The Fire Deficit and the Depth of Global Warming

For 10,000 years, the people of the grasslands have been living in a fire landscape. For 100 years, they have been living in a fire debt. This landscape:

Selah Creek, Yakama Nation

Turtle Ridge, Okanagan Nation

The cheatgrass (red) goes up like gasoline.

The density of the shrubs (a regional variant of Big Sagebrush) in the second image are a result of overgrazing by cattle.

They are also exquisitely inflammable. With fire denied them for at least a couple generations, they are ready for a fire that should have come a generation ago, at the latest.

When the fire comes, expect evacuations in town.

Public money will fight a fire caused by neglect on private land. Expect that. It is one of the subsidies that ensures that land remains private. This is a settler privilege.

See all those trees growing among the houses above? They survive there, because they tap into water forced underground. This is the great wetland between Swan Lake, Kalamalka Lake and Okanagan Lake’s Canim (Canoe) Bay. The carbon that the sagebrush has been storing on the hillside for a couple generations, should have been stored in greater volume in town, down below. The decorative trees there help, but their contribution is minor compared to what the wetland once put aside, long-term.

Try that for 10,000 years

The sobering thing about the sequestration of carbon in Big Sage …

Nlaka’pamux Nation

… is that it’s unsustainable. Wetlands don’t burn easily. Sagebrush, cheatgrass and houses do.

A Month After the Fire

In these years of increasing fire frequency and severity…

… blamed popularly (and often correctly) on “climate change”‘s increasing summer temperatures and rain-free days, it’s wise to keep in mind that a base rate of atmospheric carbon, set, say, 10 years ago (or 20, or 30), is not a base rate. When all this sagebrush is in the air …

(And it will be)

… and those ingrown firs as well, then we will have a base rate. In an ecological sense, a huge amount of the climate change that will happen here has already happened: fire has been removed. When the hill above burns, climate will be partially reset to normal. Sounds strange? I know. It goes against the culture of settler understandings of land use. However, if you don’t think this landscape is ingrown, look at the grassland lily below. It started life in the grass. Look at it now.

A late summer burn, or an early spring one, won’t hurt it at all, but it will get rid of that carbon. This won’t:

A Device for Decreasing Biological Diversity

The thing is, this is not a grazing landscape, despite the presence of grass. It’s a human landscape, one that grew up with humans over 10,000 years. Humans are the grazers here. They graze spring parsleys, spring roots and shoots, summer grains and berries, and spring and summer lilies, plus many medicinals. This grazing is shared by the bees that make that possible (and are made possible by it.)

It’s not just sagebrush and cheatgrass that are messing with carbon in these grasslands. So are the trees. Over the last 100 years since fire has been suppressed to protect settler land values, trees have infilled the British Columbia grasslands by between 100% and 1000%. In a landscape dominated by lodgepole pine, which lives for 90 years or so…

Big Bar Lake Grassland Waiting to be Cleared by Fire

… fire can be expected at least once a century. The math is clear:

Even a Pile of Sand Can Work This Out

In other words, if the trees are burning now, and releasing carbon to the air, ruining Canada’s emission targets…

August 2018. The Similkameen goes up in flame.

… it’s not the trees that are doing it, but the land use that led to them even being there. That they stored it for awhile (as has the Big Sage) has created an artificial sense of climate, which in turn has created complacency and comfort. These are two factors that are usually, and deservedly, called White Privilege. Look at this artifice:

This kind of target assumes that the carbon in the natural world must be pushed to stay there. In other words, the term “zero net emissions” requires the sagebrush above my house to stay, even though it can’t and shouldn’t. It’s a bomb, armed in 1920 and waiting to go off, not some abstract thing that one can solve by an improved moral stance and an end to racism, although those are vital and help, a lot. So often, people benefitting from settler culture’s systemic advantages, however innocently, are asked to do something about that privilege. Because White Privilege (a cultural, not a genetic privilege) has a deep racial component and because the culture it has created honours individual consciousness, these discussions are often about race, as they are here at Okanagan College: This is a profound list of very important stuff, yet it remains only a part of the picture. It doesn’t address the systemic effects of land use and the creation of nature out of human space.

Once, this was a grassland, grazed by humans in community. Now nature is an intruder on private space.

Well, here is something that can easily be done: rebuilding a healthy relationship with fire, and rebuilding the grasslands as human environments. That they are popularly viewed as “wild” is a racial act. Settler activity has been climate change. In other words, land is the root of social action. The showy asters below love the protection of their big sister, Big Sage (another aster), but only for a time.

Where There are No Flowers in the Grasslands, There are No Songbirds.

So often, the increasing dearth of birds is blamed on house cats and climate degradation on migration routes. These are heavy burdens on birds, but the truth remains: without fire, there are no birds. Settler land use, including conceptions of nature, killed them. The deepening fire debt increasingly does so. If you want to know in what season to clear the Big Sage away so the asters can spread again and so there can
be birds, just ask the asters, the lilies, and their other sisters. There is a time for fire, which will remove the sage and leave the rest. You can time fire to chose how much of each to leave. You don’t even have to burn it all at once.

Just as the state does not pay farmers to plow the land they keep, it should not be paying them not to burn the brush, and then blame the whole show on climate change without doing anything about it right here, in the zone of personal responsibility. If this all seems strange, well, that’s what systemic privilege looks like. So, first the fire:

A month later, rich life:

A year later, the world again:

Failure to address this primary issue will create only failure. The issue is here. It is a debt given to us by people who lived here a century ago, often with the best intentions, and sometimes not. It is our debt to pay.

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