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Be Like The Aborigines

This letter was in today's Los Angeles Times:

When it comes to fires, we could take a cue from Australia's aborigines. They don't wait decades for brush and debris to build up and start a conflagration. They do an annual burn. This prevents the buildup of combustibles and stimulates the growth of the greens.

I'm glad to see indigenous knowledge get some credit. However, there are a couple of cautions to be made about the way this letter frames the issue.

First, annual burning is not always a good option. Some ecosystems, particularly grasslands, can handle very frequent burning. Others need fire at longer intervals, sometimes decades or centuries long. Burning too often can severely disrupt the ecology of an area. Indeed, some ecosystems prefer an occasional "catastrophic" fire, rather than the smaller and cooler fires that come from frequent prescribed burning.

Second, the Aborigines had one thing that we lack: mobility. While the Aborigines had close connections to their territory and the significant locations (sacred and utilitarian) within it, they were nomadic. Their houses never ammouted to anything more permanent than a bark "humpy" (similar to a wigwam). Thus, they could easily get out of the way when they needed to burn an area. Contemporary suburbanites, on the other hand, have a huge investment in a fixed, built landscape. San Jose couldn't just pack up and move away from the fire. Management strategies must take this issue into account.


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