Fire Breaks: Fire Suppression, the “Light-Burning” Controversy, and the Return of Indigenous Flames
A Virtual Talk by Char Miller
Historian Char Miller's talk “Fire Breaks” probes the varied forces advocating the suppression of wildfire in the United States, with a focus on California’s 250-year-long experience with this controversial effort to snuff out blazes, both wild and managed. Using primary sources dating back to the Spanish settler-colonial initiatives to tamp down the Indigenous Nations’ longstanding use of fire to manage their lands, Miller’s talk will also draw on subsequent and controversial efforts by California and the U.S. Forest Service to eradicate fire from the state’s public lands. This so-called “light burning” controversy erupted in the first decades of the twentieth century and has had profound implications for Indigenous communities for whom fire was, and remains, an essential tool. It has also had a clear impact on the diverse ecosystems that fire had helped nurture and for the land-management agencies at the state and federal level. The talk concludes with a discussion of the slow return of indigenous flames to forests, woodlands, and grasslands.
Once feared, fire has been embraced, even if only partially, as a vital force in contemporary forest management. Of late, a reckoning has compelled agencies and communities to acknowledge historic and contemporary harms pressed upon Indigenous peoples and to develop social policies that amplify Indigenous knowledge in a way that hitherto settler-colonial society has failed to do.
Char Miller is the W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College. He is author most recently of Hetch Hetchy: A History in Documents and America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses, and Grasslands, as well as coeditor of Theodore Roosevelt: Naturalist in the Arena. Forthcoming in August 2021 is West Side Rising: How San Antonio's 1921 Flood Devastated a City and Sparked a Latino Environmental Justice Movement, a portion of which is previewed in “Reclamation Project: Rediscovering W. W. Ashe and the Origins of Watershed Stewardship,” Forest History Today, Spring/Fall 2020.
Funding for this lecture is provided by the Forest History Society’s Lynn W. Day Endowment.