How My Settler Ancestors Set Us Up for Uncontrollable Wildfires
A red sun rises, and green freeway signs are unreadable in the thick air as morning traffic crawls toward Silicon Valley. It’s just one day into the nightmare of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, 150 miles to the north, and toxic smoke has already blanketed the Bay Area, where it will deepen over two weeks. I ask myself what I’m doing out here in my car adding to the mess. Ever since last year’s fires ripped through my family’s place in the Napa hills, I’ve felt especially vulnerable. My respiratory passages clench up at every hint of smoke. And now there’s a twinge of chest pain I’ve learned to read as fear, not a second heart attack. It’s a sensation I can calm, but it comes back when I face the enormity of what we’ve done to the Earth and each other.
These fires say it all. As I write, the one in Paradise, alone, has destroyed twice as many homes as last year’s fires and moved even faster across the land. It has killed 88 people, with hundreds still missing, many more homeless, and millions exposed to the sick air. But it’s not just the fires themselves—the “new abnormal” as our governor calls. Most of us know that we’ve crossed a line with climate and are entering a passage that humans have no idea how to navigate. All we know is that our way of life on this planet is not working and needs to change radically and quickly. I’m on the road now because I’m heading to a retreat where we’ll think about how to meet these “burning times.”
Last year when the fires hit us so directly in Napa and Sonoma, I was studying the local ecosystem and my family’s history on the land, so I can tell you some things about fire and colonization that aren’t in the news. These dry-season fires bear close relationship to what the land evolved with—many native plants here can’t reproduce without a good burn. I’m glad to say some of them on our hill are thriving anew after last year’s fire. But modern fires burn differently, thanks to interlocking factors of our own making. The media is beginning to explain how climate change has deepened drought, raised temperatures and even created a desiccating force called “negative rain.” All this accelerates the winds we’ve always had this time of year—dry Santa Ana and Diablo winds out of the northeast that make wildfire more fearsome. On our hill last year, some parts burned lightly, others with a new kind of ferocity that will affect recovery.
In the panic, no one talks about another human factor rooted in our history: how we White Californians, in our earliest legislation in 1850—our first year of statehood—criminalized practices that Indigenous Californians had used for millennia to protect the land from catastrophic wildfire. The people who evolved with this land had learned to work with gentle, controlled burning at milder seasons of the year, supported by ceremony and traditional knowledge. Their burning killed pathogens, fertilized the soil, stimulated biodiversity and healthy creeks, and cleared tinder buildup—leaving a park-like ecosystem that our European ancestors found lovely and rushed to exploit.
To my settler-ancestors, Indigenous burning must have seemed threatening. In its wake, they began the kind of farming that would weaken biodiversity, divert and pollute the waters, and poison the land. The wave of new immigrants who came with the gold rush wanted what media of the time called “only a White population in California” and began a course of genocide and enslavement, now well-documented as intentional. Our first governor even called for a policy of “extermination.” Californians don’t learn this history in school and know almost nothing about the hundreds of Native cultures that knew, loved and tended the lands here before us.
Knowing whose ancestral homelands are affected—the Concow and Maidu peoples in Paradise, the Wappo and Pomo in the fires I followed so closely last year—helps me think about today’s terrible fires. I’d even tracked a fire map showing the worst blaze following the same route as vigilantes in 1850 out to destroy Pomo villages. Eventually our European ancestors outgrew their farms and began to pave and build on fertile land, adding fossil fuel-intensive industry, commerce, homes, and highways like the one I am following through the home-ground of the Bay Area’s Ohlone people. I can’t help thinking we need to acknowledge history and heal before we can change the course of this destruction.
I want us to go humbly to the very people our culture tried to exterminate and listen to what they can teach us.
Calming my mind as I drive, I reason that my route will take me up and over the crest of the Santa Cruz mountains, where there’s likely to be better air. Even so, I remember that catastrophic fires have hit these mountains, too, in recent years. Later I’ll learn that just last night, two smaller ones were contained not far from where I’m heading.
My hunch proves more than right. As the highway climbs through forested land into the mountains, the dense air breaks into god rays among the trees, and a weak mid-morning sun emerges. By the time I turn in to the forest itself on a tiny one-lane road winding up a steep canyon, the air feels healthy again. Redwoods tower taller than anything along the freeway, their unique bark evolved to resist fire, the ground below covered in the ferns and shrubs of their own special ecosystem. This greenness all around is doing its thing, drawing toxins out of the air, like my HEPA filter at home but without the electricity. I am filled with gratitude for the trees. Except for my car, it’s like I’m back in an era before the defilements of fossil fuel. My breath deepens as my body adjusts to the peace.
At the retreat, there is joy in being together, finding equanimity in a burning world—which includes the horrendous mass shootings, growing government militancy, and deep personal pain so many are experiencing as our region, our nation, navigates this violent and fearful passage. Our root teacher Thich Nhat Hanh—now nearing the end of his life and returned to his native Vietnam— has spoken honestly about what humanity may face in the next hundred years as Earth’s ecosystems unravel. His earliest book, Lotus in a Sea of Fire, chronicled the painful destruction of his own country in the Vietnam War. His interpretation of Buddhism and the path out of suffering—with the healing power of the trees—is the grounding I look to, but we need more, something all of us in the wider culture can embrace.
If these burning times are our passage, there must be some rites like older cultures must have had—to strengthen us as we move through it. Secular and divided as we are, we must find them as we enter this fearful unknown. I would like to see us start with acknowledging and grieving our history—including our treatment of the earth and the Indigenous people.
Can we give up our desire for the material things that mark our lifestyle? We can’t go back and rebuild with those same toxic substances—as some of my Napa neighbors are doing. We can live more simply. My Buddhist teacher says this will be much easier for people in our culture when they feel engaged in a loving and nurturing community, so building more heartfelt connections is key. As Einstein so famously said, we can’t solve a problem from the mindset that created it. We are faced with the huge task of giving up the fossil fuel mindset.
I want us to go humbly to the very people our culture tried to exterminate to listen to what they can teach us. Already scientists have begun to learn the value of intentional burning. Fire ecology courses borrow the wisdom of the Indigenous. But I want us to ask Indigenous people to take the reins themselves and help get us back on track with fire. I want them to take care of their own lands once again, as the Karuk people are doing up north on the Klamath River. They have the wisdom we need and—given what they’ve survived—the resilience. If there are prayers to go with their techniques, these need to be said. Thank goodness the people with the medicine are still here. After last year’s fires, I looked and found California Natives like Ron Goode of the North Fork Mono who have taken up work in the woods, sometimes fighting fires. Ron and others around the state still have their original teachings about fire and know how—without fear—to be in relationship with a force that baffles the wider world. These are the teachings we all need now.