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Breaking the Dominant paradigm

Over the crack, crack, crackling of dead and down fuels, a static voice sputters over the radio frequency. All resources on the Ignome Oak Grove Unit, please standby for your 1100 weather. Meanwhile, firing squads send flame patterns in 3-2-1 strips. Holding is calling for another 2 chains of hose lay. The Burn Boss stays perched above–scouting the entire unit like a hawk with a shovel propped under his chin. To the grandmother oaks above, there was chaos below.

We live in the world of fire suppression, the dominant paradigm. The objective: burn fast, burn hot, create the black, secure the unit—call it good. For decades, while our wild land firefighters secured and patrolled our national forests, we everyday citizens listened to Smokey Bear’s call to action: “only you can prevent forest fires.” Only now are we beginning to realize Smokey Bear was wrong.

The First Order Fire Effects Model out of UC Berkeley suggests Indigenous peoples once burned upwards of 4.5 million acres in pre-colonial California (Stephens et al. 2007); though, this number could be as great as 12 million acres. For reference, the Day of Red Skies in 2020 saw 2 million acres burned. From the perspective of Californians today with our modern day fire anxieties, it surely is difficult to visualize life in pre-colonial California in any manner other than a fiery landscape. But, journals from John Muir offer a greener insight into this visage:

“Fresh beauty opens one’s eyes wherever it is really seen, but the very abundance and completeness of the common beauty that besets our steps prevents its being absorbed and appreciated.”

It is important to note that this vastness is to the credit of Indigenous land stewardship and good fire; furthermore, that John Muir is a controversial figure when assessing land management regimes. Muir served as the very spearhead that diminished the beauty-abundance of his terra nullius, thus bringing us to modern day fire suppression. In hindsight, limiting the practice of small-controlled burns in a fire adapted landscape increases the proclivity for difficult-to-contain wildfire. California now has more trees than it ever has in geological history due to the encroachment of conifers like the Douglas Fir. This encroachment is just one example of how fire suppression in a fire adapted landscape such as California, is an imposing threat to the diverse heterogeneity of native plant landscapes. The recognition of such by dominant agencies like CalFIRE and the USFS is fuel towards a decolonized land stewardship framework. Carrying this weight, the Tribal EcoRestoration Alliance [TERA] sets a new precedent for decolonization, first by paving the way for demilitarized fire operations (to learn more about TERA click here).

In 1956, the NATO phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Beta, Charlie…) was developed by allied nations of aviation fronts. The purpose—globalize a hierarchical organization chart for militaristic operations (see figure 1). Alpha, Beta, Charlie remains the standard in the fire suppression world with its Latin phonics familiar to English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese allies, naturally. But, why is this problematic? When creating a universal-auxiliary dialect, that standard language base is set by the dominant representation of the order; thus, erasing the representation of minority world dialects. And unfortunately, this statement is written with a high degree of certainty, due to the racially-systemic unjust protocols in place today. This discussion isn’t meant to be a criticism of

Figure 1: A fire organization chart derived from chain-of-command those who come from the world of fire

military operations. Image by Evan-Marie Petit suppression. Truly, the shift in fire regimes

is in partial credit to the introspection of major forestry agencies like CalFIRE and the USFS. And as partner agencies with TERA, these agencies have been doing their best in adopting an ecocultural alphabet during prescribed burn operations.

Introducing: Acorn, Beargrass, Chi, Deer, Eagle, Flicker, Gooseberry, Hazel, Indian Potato, Jackrabbits… TERA continues to build out their own operational-phonetic alphabet and uses this system at all Lake County Cal-TREX prescribed burns. As Executive Director of TERA, Lindsay Dailey puts it, “We’re trying to move away from problematic militarized language. This alphabet consists of significant plant and animal species to Pomo land stewards, and reminds us when we’re setting good fire to the ground of our ecocultural burn objectives.” While the NATO phonetic alphabet will remain the standard, the message behind the ecocultural alphabet gives the dominant paradigm much to consider when thinking about decolonization. In learning from our past mistakes in fire suppression, we need to think of the interconnectedness that extends from every person to the tallest oak tree. We are part of the same system that turns the wheel. And one day, we will see the new generation of young oak seedlings, the return of the hitch, and a thicket of tule over the clear lake.

…as the hazy veil lifted, the grandmother oaks saw clearly that the operation below was clearing hotspots around her grandchildren. People are once again burning for her seedlings, not just for themselves. Tender little saplings peered over freshly exposed soil. The last tricklings of radio frequency lowered, and Nuttal’s woodpecker continued its familiar rat-a-tat-tatting.

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