the Forest Service. Its primary approach was suppression, using whatever tools they had to rid the landscape of fire.

JA: You may have heard of the 10 a.m. policy, where the official policy was any wildfire start had to be suppressed, had to be out by 10 a.m. the next morning.

HOST: And it turns out this thinking, which has motivated mainstream U.S. fire management for at least a hundred years, is just plain wrong.

JA: So then you have more of those fuels because of our history of fire suppression, and trying to keep fire off the land. You also have warmer and drier fuels with more sparks happening. …So it’s a, it’s an extremely volatile, flammable situation in most areas of California.

# MUSIC

HOST: Enter Pacific Gas and Electric—PG&E—one of the largest electric utility providers in the United States based on number of customers served. It covers more than seventy thousand square miles of land—most of California, including Chico and Paradise—with more than a hundred thousand miles of transmission lines.

On November 8, 2018, around six a.m., on a ridge northeast of Pulga, California, a heavy wind ripped one of those lines loose from its transmission tower. That line, which was ninety-seven years old, weighed more than a hundred and forty pounds and carried a hundred and fifteen thousand volts of electricity. It whipped through the air and shot a bolt of lightning into the metal tower.

Lizzie Johnson was a reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. She writes in Paradise, her tremendous account of the fire, the tower charred at ten thousand degrees Fahrenheit, and, quote, “droplets of molten metal sprayed into the dry grass.”

The grass, of course, caught fire. Over the next two weeks, it spread to nearly a hundred and fifty thousand acres. Fifty-five hundred firefighters and more than a hundred crews were deployed. Paradise went up like matchsticks—ninety percent of its homes were destroyed.

The fire may have been touched off by a transmission line, but it was exacerbated by warmth and drought. At the time, California had officially been in a drought for almost seven years. This area of the state would previously have received up to seven inches of rain by that point in the fire season. But in 2018, it had gotten less than an inch.

Mercifully, rain arrived on November twenty-first. By the twenty-fifth, the fire was out. It had killed eighty-six people, most of them elderly, most of them found in Paradise. Around three hundred were still missing.

[TAPE] Tess Vigelund: The fire is out, but the recovery is just beginning…

HOST: North State Public Radio, an NPR affiliate in northern California, produced a podcast called After Paradise, covering the aftermath of the fire. This is from the first episode, Day 18, hosted by Tess Vigelund.

[TAPE] TV: On Sunday, the mission was to search for those still declared missing who might have perished as the fire roared through. That’s been the mission since since the fire was declared 100% contained. Dozens of search and recovery volunteers in white hazmat suits and full respirators gathered in a parking lot across the street from the Ponderosa mobile estates in Paradise. Placer County Sheriff Sergeant Sage Barasa handed out assignments for the search.

[TAPE] Sage Barasa: Alright everybody, I want to get you guys out there. I know a lot of these days end up really slow in the morning. It’s a lot of briefing a lot of talking and everybody wants to get out in the field. So I’m–we’re still putting together a couple teams. If you haven’t come up to me and given me your team list, then you’re not going in the field yet…

HOST: They spent the day sorting through the remains of the park, looking for bones or other signs, marking the areas that had been searched with a spray painted X.

[TAPE] TV: As a stranger, on a first visit to Paradise, you can imagine that part of what drew people to this city was the quiet. It’s high up on a ridge, away from the busyness of even a small city like Chico. People come to places like paradise to get that kind of quiet. It’s still quiet, but eerily so. Birds evacuated along with everyone else. The only engines now belong to utility and garbage and fire trucks. And the only other sound here, among the tall charred pines on a wide lot that used to be the Ponderosa Mobile Estates, is shovels, carefully, methodically scraping through the powdery ash, looking for organic material that shouldn’t be there. Looking for the missing.

HOST: The Camp Fire was a disaster by any measure. Fifty thousand people were displaced, the community destroyed. And five years later, the recovery is ongoing. People are still moving back into Paradise, and the population is approaching ten thousand—about a third of its pre-fire headcount.

In 2019, CAL FIRE—the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection—found PG&E responsible for causing the Camp Fire. The utility pled guilty to eighty-four counts of manslaughter.

PG&E has been in and out of headlines for its relationship to fires over the past fifty years. According to the Wall Street Journal, between 2014 and 2017 alone, the utility’s equipment was responsible for more than fifteen hundred fires.

But that’s a whole other podcast. And, frankly, this is not really a story about PG&E—or at least, not exclusively. It’s just one of the most visible elements in a much bigger and more complex legacy.

# MUSIC

SP: I mean, this is one of the pathologies of converting to fossil fuels, basically.

HOST: If you’re thinking about wildfires, a good person to talk to is Stephen Pyne. He’s a fire historian and emeritus professor at Arizona State University. And he’s written more than forty books, most of them about fire.

SP: If you look at the fires we’ve had in the last twenty years, so-called megafires, they’ve all occurred in developed countries, or very rapidly developing countries, members of the EU like Portugal…I mean, these are the places with the most technology, the most science, the most firefighting capabilities, institutions devoted to all of this, equipment, communications. And they’re the ones getting hammered….

HOST: Pyne says this is all the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the ecology of fire.

SP: For most of the Earth’s history, there has been fire. And so fire and plants and flora and fauna… over four hundred million years, come into accommodations with each other.

Then the creature arrives—actually, a group of creatures arrive—in the pleistocene that can control fire, can start fire at will…And then we began looking for more stuff to burn. And we went to what I think of as lithic landscapes, that is, once-living, now fossilized—coal, oil, gas, and so forth. Fossil fuels. And we began burning those.

Well, all of the old fires, second fire complex, all had to occur within ecological checks and balances….But burning these lithic landscapes or fossil fuels, all those boundaries are gone. You can burn day and night, winter and summer, wet or dry, it doesn’t matter. So that has given us enormous power. But it also means that there’s no place for all the effluent to go.

HOST: …So effluent, in this case, meaning carbon emissions?

SP: “Emissions, but it could be methane, bromine. I mean, there are lots of highly more reactive greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. But that’s the big one. I mean, the way I would put it here is that we got small guts and big heads because we learned to cook food. And then we went to the top of the food chain because we learned to cook landscapes. And now we’ve become a geologic force because we began to cook the planet.”

HOST: So the era of third fire, fossil fuels, really kicks into gear in the nineteenth century. And it remakes everything.

SP: Amid these enormous fires, these conflagrations, and the sort of wreckage of landscape that European capital and industrial power were creating around the globe, conservation needed some motivating emblems. And fire was a great one.

HOST: Fire suppression can make sense in some contexts—like in a city, where residential fire departments can squash things pretty quickly. It doesn’t work so well at forest scale.

SP: And we think that our machines, petrol-powered machines can counter the flames. And they could, until the cumulative effects of all the things we’re doing, especially in the atmosphere with, with climate change…I mean, California has more firefighting firepower than any place on the planet. And it’s helpless.

# MUSIC

[TAPE] AMK: Good morning, members of the committee. My name is Ali Meders-Knight. I am a basketweaver, mother of five, and the Master Traditional Ecological Practitioner of the Mechoopda Indian Tribe in Chico, California…

HOST: On March 16, 2022—a few weeks after the cultural burn at Verbena Fields—Meders-Knight testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment. It was part of a hearing on wildfires and forest management.

[TAPE] AMK: Tribal tending and management set up California’s ecosystems for resilience – from volcanoes, floods, droughts, and of course, wildfires… In just a hundred and eighty years, the colonial destruction of California’s forests, wetlands, and watersheds has re-plumbed these complex ecological cycles to create a monopoly on water, land, and plants as a commodity.

HOST: Right now, she explained, most federal contracts are awarded to corporations that manage the land in exchange for timbering rights. But they’re planting trees they can sell, not necessarily those native to the area–which, depending on the species, can actually make wildfires worse. A better approach, she said, is to incorporate Traditional Ecological Knowledge—the kinds of activities Indigenous people have been practicing for years.

[TAPE] AMK: To spell it out simply: …When Tribes have the ability to restore the lands around them through long term stewardship contracting, the results are outstanding.

HOST: After opening statements, she answered questions from the committee, like this one from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

[TAPE] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Now, Ms. Meders-Knight, what are some of the benefits of native-controlled burns to the ecosystem and overall land?

[TAPE] AMK: You’re going to have carbon sequestration—carbon stored into the soil—you’re going to have healthy, fire-adapted native plants, and you’re going to have a thriving ecosystem which has lots of biodiversity….

# MUSIC

HOST: In April, I went to Chico to meet up with Meders-Knight and learn more about this approach. We walked around Verbena Fields, which Meders-Knight and her team have been using as a pilot project to demonstrate traditional practices and create fire-adapted landscapes.

AMK: We’ve done what we call lollipopping, and we’ve kind of got through here—it’s not so noticeable, but we cut down from all these major trees about three to four feet, we cut from the bottom to the top…And those materials—all these what we call fuels, or biomass—we like to put them into neat four-by-four piles where we have really thin sticks in the middle, and then we put the thicker, rounder sticks around the outside. …That way if we do have a fire that gets to the ground and starts making its way it won’t picking up off the tree and as a ladder fuel, it’ll just be a wick on the ground that catches burns and no big deal.

HOST: At one point, she knelt down and pushed aside a tuft of deergrass, revealing a charred patch on the ground.

AMK: “And this is the burn scar…”

HOST: From the cultural burn, the one from the intro to the episode. This is what  experts call “good fire.”

AMK: So you have this biochar here, which is like sequestered carbon right in here, which is great. But it adds…this takes a lot of the plants away that they’re gonna invade the spot…and now it’s all like growing green… A lot of the plants have just been introduced here since colonization, for about a hundred and eighty years. And sometimes, most of the time, it takes a lot longer for plants to get adapted to, acclimated to an ecosystem…

HOST: A big part of the work at Verbena Fields is about revegetating with native plants. Because, Meders-Knight said, these are the core of a resilient landscape.

AMK: “One of the good things to understand is how native plants, especially here in California and Northern California, have this very special adapted taproot. And we’ll—I’ll take, for example, the California Blue Oak, that has this extremely long taproot. And it has a symbiotic relationship with the gray pines, which we call [indigenous word]. They’re symbiotic…And so one of the things they like to do is to create these underwater, basically tiny aquifers, you know, for those root zones, and those are kind of like stored water in case of a drought. But it also is like, the super roots, in case of a flood, holds in your mountainside…”

HOST: This kind of landscape, she says, can handle a wildfire—in fact, it wants it. That’s where Traditional Ecological Knowledge comes in.

AMK: Since we removed ninety-eight percent of our oaks and ninety-eight percent of our riparian plants here in Butte County, you’re gonna have fire that’s not going to behave correctly.

HOST: On the Day of the Camp Fire, Meders-Knight was getting ready to do a panel on fire and Traditional Ecological Knowledge.

AMK: “I always like to look at the beginning of that Camp Fire. [It] started at Jarbo Gap. Jarbo Gap was named after Walter Jarbo, [who] bragged around about killing over three hundred natives here in this area, and was paid by the federal government to kill natives. So they graced this, this area, this canal, this canyon part—they named that Jarbo gap…

…So the first thing that I hear is, there’s a fire starting in Jarbo gap [and] it’s getting carried away…. How ironic that the big fire in this area Jarbo, named after Walter Jarbo, is the genesis, it’s the beginning of this, really what looked like a huge bruise in the sky, showing up as you know, as this huge mega wildfire…And I thought, wow, this is what you call things catching up with you.

# MUSIC

HOST: In the fire community, people like to talk about the fire triangle—oxygen, heat, fuel. These three elements are necessary for combustion, the chemical reaction that manifests in flames. For the past two hundred and fifty years, the United States and other countries have warmed and dried the planet, increased the amount of available fuel (both lithic and non-lithic), and added new and more powerful ignition sources—a recipe for more fire.

In other words, the Camp Fire was an industrial fire–an unnatural disaster resulting from centuries of colonization, genocide, fossil fuel production, industrial development, and corporate mismanagement. All of which are linked. It’s a natural reaction to our new ecological reality, and it has more in common with the fires in places like Whiting and Centralia than we’d like to admit.

The colonial impulse–to displace indigenous peoples and communities–also displaces indigenous knowledge, disrupting complex ecosystems.

SP: We get fires that are suited to the world we create and inhabit.

HOST: Steve Pyne again.

SP: We’ve used our new powers to live on the landscape in fundamentally different ways that make no sense from the standpoint of fire…And we have now changed the climate in ways that in most places are supporting existing fire conditions, aggravating them…

AMK: So I even, you know, I even hope the next step is to rename Jarbo Gap.

HOST: Ali Meders-Knight.

AMK:Take that curse off of that land, because maybe that’s an old problem in itself as well. And also the community, to acknowledge what has been the genocide, the intentional genocide that took place here a hundred and eighty years ago.

# MUSIC

HOST: After leaving Verbena Fields, I drove up into the Sierra Nevadas, looking for Paradise. I passed charred trunks with branches twisting into the sky. But in town, I found a construction site. Clear-cut lots, piles of fresh mulch, and rising among them, covered in plywood and Tyvek, new homes and other buildings. And I thought about something Ali Meders-Knight had said that afternoon.

AMK: “California is only, you know…based on its geography, it’s pretty new. And that’s why we still have earthquakes, we still have volcanoes, we still have floods, pretty bad floods, and we have wildfires. And for thousands of years natives worked with fire on this landscape. Because, you know, in all truth and reality, this is fire’s home. And so when you live in fire’s home, you know, you’ve got to adapt to that condition.

# MUSIC

CREDITS: This episode was written and produced by me, Ryan Schnurr. Production assistance from Cassidy Duncan. Theme music by Michael Bozzo. Additional music by Jahzzar. Archival recordings courtesy of TEK Chico and North State Public Radio. Special thanks to everyone who spoke with me for the project, and to Anna Schnurr, Ray Fouché, Shannon McMullen, Rachel Havrelock, Sharra Vostral, Phil Wilke, and Ed Simon.

Fire! is a production of Belt Magazine and Fortlander Media. Support for this project came from Belt readers and members, the Purdue University Department of American Studies, Jim Babcock, and the Albert LePage Center for History in the Public Interest. You can find links to sources and further reading, along with more episodes, at beltmag.com/fire.

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Selected sources and further reading:

Lizzie Johnson, Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire

Stephen Pyne, Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next

North State Public Radio, After Paradise

Washington Post, The Weather and Climate Behind the California Infernos that Wrecked Paradise”

NASA, “The Climate Connections of a Record Fire Year in the West

Robyn Schelenz, “How the Indigenous Practice of ‘Good Fire’ Can Help Our Forests Thrive

Ali Meders-Knight, Opening Witness Statement

TEK Chico, Verbena Fields Cultural Burning

CalFire, Top 20 Largest California Wildfires

IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C

Ryan Schnurr is the author of In the Watershed and writer for hire covering climate, culture, infrastructure, and more. He used to edit Belt Magazine (and still writes there sometimes). He is also the creator of the forthcoming podcast series Fire!, on industrial fires and climate crisis in American cities. Ryan received his PhD and MA from Purdue University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, respectively, and is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Communication at Trine University.