Waru! at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve
By Judee Burr
B.S. Candidate Earth Systems, 2012
B.A. Candidate Philosophy, 2012
Waru means fire. Looking down at the blackened ground, it was hard to believe what I have been reading for the past month – that fire could be beneficial, even necessary to the health of a landscape. I had just watched firefighters set 1.2 acres of grassland aflame for a prescribed burn at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve (JRBP). In the aftermath of the burn, researchers will study the effects of wildfire in grassland restoration, work that is especially important today as we reevaluate the role that fire should play in our land and forest management practices.
Lighting the land on fire may be unfamiliar to me, but it is a practice that has shaped California’s landscape. At the Bill Lane Center for the American West, I have been working on a comparative study of the policies that govern fire management in the United States and Australia, and the long history of fire in America that has molded these policies. For thousands of years, Native Californians used fire to hunt, for pest management, to sustain the plants important for basketry, and to provide food for the animals they hunted. In her book “Tending the Wild”, Kat Anderson describes the biologically diverse landscape that thrived under human supervision – burning was caring for the land. When European settlers arrived, they were not confronted with a “pristine” wilderness, but land that had been very deliberately tended and shaped by people to sustain their communities.
Despite this history, fire has been presented as a threat, not a tool, for the majority of the 20th century. Indigenous voices and fire practices were suppressed with European settlement and development. The Forest Service fought fire in wildlands, and fire was safely contained and mechanized for use in urban areas. The villainous fires in the movie Bambi and the campaigns of Smokey the Bear taught me that forest fire is something dangerous to be prevented.
But using fire to manage the land is not a lost art, as the prescribed burn at JRBP demonstrates. Ecologists and forest management services are now supporting with scientific data what Native Californians and aboriginal Australians have always known – that healthy ecosystems need fire, and burning periodically, at the right times, will prevent accumulated fuels from going up all at once in unmanageable conflagrations. Now the US forest service takes an “appropriate management response” to addressing wildfires instead of attempting to suppress every burn. Scientists and foresters are starting to agree that prescribed fires must return to the land to restore healthy forests and for the safety of homes in the wildland-urban interface.
Photo: Martu hunter Burchell Taylor burns a clump of spinifex grass to reveal lizard burrows in Australia's Western Desert. (Credit: Rebecca Bird)
In some places in Australia, aboriginal people have never stopped burning. A few weeks ago, members of the Martu community from Australia’s Western Desert came to Stanford to share their paintings, their basketry, and their stories at the exhibit “Waru! Holding Fire in Australia’s Western Desert.” Walking around the gallery and watching a short video of Martu community members burning mature spinifix in the desert made it clear to me that burning is a living part of Martu culture. In Australia, in California, and around the world, indigenous peoples have retained the traditional knowledge of how to burn the land to maintain it.
My research will focus on the experiences of four indigenous communities: the North Fork Mono of the Sierra Nevada Forest, the Northern Chumash of California’s Central Coast, the Martu in the Western Desert, and the Northern Kaanju people of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula. I will compare the efforts of these four communities to become an official part of the fire management policies governing their homelands. The challenges of integrating traditional fire knowledge with the scientifically calculated burns of the Forest Service are thrown into sharp focus when I compare the prescribed burn I saw at JRBP with the video of the Martu burning in Australia. I can barely imagine knowing the land so well, understanding the plants and the weather and the seasons to such an extent, that I could know which parts of the land need firing, know how to start a fire, and know where the fire is going to stop. Yet it is this knowledge that indigenous communities have held for generations. I look forward to learning more about successful collaborations between land management agencies indigenous communities, and where more opportunities to collaborate lie in the future.
Read more about the burn at Jasper Ridge »
Read more about the “Waru!” exhibit at Stanford »
Read more at the Out West Blog for Summer Interns »