Wildfires have been a natural part of California’s geography going back millions of years. The history of fire in the state can partly be told through the rings of giant redwood trees — some of the naturally fire-resistant giant sequoias in Sequoia National Park are 3,000 years old, and they tell the story of fires that blazed across the land long before any Europeans found the place.
As fire season has ramped up all too quickly here in Sonoma County, folks on the SPARC farm who remember the Nuns Fire of October 2017 are having a bit of PTSD, and are bracing for a couple more months of smoke in the air — or worse.
But as much as the megafires we’ve come to know in recent years in California can be terrifyingly destructive and sometimes deadly, people unfamiliar with the nature of fire in this landscape tend to believe that all fire is bad. It’s not true, and many experts suggest that California could probably use more of it.
A 2009 study in the journal Fire Ecology looked at a collection of 52 sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park and found in the tree rings evidence of a particularly fiery period on California’s Sierra Nevada between the years 800 and 1300. Known as the Medieval Warm Period or the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, it was an era of higher average temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere, possibly due to solar activity or due to changes in ocean currents. Temperatures at the time are estimated to have been similar to those in the mid-20th Century — with temperatures in the last 60 years being off the charts from pre-industrial averages.
While wildfires in the area of the sequoias do not seem to have been as large as the ones we’re seeing today, some may have been.
Per the study: “While it’s intuitive that climate patterns influence fire regimes, this study’s data provides some of the first looks at how past fire regimes responded in a sequoia grove. Periods of droughts saw more frequent, though smaller fires, as a rule. Wetter periods saw less frequent fire. However, this also gave fuels a chance to accumulate and this led to larger fires.”
The megafires of the early 21st century may be unprecedented, though, and some of that has to do with where we’ve built towns and cities, and how we fight fires when they happen.
Firefighting efforts in California are beginning to come around to the ancient ways of indigenous Californians, as more experts are convinced that fire mitigation through controlled burning is far wiser than total fire prevention, which is impossible anyway.
An Aboriginal burning program in Northern Australia, started seven years ago, has reportedly cut destructive wildfires there in half. And as the New York Times reported in January, indigenous tribes in California are beginning to teach modern firefighters how to conduct the kinds of ritual burns that their people did across California for millennia.
“If we are going to make our landscapes resilient, and thus our communities resilient, we have to follow these practices that are tried and true,” said Don Hankins, a fire expert at Cal State, Chico, speaking to the Times.
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“We don’t put fire on the ground and not know how it’s going to turn out,” said Ron Goode, tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono, at an ritual burning event earlier this year covered recently by NPR. “That’s what makes it cultural burning, because we cultivate.”
Controlled burns in favorable weather help to clear forests and other biomes in California of dense vegetation that builds up during rainy months. That vegetation often dries to a crisp each summer, and the more years that go by without a fire in a particular area, the more that fuel accumulates. While President Trump may be misguided in suggesting that California needs to do more “raking,” it’s not off-base to suggest that fire management in the future will involve removing debris from forest floors with fire itself. And like the redwoods, many native California plants have adapted to fire, and seed pods actually don’t get activated until a fire occurs.
Here at the SPARC farm, the massive fire three years ago gave way to its own rebirth. The fire arrived at an unfortunate moment, just as SPARC was getting ready to harvest its first crop for legal recreational sale in January 2018. But the farm and the company have survived and thrived in the years since, and rebuilt bigger and better than it was.
Slowly taking shape, though not yet a legal possibility, is a cannabis tourism experience that will be like taking a winery or vineyard tour. But first come the harvests that fill SPARC’s stores with sun-grown Marigold brand cannabis flowers.
We’ll bring you more about the rebuilt and replanted SPARC farm in October, as we mark the three-year anniversary of the Nuns Fire.