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The Natural World of the California Indians

Why they burned the land so often

Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians, compiled and edited by Thomas C. Blackburn and Kat Anderson (Ballena Press)

In 1602, when Sebastian Vizcaino gave San Diego its name, he saw so many “columns of smoke on the mainland that at night it looked like a procession, and in the daytime the sky was overcast."

In 1602, when Sebastian Vizcaino gave San Diego its name, he saw so many “columns of smoke on the mainland that at night it looked like a procession, and in the daytime the sky was overcast."

San Diego Historical Society

When Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo made his historic voyage up the Alta California coast in 1542, he kept noticing “large clouds of smoke.” He saw them six leagues south of what is now San Diego, and he named Santa Monica Bay “Bahia de los Fumos”—“Bay of Smokes”—because “of the many clouds of smoke they saw. ”

Cabrillo sailed into San Diego Bay, which he named San Miguel, on Thursday, September 28; he reached Santa Monica Bay on October 8. Today, September and October are Santa Ana season in Southern California, and the storm-like clouds could have been the results of desert winds scorching dry brush.

When he reached the Santa Lucia Range, home of present-day Hearst Castle, however, Cabrillo noted that snow covered the mountains, which suggests that weather patterns might have been much different in his time — some climatologists suggest it was the end of a “mini ice-age” — and the smoke had other causes.

In 1602, when Sebastian Vizcaino gave San Diego its name, he saw so many “columns of smoke on the mainland that at night it looked like a procession, and in the daytime the sky was overcast” And during the Portola expedition of 1769-70, Father Crespi saw numerous areas where the grass had been burned away, especially in an area just south of San Onofre.

The fires could have come from native hearths or campfires out of control, or lightning, or brushfire season. Some have suggested the clouds were smoke signals, warning that bearded men — “Guacamal” — like the violent army spotted along the Colorado River, had entered the region. Each explanation accounts for some but not the sheer number of blazes.

California’s early explorers and settlers expected to see something resembling civilization as they knew it. They assumed the natives would have governments, even nations, and that they would cultivate crops in carefully tended rows. When it appeared that the native Californians only hunted and gathered, this gave explorers yet another reason to deem them inferior. What the European newcomers didn’t realize was that the natives managed entire landscapes.

In his journals of 1786, the French explorer Jean Francois de la Perouse noted that, in Northern California, the forest trees “stand apart from each other without underwood, and a verdant carpet, over which it is pleasant to walk, covers the ground.” A photograph of Yosemite, taken in the 1850s, also demonstrates this “parkland” effect: trees and clusters of trees amid wide clearings and no underbrush.

This condition, which explorers and settlers called “wilderness,” was not natural. Native Californians, up and down what is now the state, had been burning the land for centuries, sometimes in the spring, most often in the fall, after the seed harvest. The burnings — which some surmise began as a means of imitating lightning—were deliberate and carefully controlled.

Robert F. Heizer: “In many brushy or chaparral areas the Indians regularly set fires to make more open countryside, which was easier to travel, hunt, and collect in. The new growth of grass and shoots from shrubs provided food for grazing and browsing animals, and thus led to better hunting.... As land managers, the Indians were in some ways far ahead of us today.”

Heizer recounts a study made by foresters. “In dense, unburned chaparral areas the deer count was 30 per square mile. After the first burning, the count rose to 98 per square mile. This figure went up to 131 in the second year, presumably the result of increased feed.” When the study ceased burning, the count dropped to 84.

Natives used fire to “spot burn” small areas— five to ten acres — not only to prevent natural holocausts but to ensure growth of vegetation and reduce soil erosion. “The forests,” notes H.H. Biswell, “were in a stable equilibrium, immune to extensive crown fires”

Natives also used fire for hunting. “It is almost impossible to hunt small game in heavy brush,” notes H.H. Biswell. Controlled burning created more open spaces. Also, the natives would ignite shrubs and chaparral to drive jackrabbits, doves, and quail into the open.

For larger game, especially during the “big drive” of late fall, they’d set fires in the hills around a meadow frequented by deer. S.A. Barrett: “Hunters were concealed behind the trees and brush. As the deer descended to the meadow, they approached the fire from curiosity. Then the concealed hunters shot them with bow and arrows. As there was no noise, the deer took no alarm.”

In his landmark study, “Patterns of Indian Burning in California,” Henry T. Lewis notes, “At least 35 tribes used fire to increase the yield of desired seeds; 33 used fire to drive game; 22 groups used it to stimulate the growth of wild tobacco; while other reasons included making vegetable food available, facilitating the collection of seeds, improving visibility, protection from snakes.” The latter suggests a novel way around an old problem. In many native Californian cultures, killing poisonous snakes was taboo. It could bring great evil on the slayer. Carefully set fires around nests of rattlers, however, would keep the igniters guilt free.

In his legendary Relación, the great explorer Cabeza de Vaca watched natives bum the grasslands of the Texas Gulf Coast in the early 1530s and became convinced they did it, among other reasons, to combat ubiquitous mosquitoes.

Controlled fires also created enclosed “yarding areas” and tribal boundaries. How the natives did the burning varied from tribe to tribe, though a description by “J.R.” gives a general picture. “The men started the fire, and the women watched to see that it did not approach the houses. When it did, it was beaten out. It burned the hills, all over, clean through to the next one. The trees that were green did not ignite easily; however, dead trees and logs were all cleaned up that way.”

Rituals often accompanied the act. A shaman watched (and listened to) the area the entire night before. The men who set the fires had to fast all day and “could not eat or drink” until the next morning.”

On May 31, 1793, while visiting Santa Barbara and seeing columns of smoke rise from the hillsides, lose Joaquin de Arrillaga, governor of Alta California, issued a proclamation. He banned “all kinds of burning, not only in the vicinity of the towns, but even at the most remote distances, which might cause detriment, whether it be by Christian Indians or by Gentiles.” Enforcing the law became one of the military’s primary duties.

The law caused a botanical invasion of California. H. Aschman: “Suppression of burning by the Spanish and their successors contributed to a decline in productivity of the native grassland and to encroachment of coastal sage scrub, and perhaps of chaparral, into grassland and savannah habitats.” Cessation of burning also led to an invasion of “European grasses, broadleaved weeds, and large herbivores.”

When Dr. Florence Shipek took Delfina Cuero, a local Kumeyaay exiled for decades in Mexico, to Torrey Pines in the 1960s, Cuero was struck by the foliage. “She commented that there were more weeds, underbrush shrubs, carpets of dried pine needles, and broken branches than she had ever seen when she was young and, with her family, had gathered food and pine nuts there. She said the Indians did not allow that much fuel to accumulate under oak or pine trees.... She was afraid there was so much fuel that any chance fire would destroy the trees.”

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