Burn Baby Burn

Publication Date
October 7, 2020

As the West is shrouded by an eerie orange hue, the sun is a brilliant tangerine floating in a pale grey sky thousands of miles downwind. A smoky haze blanketing the country forces us to confront the undeniable truth: no one is spared from the impacts of our mismanaged lands and it is becoming increasingly impossible to ignore.1

How did we get here? While it’s tempting to place blame on gender reveal rituals gone wrong, these tremendous fires reveal something more pernicious about our culture buried deep beneath the brush.2 We have been taught to fear fire, to only enjoy it when it is utilized to cook our meals or warm our hands and feet. We forget that fire is as natural as wind and water.

In the wild, forest detritus becomes tinder and is regularly ignited when lightning strikes the ground. Fire reveals long-obscured portions of the forest floor, allowing sunlight to penetrate to the ground and nourish new life.3 Indigenous peoples have been using knowledge of small intentional burns to create habitat, provide nutrients, and reduce risk of uncontrollable fires for close to 13,000 years.4 While their practices continue on a smaller scale today, controlled burning is largely regarded as illegal on most land.

Fire-suppression began with Spanish colonizers before California became a state and continued long after with state-sanctioned campaigns. Homes sprawled into the forest, and needed to be protected, as did the timber itself, too valuable a resource to risk burning. The problematics of valuing property over collective long-term good is nothing new in our history, and the wildfires are a testament to persistent inequities.5 We know that a significant proportion of recruited firefighters are incarcerated people, employed at rates as low as $2 a day for 72-hour shifts.6 One must ask: what are we protecting and at the expense of exploiting whom?

Without fire to clear forest debris on a regular basis, we witness the wild infernos that unrelentingly ravage our landscapes from buildup. The latent destruction of unkempt underbrush will only grow as the climate gets hotter and drier.7 We cannot expect wildfires to go away, nor can we deny that designers are complicit in the spread of their devastation.

Still, fire need not be just a force of obliteration – it can also be understood as an instigator for new life. Plants such as eucalyptus and certain species of pines rely on fire to propagate their seeds. Our collective amnesia will have us wanting to avoid destruction, but what if we moved forward knowing that sometimes things need to burn so seeds can be sown into new fields? What if fire was welcomed when used for the earth’s renewal, as an important phenomenon used to make space for systems and structures to better suit our habitation?

Fire is not good or bad, it just is. It is the impetus for renewal that Indigenous communities have long revered. Fire is a symbol of the necessary change called for in the protests erupting all across the country.

We must understand fire if we are not to be completely consumed by it.8

  1. Ian Livingston, “Smoke in D.C.’s skies traveled thousands of miles from the West Coast,” The Washington Post, September 15, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2020/09/15/wildfire-smoke-dc-maryland-virginia/.
  2. Christina Morales and Allyson Waller, “A Gender-Reveal Celebration Is Blamed for a Wildfire. It Isn’t the First Time.” The New York Times, September 18, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/07/us/gender-reveal-party-wildfire.html.
  3. Jessica Wells, “Dying to Burn,” The Bitter Southerner, July 14, 2020, https://bittersoutherner.com/2020/dying-to-burn-nature-conservancy.
  4. Susie Cagle, “Fire is medicine: the tribes burning California forests to save them,” The Guardian, November 21, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/nov/21/wildfire-prescribed-burns-california-native-americans.
  5. The title of this piece is influenced by a poem of the same name written by Marvin X, an American poet known for his work during the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s.
  6. German Lopez, “California is using prison labor to fight its record wildfires,” Vox Media, August 8, 2018. https://www.vox.com/2018/8/9/17670494/california-prison-labor-mendocino-carr-ferguson-wildfires.
  7. Alejandra Borunda, “The Science Connecting Wildfires to Climate Change,” National Geographic, September 17, 2020, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/09/climate-change-increases-risk-fires-western-us/.
  8. Devastation caused by wildfires is a symptom of colonizing land management practices. Embracing indigenous practices of controlled burns can be achieved by destigmatizing fire.
Publication Date
October 7, 2020
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