Jacob Margolis 00:00
[wind and river ambi] There's a reason Yosemite National Park is known as one of America's crown jewels. [music in] Dramatic 7000-foot granite cliffs, towering Sequoias, waterfalls where you can park your car and dip your toes into the icy mountain water. More people trek out to Yosemite than visit the Statue of Liberty. [music out] But unlike the tourists, there are people who actually know this place, who really understand it, who've watched visitors with zinc on their noses and fanny packs around their waists come and go.
Tara Fouch-Moore 00:34
For my sophomore year of high school, I worked at the ice cream and coffee corner in Curry Village. And then I moved on to the much more fun job of renting rafts and bicycles in Curry Village, so- [laughs]. And I did that for probably like four years.
Jacob Margolis 00:50
Besides getting their rafts stuck in trees and needing to be rescued all the time, tourists would ask Tara Fouch-Moore questions like, "What time do they turn the waterfalls off?" and "When do they let the bears out?" She told me she chooses to laugh about it, but it's also kind of a tragedy. Tara's connection to Yosemite goes far beyond the concession stand and dealing with tourists on inner tubes. She's Southern Sierra Miwuk- one of the original tribes of Yosemite Valley. Many of them were forced out about 170 years ago. When we met up with Tara, it wasn't at a concession stand. It was at a traditional Yosemite indigenous village that's being built at the foot of huge granite cliffs, behind a covering of trees. Wahhoga Village.
Tara Fouch-Moore 01:31
We are in the process of building the umachas, which are these conical structures that you see that were the homes basically of our ancestors.
Jacob Margolis 01:42
They're using cedar logs to build a ceremonial roundhouse. And nearby, there's a sweat lodge. It's a place that the tribe says it has worked some 40 years to get permission to build, and they're finally able to do it after getting approval from the park.
Tara Fouch-Moore 01:56
There's much work to be completed but um, eventually this will be a site- [whispers] Sorry. [to tourist] Excuse me, please don't take pictures of our roundhouse. [tourist: Oh, ok. I'm sorry.] [to tourist] It's okay. It's just, it's for ceremonial use only. [tourist: It's fine.] Thank you.
Jacob Margolis 02:14
Tourists walking by pop into Wahhoga because it sits just off the main road. And despite signs all over clearly saying: NO PHOTOS, Tara says they pretty much do whatever they want.
Tara Fouch-Moore 02:25
In our tradition, we don't take pictures of our ceremonies. We don't take pictures of our roundhouse, and folks are constantly taking photos. This is the nature of having Yosemite be your homelands- is it's, it's full of people who come here to just really take in the awe- inspiring grandiosity of it all, but it also is a bunch of people who just don't get it.
Jacob Margolis 02:54
Tara thinks a lot about what Yosemite used to be like before tourists showed up, before the Europeans came, when tribes had autonomy over the land and could care for it. They were so involved, pruning dead wood off the Black Oak so that they'd make the best acorns, pulling up saplings to stop forests from becoming overgrown, and using fire all the time to shape the landscape. So Yosemite looked completely different than it does today.
Tara Fouch-Moore 03:22
And you can even see in some of the, the older pictures from, you know, the early 1900s. There's photos of the valley, and the meadows are much wider, much more widespread throughout the valley. And you look at the same viewpoint photo taken today. There are views that, that you can't see anymore, that are just now completely blocked off, either by the shrubbery or the saplings that have now grown into tall trees. There are also standing dead trees everywhere you look, and it's, that's in some ways, a very natural part of life, but it's, it's the quantity of dead trees that you can just see as you're driving down the road. Like honestly, if that was your home, you'd be like, somebody go clean it up. And this is our home, and that's how we feel. [laughs] And so, um... It's a mess.
Jacob Margolis 04:20
[music in] That mess that Tara is talking about is something we see in lots of California's forests. Dead, closely packed trees and shrubs, dry pine needles on the forest floor. If you remember from the last episode, this is called "fuel buildup." And along with climate change, fuel buildup is a big deal, helping drive these huge violent fires we're seeing. Tribes all over what is now California had long used good fire to burn up this fuel and keep it from building up. This helped protect their villages and the forests that they relied on. The problem of fire had been solved. [pause] So, what changed? [pause] This episode: how one bad decision after another got us into this mess- and how fire became the enemy.
Jacob Margolis 05:22
This is The Big Burn. I'm Jacob Margolis. [music out]
Cutcha Risling Baldy 05:34
I always tell people- I get handwritten letters, uh emails, calls to my dean and boss all the time, to try to get me fired.
Jacob Margolis 05:42
Cutcha Risling Baldy is the department chair of Native American Studies at Cal Poly Humboldt and is enrolled in the Hoopa Valley Tribe. She gives talks about what Native American life was like in what's now California and the violent history of colonialism. And talking about our country's violent history? It makes some people really mad.
Cutcha Risling Baldy 06:01
My first one I got was eight pages front and back, handwritten. They had this whole thing about- if we wouldn't have come over and colonized you, you wouldn't even have pants. I remember that one. And it was like, he actually wrote, "You're welcome for pants." Uh, and I just was like, I, I was rolling on the floor reading it to some of my friends like, "You're welcome for pants." And that actually became like a refrain we would say to people [laughing] sometimes like, in our own little jokey, I'd be like, "Well, you're welcome for pants." You know?
Jacob Margolis 06:29
Cutcha has spent a lot of time teaching people about the politics and culture of Native American tribes in California- how tribes throughout the state were each unique and deeply complex, and that they had an unparalleled understanding of the world around them, in part because they had a knowledge base built over millennia, and passed down that knowledge through demonstration and story, studying and talking about what best worked for- salmon, for instance, which is an important food in the area where Cutcha's family was in Northern California.
Cutcha Risling Baldy 06:59
We were the first fishery scientists in this region. We were monitoring um, how their spawning grounds were going. We were counting how many were going down uh, the river out to the ocean, and then coming back to spawn. We were creating environments that they would need to be able to rest on their journey back.
Jacob Margolis 07:19
She says the practices were based on what was beneficial to entire ecosystems, to make sure that they stayed healthy. And putting fire to the land was a big part of that.
Cutcha Risling Baldy 07:28
It can sometimes feel counterintuitive to people to say that fire is good for the land and good for the environment. We have been taught- through sort of like a Western system of thinking that fire is, is not good. We used fire to help the landscape to thrive. When you burn the landscape, it does a couple of really key things. Uh, it clears the understory, so that you can make sure that there's not a lot of stuff piled on top of the ground that prevents things from growing or creates an environment where too many, like bugs can thrive that might eat too many of the plants that then might prevent, you know, a deer or quail or something from getting the things that they need.
Jacob Margolis 07:34
And they'd use it to open up meadows so that they had places they could hunt those animals. They'd burn to make sure that medicinal plants and basket making materials grew well. Like we talked about, they'd also burn to prevent larger fires, because they knew big destructive fires could happen if fuel was allowed to build up.
Cutcha Risling Baldy 08:39
And so we're doing it very deliberately. We're plotting, like, what it looks like. We're looking at the long-term interrelationship effects. We're seeing like the effects of like the last year's burning on this year, and then planning for the next point. I think all the things that we would do right now, or even that any fire scientist would do, to determine, is it beneficial to burn in this area or this area- Native people have always been doing. That's the kind of thought process that went into the work that we were doing to care for the landscape.
Jacob Margolis 09:08
[music in] I want to take a second to point out that fire has always been an important part of healthy ecosystems here in California. Not only would you have Native Americans maintaining land through burning, but lightning strikes will also ignite fires all over the place. And that doesn't mean destruction and death. For a lot of species, it means life, like with the Giant Sequoias we talked about last episode. There are tons of fire adapted species all over the state that need fire to be healthy.
Cutcha Risling Baldy 09:38
Some of the most early Spanish explorers who came into the region, if you read their diaries, they talk about how much of California was on fire. They were not used to it when they would come into the region. They were like, they're constantly burning and there's always fires happening on the landscape. And I think that that was important to say that this was a consistent, all-the-time practice, [music out] and we were thinking about it very long term.
Jacob Margolis 10:04
And they continued to burn through different invasions. First, the Spanish and their missions, and then through Mexican rule. But then, the U.S. took over and found gold. [music in]
Gold Rush Doc Tape 10:16
The rush to California started in 1849. [sound of crowds in background]
Jacob Margolis 10:20
In 1849, at the start of the Gold Rush, California's population of non-native people increased by almost 300% in a single year.
Gold Rush Doc Tape 10:30
A westward tide that almost overnight, pushed the frontier all the way to the Pacific coast.
Jacob Margolis 10:36
And the world that Native Americans once knew, was once again, torn apart.
Cutcha Risling Baldy 10:43
We refer to that period of time as invasion.
Jacob Margolis 10:46
Just a heads up- as you probably know, this history is violent, and we're going to talk about it. So this next part of the story could be hard to listen to.
Cutcha Risling Baldy 10:55
You get a massive influx of primarily white male settlers who are coming into the region, and once they find gold, they'll do whatever it takes to get the gold, and it's very violent from the very beginning. It's actually pretty difficult to get giant gold nuggets, so they're finding ways to get at as much gold as they can. They are taking giant water cannons, and they are spraying them at the mountains and cutting them into pieces, trying to get at the gold. They're clear-cutting forests, they're destroying habitats for wildlife. And then they're removing Native people from the different areas by, in some cases, they're taking water cannons and spraying their villages off the sides of mountains.
Jacob Margolis 11:41
Native Americans are enslaved to mine for gold. Women and children are raped with impunity, seen as subhuman by the California government. [music fades out] In 1851, then Governor Peter Burnett says: "A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinct." The state and federal government gave militias weapons and paid them to kill Native Americans.
Cutcha Risling Baldy 12:07
And there are so many stories that you can tell about what that violence was like.
Jacob Margolis 12:13
Including for Cutcha's family. Her great grandfather told her a story about a time before he was born, when settlers decided they wanted to remove people from their village in the mountains near Humboldt. Her great great grandmother lived through this.
Cutcha Risling Baldy 12:28
There was warning that the settlers were coming in the middle of the night to set the village on fire and drive the people out. And the story goes that his mother was there, and she's woken up in the middle of the night, and she wakes up the children in the village and she tells them that the people are coming, and that they have to hide because there's no way that they can get away fast enough in order to escape. And so they take a sandpit, and they unbury it, and they put the children inside of it, and they bury them in the sand with reeds in their mouth so that they can breathe through the reeds. And uh, they tell them, don't come out until the screaming stops. [pause] They would set the village on fire to drive people out. They would shoot people as they were running, or they would hit them with hatchets or knives. Sometimes there are stories about them taking babies and uh, swinging them around so that they would hit them up against rocks, or taking a rock to hit them over the head. And it's difficult for me as a Native person sometimes, to think about what is that like, when you're a child, listening to that- the muffled sounds of people running on top of you and the sound of people pleading for their lives as you're buried in the sand, waiting until that stops and then not knowing what you're going to come out to. [music in] And then you're waiting to see- Is there anyone who survived?
Jacob Margolis 12:38
The children that survived were often sent to boarding schools where they were brutalized, and at times killed, especially if they showed any connection to their culture.
Cutcha Risling Baldy 14:15
I think that the thing that my great grandfather was really clear about is like that type of violence was happening all around them, and yet they're still doing whatever they can to hold on to their culture and their knowledge and their spirituality and their s- and they rely on their songs and their languages and their stories to get them through this period of time. And that they didn't stop- still singing and dancing and doing things, because they were like, this is what's going to help us get through what a lot of California Indian scholars called "the end of the world." When you're running for your life, when you are constantly worried that somebody is going to show up and, and shoot you, that prevents you from being able to do things like cultural burning. [music out]
Jacob Margolis 15:04
For the tribes in Yosemite Valley, "the end of the world" came in 1851 when the Mariposa Battalion arrived- one of those state backed militias. When the battalion arrived, they burned the homes and food stores of the Ahwahneechee people, sent many of them to federal Indian reservations in places like Fresno. In the coming years, the California government set aside Yosemite for preservation and recreation. [forest ambi] The Yosemite lore- that it's this wild place untouched by man- was created around this time. [music in] Most famously, by nature writer John Muir. In 1871, he wrote about his Yosemite experience in the New York Tribune, describing a moment he laid down in a meadow, surrounded by conifers, stars in the sky. He writes: "Never was mountain mansion more beautiful, more spiritual. Never was moral wanderer more blessedly home." This story of a wild untouched California- it erased everything Native Americans had been doing to take care of the landscape, including setting fires and letting them burn. It was a story that changed everything. That's after the break. [music out] [break]
Jacob Margolis 16:34
Before the gold rush, there were more than 150,000 Native Americans in California. Some estimates say that a decade later, there were as few as 17,000- about 10% of the population that had been there before. With Native Americans largely gone from their own land, they weren't able to take care of it. You can see in tree ring records that fire started to disappear from our forests around this time in the mid-1800s. In 1850, in a law targeting Native Americans, California's government made it illegal to burn, and then white settlers took over the land. This is where nature writer John Muir comes in. [music in] He basically leads the conservation movement in the mid to late 1800s and says that special areas should be turned into national parks, protected for man. He looks at Yosemite and doesn't see a place that'd long been shaped and maintained by Native Americans with deep knowledge of the land. What he sees is an Eden- God's creation that needs to be protected from human hands, writing that, "Through all the wonderful and eventful centuries since Christ's time, and long before that, God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools. Only Uncle Sam can do that." [music out] He wants the government to protect this place from the timber industry and from shepherds. And in his writings, he also advocates for removing fire from the land, calling it the "arch destroyer" and the "great master scourge of our forests." Muir wasn't alone in seeing fire as the enemy.
Stephen Pyne 18:22
The use of fire was seen as a, as a measure of primitivism. It was a stigma of, uh, a kind of pre-rational uh, society. Fire in a candle, fire in a hearth, okay. Uh, but fire on a landscape, no. Um, you don't have control over it the same way.
Jacob Margolis 18:43
Stephen Pyne is a fire historian who's written over 20 books. He's the kind of guy who considers obscure records light reading, and he's done a lot of thinking about how we started to see fire as a menace to be tamed. He says the government wanted to control landscapes across the West and fire was seen as uncontrollable. By the late 1800s, after years without good fire, the forests of Yosemite grew denser, and fuel started building up. Pyne says people noticed that the landscapes were changing.
Stephen Pyne 19:13
The visitors to the valley can't see uh, the falls and, and cliffs, for all the forest that's grown up. It's, it's no longer open. And at the time, this was celebrated. See, we've succeeded. We've stopped the ruination of these forests. And now we are creating a new forest that our children and grandchildren uh, can have. Well, the children and grandchildren have looked at that forest and realized they're helping to power a new wave of mega fires.
Jacob Margolis 19:41
This new wave of mega fires is not just the result of stopping man made fire. It's also because for the past 100 plus years, we've been working to put out just about all fires, including those started by lightning. That level of fire suppression had never been seen here before. And we've been able to do that because we've spent the last century building up an anti-fire war machine. [music in] It started in 1905, with the creation of the U.S. Forest Service. This new federal agency didn't have an understanding of what Western forests needed, and they didn't really care to learn from Native Americans, who'd taken care of the land for generations. One of their top priorities was preventing fires from starting and then putting them out quickly. Their first set of rules literally said that fighting fire is a forest ranger's most important duty. Fire was a threat to new towns being built up in the western United States. And it was a threat to a precious resource: timber. But when the Forest Service was created, they didn't have the resources to fight fires all across the West- not enough people or equipment. [pause] Then came the big blow up, or the Big Burn of 1910. [music transitions]
Jacob Margolis 19:47
So imagine this: It's a time of great expansion. Settlers are building towns, harvesting timber. The nation's newly [steam train] built railroad system is ferrying logs and people all over, which is relevant because the wheels on the tracks and their smokestacks throw sparks, which often ignite dry trees and debris nearby. As Stephen Pyne told us, fire follows the railroad. [lightning] [music transitions]
Jacob Margolis 21:40
August 1910 is super dry. [wind ambi] Hurricane force winds blow through the Northwest U.S. [fire ambi] Thousands of smaller fires started by railroads, careless settlers, and lightning explode into a giant blaze, launching burning root balls and shrubs like roman candles, driving walls of 100-foot-tall flames straight towards people scrambling to escape on trains before the trestles beneath them burn. The U.S. Forest Service rangers are completely overwhelmed. Guys are crushed by falling trees, some burned alive still at their camps. Others die face down in the muck of a mineshaft, trying to survive as they're overtaken by smoke and flames. [music out]
Jacob Margolis 22:25
The fire burns 3 million acres in just a few days. It kills 86 people and destroys enough timber to build 800,000 homes. The U.S. Forest Service, whose mission is to protect against fire, had failed. Stephen Pyne says the Forest Service firefighters who lived through the Big Burn were changed by it.
Stephen Pyne 22:47
The next three chief foresters were all personally on the fire line as young men during that firefight. And for them, it was a kind of Valley Forge or Long March experience. It, it branded that entire generation. They were determined it would never happen again.
Jacob Margolis 23:04
The following year with the Big Burn in the rearview mirror, Congress empowered the federal firefighting apparatus. The U.S. National Forest Service was allowed to go way over its budget, getting the money they said they needed to solve the problem of fires. And the irony? In the long run, this obsession with fire suppression made everything much, much worse. That's after the break. [break]
Jacob Margolis 23:35
So it's the 1920s, and the U.S. Forest Service is saying, we can beat fire with enough force. They're pouring money into professionalizing firefighting, developing fire prediction services, building lookouts, doing research into fire retardants. They get some New Deal money in the 1930s, and they use it to really ramp up their efforts. Essentially going to war against fire, taking on huge infrastructure projects like digging an 800-mile-long fuel brake from Southern to Northern California, to separate towns from the nature that's burning. Stephen Pyne says it doesn't work. And then in the mid-1930s, the U.S. Forest Service makes one of its most consequential decisions ever- [music in] saying you know what? All the fires in the U.S. have to be put out by 10 in the morning the next day.
Stephen Pyne 24:29
And the Chief Forester actually had to issue it twice, once as a clarifying memo because people couldn't believe it.
Jacob Margolis 24:35
Imagine the size of the firefighting force that you'd need to do that. To get to fires fast enough, they start dropping in firefighters by plane. World War II hits, and fire becomes part of the wartime effort. Cal Fire, which was just a struggling little agency at the time, gets war money, promising to protect forests from Japanese bombing, tripling their budget.
Stephen Pyne 24:58
Cal Fire uh, budget was uh, put on a kind of wartime emergency funding. And in some ways, the agency went to war and never stood down.
Jacob Margolis 25:08
And every citizen needs to do their part in a war. And folks, that's when we get a familiar little figure by the name of Smokey Bear. [music out]
Smokey Bear 25:18
[wind and fire] Don't let forest fires be your fault. Make sure your fire is dead out. Remember, only you can prevent forest fires.
Jacob Margolis 25:30
As international wars end, military surplus equipment like planes, helicopters and bulldozers become available to stop fires. By this point, we've gotten used to seeing fire as the enemy.
Stephen Pyne 25:43
That was true for fire, generally. It seemed that fire was the other red menace, that we were in a cold war on fire, and a military style approach is suitable. We're on a wartime footing against fire, uh seems to be fairly uh, pervasive. It's very hard to walk back, once you've established that and the expectations the public has for it.
Jacob Margolis 26:09
I'll be honest. Learning this stuff- it's made me realize how much of how we feel about fire is wrapped up in this idea that this is war. Just think of the language public officials and the media use to talk about fire- the initial attack, the battle, that every fire put out is a major victory.
Stephen Pyne 26:30
I mean, you want, great narratives are based on character and conflict, right. And you've got that in a firefight. People are struggling for their lives, they're fighting fires, they're trying to protect things. Fire is a battlefield.
Jacob Margolis 26:44
I'm guilty of this framing too! Good versus evil. It's an easy story. But as the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire were spending all this money putting out fires, they were making the very same problem they were trying to solve even worse. That's because fewer fires meant more fuel build up, overgrown forests, branches, leaves and debris on the forest floor, which as you now know, is incredibly dangerous, and helping fuel some of our most destructive wildfires. In the 1960s, a group of academics published a report saying essentially, we've made a huge mistake. Our forests are overcrowded, and the solution is prescribed fire. National Parks like Yosemite start doing it. The U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire eventually catch on too, but never at the scale needed to undo the damage done in the last century. And now? Climate change is amplifying the crisis and forcing us to take prescribed burning much more seriously. Even so, every U.S. agency in charge of fire and forests and land still prioritizes fire suppression over everything else. Pyne says that mindset is an especially big problem in California.
Stephen Pyne 28:07
That sense of moral equivalent of war, I think has persisted despite efforts to change it. Um, California has always been exceptional. Uh, other parts of the country have been able to change fire policy more easily. California lends itself to extremes, uh, a sense of having wound a system of suppression so tightly for so long. How do you unwind that?
Jacob Margolis 28:35
Look, I know this is tough because fire suppression is not all bad. Of course- it saves lives and property. It's just tough to introduce nuance into this conversation. [music in] It's really hard to unflatten your view of fire, especially looking back at the last 10 years, all the tragedies caused by fire. But whether we knew it or not, we've been losing the war against fire for a long, long time now, precisely because we started fighting that war on fire in the first place. Fire belongs on this landscape. And we're not going to be able to separate ourselves from nature by force. Let me make something clear. The largely fire-less world that we've known- is gone. The thing is, we get to choose between the status quo- mega fires during certain dry parts of the year that are only growing, that wipe entire forests and sometimes towns off the map. Or, we can put good fire back on the land at a much bigger scale than we're doing right now. It would make forests healthier and more resilient to climate change, probably make some wildfires more manageable too. But it means being okay with certain tradeoffs, like more smoke throughout the year. [pause] The good news? There are people who have deep knowledge about how to do this. [music out]
Cutcha Risling Baldy 30:14
I was raised in part by my great uncle who was an educator, and he would work a lot with Western scientists. He would bring them in to uh, our territories. He would tell them about things. Uh, he would try to educate them. And at one point, I asked him, I said, “Why are you working with them, you know, the things that they've done historically uh, through these same types of disciplines and, and research has not benefited us and, and oftentimes, they, they don't want to, like hear, and they make it very frustrating to work with them. Like, why do you do it? You still do it.” And he said, you know, Cutcha, Western science is very young. They're, they're very much like toddlers in this place. Uh, in terms of learning about it and understanding it, they're still experimenting and find out things that we already know. And indigenous science are the elders here. We've been here for so long. We have a very ancient knowledge about this place that we continue to build upon and, and grow and understand. And so, I come to it from a place of being an elder, helping to teach this young Western science how to grow up here, uh and, and helping to show them that they may be discovering something new, but they can learn with us. We keep pushing to do the things that we know are right. We want to create a world where everyone can breathe, and everyone can drink the water, and everyone is cared for. And, and that is not an impossible world to build. [music in] We can help people to think beyond the structure of capitalism, colonialism, and empire, and instead toward a space where we have a world where things are thriving.
Jacob Margolis 32:09
To actually put more fire on the ground can feel scary. You've got to do the thing you've been taught is wrong.
Audio Clip 32:18
And if you do that timidly, you're gonna get burned. Do it with like, intent.
Jacob Margolis 32:20
You've got to set things on fire.
Audio Clip 32:25
Keep flaming that shit up there, dude. I want all that black.
Jacob Margolis 32:27
That's next time on The Big Burn.
Jacob Margolis 32:39
The Big Burn is created, written, reported, and hosted by me, Jacob Margolis. Shana Naomi Krochmal is our Vice President of Podcasts. Antonia Cereijido and Leo G are the executive producers for LAist Studios. Our producer is Minju Park. Additional production by Natalie Chudnovsky. Our intern is Bruno Lopez-Vega. Anjuli Sastry Krbecheck is our senior producer. Editing by Sophia Paliza-Carre and Meg Cramer. Fact checking by Caitlin Antonios. Professor Theresa Gregor is our Native cultural content reader. Sound design and mixing by E. Scott Kelly. Original music by Andy Clausen. Our website LAist.com is designed by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at LAist Studios. The marketing team of LAist Studios created our branding. Artwork for the show by Dan Carino. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, Andy Orozco, Michael Cosentino, and Leo G. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live, the Strelow Family and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. The Big Burn is a production of LAist Studios. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. [music out]