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The Big Burn podcast explores the history and state of wildfire management today


These days, it is easy to feel like the world is burning all around us, like, literally here in California, where in the past decade, eight of the state's 10 biggest wildfires on record have burned. But there's actually a lot that we can do about that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We often talk about the wildfire and its climate change like it's an act of God. No. Own up to and take responsibility for what you've created and contributed to.

CHANG: The new podcast The Big Burn explores the history of wildfire management in the West, starting with the very first people on that land - Indigenous people.

CUTCHA RISLING BALDY: All the things that we would do or even that any fire scientist would do right now, Native people have always been doing to care for the landscape.

CHANG: And it looks at how we can use that knowledge to protect our forests and lands today.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right, guys. What are you fire lighters standing around here for? Go forth, and set your own fires (laughter).

CHANG: Well, here with me now is Jacob Margolis, host of The Big Burn podcast from KPCC and LAist Studios. Hey, Jacob.


CHANG: So, you know, when we talk about wildfires, we normally talk about, like, the devastating consequences because people - they lose their lives, their homes. Wildlife habitat disappears. But in your podcast, you talk about there being good fires versus bad fires. Can you just explain what is the difference, the way you understand it?

MARGOLIS: Yeah. So we often frame all fires as bad, but the thing is fire is absolutely necessary for healthy and resilient landscapes here in California. Lots of the fires that we're seeing, especially the bad fires that end up moonscaping everything, are a result of not allowing enough good fire on the landscape. And that good fire would be something like National Park staff going out and actually deliberately setting a fire in a forested area to kind of clean up debris that would otherwise drive these really big and violent fires. It's something called prescribed burning, which is really important.

CHANG: OK. And you actually attended a prescribed fire in northern California. Can we just hear a clip of that?

MARGOLIS: You can see when it hits leaves that have been sitting in a shady spot, the fire kind of has trouble catching. But then it hits a blackberry bramble that's been sitting in a patch of sun, and it just explodes.


MARGOLIS: Even from 10 feet away, the heat is just too much. You got to move.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah, I believe it was bumped down the line and in the middle.

MARGOLIS: Led by the pros, the dance becomes clear. They light something on fire. It rages and eventually calms down and smolders, clearing out brush, leaving the larger trees licked by fire but still alive.

CHANG: I mean, Jacob, as someone who's covered wildfires for so many years, was it strange to see this intentional fire? Did it change your perception of fire at all?

MARGOLIS: Oh, my gosh. So I've grown up only around fires that have been absolutely terrifying, destroying neighborhoods.

CHANG: Yeah.

MARGOLIS: So as soon as they lit this landscape on fire, all this adrenaline just flooded into my body. But as I saw it kind of settle in, I saw the experts do what they needed to do, I was truly in awe. And it made me sad, ultimately, that I've only felt, like, this really deep fear around fire most of my life. And I really hope that every listener out there gets to experience a prescribed burn because it completely changed my perspective of how I feel about fires in general.

CHANG: Well, Cal Fire only started ramping up its prescribed burning in the last decade or so, but as you talk about in the podcast, Indigenous people in our state have been studying and using these techniques for ages, right?

MARGOLIS: Yeah. Any idea that people have of California, like, before colonizers showed up as this untouched Eden or however it's framed by John Muir is wrong. The landscapes here were healthy in part because for millennia, Native American tribes throughout the state had actively managed our landscapes. They'd do things like they'd pull up oak trees to help with acorn production. And they'd regularly use fire to clean up debris, to do things like kill bugs and promote certain types of growth so that they could harvest materials for medicine, things like baskets. And so they've had this really complex and deep understanding of how to keep the world around them healthy that Westerners have often disregarded.

CHANG: Exactly. And what's so illuminating about this podcast is you go into a lot of, well, frankly, the racist history that paved the way for decades of fire suppression. Can you just explain that connection some more, especially as it related to the California Gold Rush? - because I found that just eye-opening.

MARGOLIS: Yeah. Native Americans in California had, you know, this really intimate relationship with the land from both a spiritual and practical standpoint. And these practices have been developed and shared over thousands of years. And then they were torn from the land violently, especially after gold was discovered around 1850, which Cutcha Risling Baldy, a Native American scholar, told me all about.

RISLING BALDY: You get a massive influx of primarily white male settlers. So they're finding ways to get at as much gold as they can. And 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.


MARGOLIS: It was a genocide that was endorsed by the government. And after Native Americans were removed from their lands, their burning practices were also prohibited, which marks the beginning of what is a century and a half of fuel buildup in our forests that now, in conjunction with climate change, is driving the moonscaping fires we're seeing.

CHANG: Well, you go on to describe the buildup of a sort of fire industrial complex that's dead set on putting out fires as soon as they start. Can you talk about how that began?

MARGOLIS: Yeah. Fire was this uncontrollable thing on landscapes we wanted to control for things like lumber. So in the early 1900s, you see this big buildup of the U.S. Forest Service Firefighting Force, the establishment of wildfire suppression techniques, the building of fire lookouts. And we really had this framing of fire as the enemy to be destroyed. It's really codified in the 1930s when something called the 10 a.m. policy is put into place. And this is an order that all fires need to be put out across the continent basically as quickly as possible.

And so after that, we start using leftover machines of war like helicopters and planes to start fighting fires and build up these army-like fire suppression forces. And this is all happening in conjunction with us pushing developments further and further out into areas that do burn. And the thing is, as we've seen, you can't put out all the fires no matter how hard you try. So now we're dealing with the consequences of all that suppression. And we're dealing with what I'd say are anti-fire attitudes, if you will, that don't leave room for nuance a lot of the time.

CHANG: That's right because even though there is more awareness today of good fire and traditional Native American management practices, there is still largely a culture of fire suppression which guides how the state manages fire and all the expectations of people who live here in California. A lot of them want to see fires go away. How do you unwind all of that, especially in an era where wildfires are getting larger and more destructive?

MARGOLIS: Yeah. I just think we've lived in an unrealistic place with fire for so long that we're being, like, forced to reckon with the reality we need to accept. We're not going to suppress our way out of it. We need to stop thinking of fire as only as the enemy. We need to let some fires burn instead of putting them out right away. And we need to do more prescribed burns. And in turn, people have to be OK with smoke throughout more of the year, with the additional risk that prescribed burns bring because though they rarely escape, it does happen. So ultimately, at the end of the day, we do need a radical rethinking of fire. It is starting to happen. But my feeling, to be honest, is that it's not happening fast enough.

CHANG: That was Jacob Margolis, host of the new podcast from LAist Studios and KPCC called The Big Burn. Thank you so much for your work, Jacob.

MARGOLIS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.