Why California’s 4 million scorched acres is not all bad news

There’s no denying the tragedy.

Flames destroyed more than 9,000 buildings, many of them homes, but also restaurants, businesses and wineries. Countless wild animals were burned alive after being smoked out of their burrows.

The loss of trees is in the millions. Altogether, some 8,500 fires have seared a land mass the size of Connecticut. The August Complex Fire covered more than 1 million acres by itself.

But is there a silver lining to this unprecedented destruction? Can some good be found in what many are calling the worst wildfire disaster in state history?

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For better or worse, fire has always forged California’s landscape. But its effects have never been felt as frequently or intensely as they have in recent years.

“The climate is clearly warming, we know that, but it changes the playing field, it doesn’t really affect any single event,” says U.S. Forest Service regional ecologist Hugh Safford. “And it’s a really important trend — we know that it’s driving drier summers, drier fire seasons and drier fuels — that’s an absolute no-brainer, and we have to deal with that as a societal level. But when you look at these fires in the coast ranges, probably the single biggest factor driving a lot of what we’re seeing is probably the absolute lack of native cultural burning on the landscape anymore.”

Thousands of years before European Americans brought their version of Christian civilization to the territory, indigenous tribes from the Central Valley to the coast used fire as a tool.

Safford explained that the tribes burned forest surface fuels to free space for safety, hunting, agriculture — “because they wanted to promote the acorn crop, you name it.”

There are almost no Native American controlled burns on the coast today because almost no Native Americans still exist on the coast. Volunteer militias and mercenaries funded by politicians slaughtered the indigenous population and stole their land after the Gold Rush. Tens of thousands died in what UCLA professor and author Benjamin Madley calls “an American genocide.”

To the newcomers, fire was the enemy, something to be feared and snuffed out at all costs. That mindset seeded the fire suppression policy that prevailed for a century in America’s forests.

Little remains of a home leveled by the CZU Lightning Complex Fire in August 2020 near Boulder Creek, Calif.

Little remains of a home leveled by the CZU Lightning Complex Fire in August 2020 near Boulder Creek, Calif.

Liz Celeste/SFGATE

Forest managers acknowledge the suppression policy was ecologically a mistake, but you can’t erase 100 years of surface fuel buildup by decree. It takes money and resources — money and resources that the U.S. Forest Service ironically is still spending on fire suppression.

“The nation made a major transition from full fire suppression to what we call fire management about the turn of the 1970s,” says Safford. “And even so, 50 years later, we’re still putting almost all ignitions out under almost all conditions. So that policy has led us to where we are now, particularly in pine-dominated and mixed conifer-dominated landscapes, because those are the landscapes in