Wildfire Cycles and Resilience

Last fall, the deep, once-shaded slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains were dramatically transformed by fire. Started by a series of uncanny lightning strikes, the eerie orange of fiery skies lent an unsettling cast throughout the state of California, as our wild landscapes were indelibly changed. While many grieved the events of this time, wise souls familiar with these forests knew that beneath the narrative, nuanced redemption stories glow. 


Encroaching development and deliberate fire suppression efforts have disrupted the natural cycle, fueling more intense fires when they do occur. While wildfires today kindle fear in our colonial psyche, naturally occurring wildfires were — and continue to be — a means of renewal and a catalyst for seeds embedded in cycles of burning for their subsequent rejuvenation.


 On Turtle Island — or, pre-colonial North America — much of the landscape was managed and maintained through the use of fire by First Nations. Fire was, and continues to be, a technology for maintaining health and abundance of land. Controlled burns are integral to managing yields and quality of foraged food sources for humans and for wildlife. These intentional fires are small, less hot, and less destructive than the devastating wildfires induced by climate change that we have been experiencing.


Fear of fire is a colonial legacy, and in the contiguous US the practice was largely halted with the arrival of the Spanish.  Blinded by an unquestioned commitment to European worldviews and the belief in natural hierarchy — coupled with a lack of familiarity with the North American landscape — settlers saw fire as a purely destructive force. Europeans mischaracterized indigenous land management practices as primitive, and they misunderstood the use of fire as a tool in maintaining a critical resource. This ignorance, and our continued lack of attention to indigenous land management, still colors our view of wildfire. Only in the last couple decades has the National Park Service begun working with First Nations to incorporate controlled burning into management plans.


We must become aware of and re-evaluate colonial assumptions stemming from the beliefs that we are separate from and above nature, and tasked with controlling it. The quality of life for our future generations requires us to collectively begin to understand and work within natural systems. From time immemorial, natural burns have improved the quality of soil and thinned the density of flora to revitalize growth out of decaying stands. Redwood trees and fireweed are two species that survive and even flourish in the midst of wildfire, stoking hope and providing beauty as the landscape transitions from charred back to green.


photo by Max Wittaker / The New York Times / Redux


Redwood trees are inherently braced for the burn of wildfires in a way that seems counterintuitive, even as contemporary fires burn longer. The heart of a redwood can catch fire and burn away, and still the tree may survive. Even with the core blackened by fire, heart burned through, the giants continue on, as they have before — living while cut wide open, seared irrevocably with the dark of a scar that carries with it the legacy of regrowth and regeneration.


The botanical world so often finds a way to remind us of how adaptable and extraordinary nature is, and offers a path for anyone who has looked to live through tragedy, irascible pain, and not seen a way out. The structure of redwoods and giant sequoias allows their canopies to rise far above where flames will reach, even in conflagrations like the western wildfires. 


With their critical engines stowed safely in the canopy, the tannic bark evolved to be less flammable, withstanding even high heat –– so long as enough of the bark survives to protect the flow of sap and water from the roots to the canopy. Another ingenious strategy for a tree that’s evolved to withstand centuries of both abundance and lack: their seed cones only open in fires, allowing the seeds to fall on the newly cleared forest floor.

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