🗞 Fighting fire with fire: solving a burning problem

Forest fires are a growing modern problem around the world, as we see in the US today – ancient wisdom is helping us tackle this effect of global warming

When she was 4, Elizabeth’s grandpa showed her how to make fires in the forest where they lived.

It’s a very dangerous thing. You mustn’t do it. But Elizabeth’s grandpa knew just how and when he could make a little fire that would help the woodland, not harm it.

Elizabeth and her grandpa are Native Americans. Their ancestors lived in the forest in California long, long before people came from Europe and took over the country.

Elizabeth Azzuz in the forest. © civileats.com

Today Elizabeth is passing on her grandfather’s wisdom. It’s about looking after nature. There’s some singing in her story, too. And a clicking stick…

A burning problem

For a long time, most Americans weren’t interested in Elizabeth’s stories. And they were so afraid of fire that they made it against the law for her grandpa to burn even little bits.

But today people are listening. Why? Because they have big new problems with their forests. Maybe you’ve seen pictures this week of wildfires in the United States.

You can see in this image, huge fires and smoke in the western USA

Fires are quite natural. When the weather gets warm, woodland gets dry and a bolt of lightning (or a careless person) can set it alight. Wind spreads those fires fast.

Getting warmer

What’s not normal is that fires are getting bigger. It’s dangerous and people have lost their homes. Smoke can cover even big cities far away. This year in California, a record amount forest has burned – enough to cover half of Belgium.

Smoke from wildfires this month has turned the daytime dark in the centre of the big California city of San Francisco.  HKalkan/Shutterstock

Why is it getting worse? Well, the weather’s getting hotter. We’ve talked before about solutions for global warming. New ways to eat, say, or to get around. We need to do them. But those will take time. What can we do now to tackle wildfires?

That’s where Elizabeth and her friends come in.

“Fire medicine”

Imagine a cool, still winter day in the forest. The ground’s damp.

Some people wearing yellow vests and helmets like firefighters stand in a line. Some carry big metal bottles. There’s a pipe on the end, with a little flame.

An old man slowly shakes a stick to make a regular clicking sound. And he chants words in the ancient language of his people.

He is asking the birds and the trees and the bears and birds, the spirits of his ancestors who live in the forest, if it’s OK to make some fires today.

Then the people walk forward, dripping fire – it’s burning petrol – from their bottles. Bushes and long grass start burning. Slowly, with a lot of smoke that warns the birds and animals to move away to safety. As soon as the target area is burned, the team stamp out the fire – and they have a fire engine nearby, just in case!

This is “fire medicine” for the forest, Elizabeth’s people say. Fire will come anyway one day, in summer. And if all the dry old bushes and grass and dead leaves are there, it will race out of control and burn many trees.

But if people give a little dose of fire in winter, to clear the ground under the trees, that limits the summer fire. In parts of Australia, where they’ve been doing this for longer, they’ve cut in half the area of trees burned each year.

See how one group of Native Americans in California, the Western Klamath, are “prescribing” fire as medicine for the land.

Healing the forest

“Fire medicine” also feeds the soil, helping new plants grow. These include young hazelnut trees. For centuries, local people have woven young hazelnut branches into baskets to carry babies on their backs.

It will take time and a lot of effort for many people to learn how to use fire to fight fire in the forest.

But training “firelighters, not firefighters”, as Elizabeth calls it, is bringing the local community together, proud of their knowledge and traditions.

And their babies are snug in their baskets again…

A traditional baby basket from California. Could you imagine your little brother or sister being carried around in one?

Problem ?

Global warming makes hotter, drier summers in many places, meaning bigger forest fires that destroy homes, harm wildlife and fill cities with smoke.

Solution  !

Fight fire with fire! People whose ancestors lived in the forests show how ancient ways of burning small areas in winter help Nature and limit the size of summer fires.

Grown-ups’ follow-up

Meet Elizabeth Azzuz of the Cultural Fire Management Council in California in this article from the High Country News.

Record-breaking fires are burning out of control on the U.S. Pacific seaboard. The San Francisco Chronicle puts the numbers in context.

Several media have reported in the past year on the revival of cultural burning practices among Native Americans and Australia’s First Nations People as means of containing a growing problem of wildfires, which are widely linked to man-made climate change.

US public broadcaster NPR this month had this article and podcast.

The New York Times looked at how California is learning from Australia.

The Guardian listened extensively to Native Americans for this report last year.

From NASA, this article includes a startling visualisation of wildfires tracked by satellites over the last two decades.

And take a look at this 3-minute video from the University of California, explaining how knowledge of cultural burning is being shared:

If you have time, escape to the wilds of California and meet its forest flora and fauna in this 8-minute video https://vimeo.com/81040094

Alastair editor of WoW!








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