Turning Fire into Water: Permaculture Approaches to Fire Ecology, Preparedness, & Communications

Co-Written by David Shaw and Melissa Ott Fant

Since the CZU Lightning Complex fire in Santa Cruz, we’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people contacting us with questions about how to care for their land once the fire is out. This blog post is meant not only for those folks but for all of us who live in fire ecologies. 

We want to begin by expressing deep gratitude to the firefighters and community members who have been working for weeks to contain the fires throughout the western USA, while protecting so many homes, buildings, and habitat. It has been inspiring to see our community come together in support of everyone who had to evacuate, many of whom have lost their homes and livelihoods to the fire. 

These are incredibly challenging times, but within these challenges exist opportunities for new paths forward. Now more than ever we are called to be resilient and support our neighbors. From the ashes and destruction, opportunities for more regenerative land management are emerging. 

Part one in this series of articles is focused on resources for learning about fire ecology and communication channels during a fire or evacuation. Part two focuses on what we are learning about permaculture strategies for fire preparedness and post-fire regeneration. It’s not necessarily about going out to buy seeds and myco inoculants and watering, but rather taking the long view about shaping the landform to hold soil, water, and ash, and determining what direction you’d like to see the habitat evolve towards. 

The scale of the fires we are facing in our national forests is well beyond what individuals and even local communities can resolve alone. We must also look at what we can do together to shift policy for how our public commons such as national parks, forests, and Bureau of Land Management land are stewarded. Additionally, when we take a whole systems approach we can also see how water and energy policy is exacerbating the climate emergency. While we recommend things that individuals can do, ultimately the scale of the issue requires collective and wise action. 

In addition to writing articles like this on our blog, Santa Cruz Permaculture offers design services and educational programs to aid you in preparing for and mitigating disaster. Please share this article with your network, and learn more about our offerings on our website.

Note: This blog post is the first in a series of posts related to fire in California. This blog post will be updated periodically based on your feedback and what we learn.

Fire Ecology

Throughout these articles we aim to be brief and direct you towards the diverse voices of scientists, indigenous peoples, government agencies, businesses, and civil society organizations offering well-developed resources on this subject. 

Essentially, the forest and grassland ecosystems of our region developed over deep time through periodic fires as well as other disturbances like floods and earthquakes. The plants and animals of our region co-evolved with these disturbances. Ecosystem development follows a pattern of successions, with certain plants and species occupying and growing in the landscape and then new ones emerging and succeeding those before them.

Depending on the severity of the disturbance, the ecosystem may be reset to an earlier stage of succession. If it’s a catastrophic fire that entirely kills all the plants in an ecosystem, for instance, then it will be reset to an earlier stage of succession. However, if it’s a cleansing fire that burns only the understory, then the old growth trees and other fire-adapted plants will remain, and the ecosystem will contain a mosaic of early- mid- and late- success species. This mosaic ecosystem is rich and abundant in biodiversity, which is why the peoples that co-evolved in these fire ecologies often used fire as a tool and explains why they are so adept at cultural burning. 

Catastrophic fire: a still image from news coverage of the CZU Lighting Complex fire. (Image source)

Cleansing fire: a prescribed burn that stays low and controlled.

Catastrophic fires

The megafires that have swept through California in recent years have burned so hot that they’ve incinerated nearly everything in their path. In her recent article, Elizabeth Weil notes that firefighters and indigenous communities have been saying the same thing for many decades: “We dug ourselves into a deep, dangerous fuel imbalance due to one simple fact. We live in a Mediterranean climate that’s designed to burn, and we’ve prevented it from burning anywhere close to enough for well over a hundred years. Now climate change has made it hotter and drier than ever before, and the fire we’ve been forestalling is going to happen, fast, whether we plan for it or not.”

Below is a classic image of forest succession. The image shows how, in some ecologies, bedrock turns into a mature forest ecosystem during primary succession. With a disturbance, in this case fire, the ecosystem is reset to an earlier stage of succession and then slowly but surely progresses back to a climax community. However, this image is missing a critical part of the story. Many of our ecosystems do not reach a point of stasis where they’re “done,” and not all ecosystems require a catastrophic event such as a crowning fire to reset it to an earlier stage of succession entirely, as the image seems to imply. 

(Image Source)

Cleansing fires

Instead, as mentioned above, people have learned to employ fire as a tool for maintaining forest health and preventing catastrophic fire. Perhaps this cyclical image would be an appropriate addendum to the linear one above. 

(Image Source)

This tool goes by many names: cultural burning, prescribed burning, or controlled burning, to name a few. Cleansing fires burn relatively cooler than catastrophic fires. They tend to burn in the understory of forests and in grasslands, and they serve many functions such as lessening the fuel load, helping fire-adapted seeds germinate, lessening pest and disease pressure, and alkalizing and remineralizing soils.

Cultural Burning & Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Cultural BurningTending the Wild 

Learn more about cultural burning, the history of problematic U.S. Forest Service policy, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK):

  • Restoring the Land Through Fire – Virtual Event with Ron Goode, hosted by Rights of Mother Earth Sonoma County (August 2020)
  • To Manage Wildfire, California Looks To What Tribes Have Known All Along (NPR, August 2020)
    • “I think it’s really important that we don’t think about traditional burning as: what information can we learn from native people and then exclude people and move on with non-natives managing the land,” Middleton Manning says. “But that native people are at the forefront and leading.”
  • ‘Fire is medicine’: the tribes burning California forests to save them (The Guardian, November 2019)
    • “For most of the last 100 years in California, however, government agencies have considered fire the enemy – a dangerous, destructive element to suppress and exclude from the land. Traditional ecological knowledge and landscape stewardship were sidelined in favor of wholesale firefighting, and a kind of land management that looked like natural conservation but left the ground choked with vegetation ready to burn. As the climate crisis creates hotter, drier, more volatile weather, that fuel has helped drive larger wildfires faster and further across the west.”
    • “‘Our first agreement with our creator was to tend the land,’ says [Rick] O’Rourke, 52, resting for a moment on a log in the green, lit drip torch still in hand. ‘It was taken away from us, and now we’re trying to reclaim it.’”
  • Wilder Than Wild: Fire, Forests and the Future – Panel Discussion (Bioneers, September 2019)
    • “It’s really, really important for me to know that communities get together and communicate with one another. Take care of your neighbors. Take care of your environment, because when we’re clearing our land, when we’re burning, it helps the water, our environment, the fish, it helps all of the things that we live with.” – Elizabeth Azzuz, Yurok Tribe Cultural Fire Management Councilmember
  • Living With Fire: Dr. Crystal Kolden on Fire Resilience, Biomimicry and TEK (Bioneers)

What about climate change – is that causing the fires or is it forest mismanagement?

It’s both, and other factors. 

As politicians argue about the recent fires being or not being fueled by climate change, we reject this “either/or” dichotomy and encourage using a “both/and” consciousness. 

There is no doubt that human-induced climate change is making matters worse. Our societies have taken so much carbon out of the ground, burned it, and polluted the atmosphere to the point that we have new, erratic patterns of global warming and cooling. This has led to record-breaking hot/dry conditions in the western USA and many other conditions, such as fires in the arctic circle and more frequent and intense Atlantic hurricanes. 

As discussed above, the excessive fuel load that’s built up in our forests is unhealthy and dangerous. This combined with the fact that city and regional planning has encouraged more and more development at the urban/sub-urban-wilderness interface means more people are living in areas that have traditionally burned. Additionally, our built environment throughout the arid west has been built with a “pave it, pollute-it, pipe-it” design that has lead to widespread desertification instead of a “slow-it, spread-it, sink-it” design to create water retention landscapes at the bioregional scale. 

We’ve noticed that sometimes when people link a problem to climate change, they tune out, thinking “oh that’s such a big issue and the only thing I can do to help that is to buy a Tesla.” We reject this on two accounts. First, there are countless meaningful actions one can take to address the climate emergency from individual actions to collective actions. Second, there are practical things, again at both the individual and collective scales, that we can and should do to support forest and watershed regeneration regardless of the climate emergency. 

Let’s put this another way: the destruction of our forests and watersheds has been going on since before the industrial revolution. The actions that need to be taken to repair them were needed then just as they are needed even more so now that we have a climate emergency. 

The good news is that while humans have created this mess, humans can also undo it. And relatively quickly too. These natural systems don’t just change overnight, or even within a season, but it’s amazing how much water can be recharged, soil caught, biomass and organic matter created, and biodiversity enhanced in just a few years. Let’s get to work before it’s too late and indeed it might already be. 

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” 

– Martin Luther

Fire Ecology Resources

Anderson, Kat. 2005. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Blackburn, Thomas C, and Kat Anderson. 1996. Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians. USA: Ballena Press.

Cagle, Susie. “’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 

Carle, David. 2008. Introduction to Fire in California. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Grossman, Teo. “Living With Fire: Dr. Crystal Kolden on Fire Resilience, Biomimicry and TEK.” Bioneers, 2020. https://bioneers.org/living-with-fire-dr-crystal-kolden-zmbz2008/ 

KCET. Cultural Burning – How Native American Peoples Use Fire to Rejuvenate the Land. 2016. https://www.kcet.org/shows/tending-the-wild/episodes/cultural-burning.

Millison, Andrew. “Wildfire.” Permaculture Design: Tools for Climate Resilience. Eugene, OR: Oregon State University, 2020. https://open.oregonstate.education/permaculturedesign/chapter/wildfire/.

Most, Stephen. “Wilder Than Wild: Fire, Forests and the Future – Panel Discussion.” Bioneers, September 2019. https://bioneers.org/wilder-than-wild-panel/ 

Rights of Mother Earth Sonoma County. “Restoring the Land Through Fire – Virtual Event with Ron Goode.” August 20, 2020, video.  https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=3250189665070390 

Sommer, Lauren. “To Manage Wildfire, California Looks To What Tribes Have Known All Along.” NPR, August 24, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/08/24/899422710/to-manage-wildfire-california-looks-to-what-tribes-have-known-all-along 

Stewart, Omer C. Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness. Edited by Henry T. Lewis and M. Kat Anderson. University of Oklahoma Press, 2009.

Weil, Elizabeth. “They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen?” ProPublica, August 28, 2020. https://www.propublica.org/article/they-know-how-to-prevent-megafires-why-wont-anybody-listen.

Communications During a Fire or Evacuation

This topic has received much attention so, again, we will be brief. First we should remind ourselves to develop a neighborhood contact list and keep a printed copy. Neighbors are a first line of defense for helping care for those who cannot care for or evacuate themselves. Beyond just a list of names and phone numbers, it is also valuable to cultivate and map out a network of mutual aid and support in your neighborhood or elsewhere. For example, if you know someone has a chainsaw and wood chipper or does landscaping, the neighborhood can employ that person and their tools for the benefit of the community. 

For a real-life example of what a well-connected neighborhood response can look like, read this first-hand account from folks who stayed in Bonny Doon despite evacuation orders. They were able to save 25 houses by identifying and utilizing the skills, tools, equipment, and knowledge that they had within their neighborhood. But please note that luck, careful attention to the location and severity of the fire, and favorable conditions also played a significant role. At the end of this article, the narrator himself doesn’t encourage others to do what they did–if any of the factors had been different, their well-intentioned efforts could have been tragic. The important piece to pay attention to is that these neighbors were connected enough to identify what resources were available to them within their own community. Ultimately we recommend changing policy so that our watersheds, forests, grasslands, and built environments are designed to withstand disasters while mitigating catastrophes, and have adequate resources so that citizens don’t feel they have to step in. 

Communication Resources

Local Updates

Twitter Feed for Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office

Twitter Feed for CalFire San Mateo – Santa Cruz Unit

#CZULightningComplex on Twitter

Maps showing active fires

CalTopo

National Fire Situational Awareness

NASA Fire Information for Resource Management System

#FireMappers

CZU-SCU Fire Map (Mid-Peninsula Open Space District)

Air Quality

EPA AirNow Interactive Map

PurpleAir

Evacuation

County of Santa Cruz Fire Resources

Mutual Aid

Santa Cruz Hub for Sustainable Living

Continue Reading

Read Part Two of this series, Turning Fire Into Water: Fire Preparedness through Forest and Watershed Regeneration.

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