Good Fire

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

The American settlers in the Sierra forests at the turn of the twentieth century encountered fire. They had to learn to live with the reality of fire, that it would be as much a part of their environment as the snow, the rain, the thunderstorms and the Mono winds. They built their towns and businesses, their permanent structures, and protected all from fire through total suppression. In essence, they removed fire from the forest.

The native people, on the other hand, who had thousands of years of forest living behind them and had acquired an understanding of fire’s ecological give and take nature, had adapted to the fire-hungry environment of the Sierra forests. Over the millennia they learned to embrace fire and to use controlled burns to create and improve the rich habitats that provided their food, their medicines, and their basketry resources.

In terms of supplying themselves with food, the Indians were agriculturists, not simply gatherers. They studied weather patterns and fuels, cultivated their plants, tended their vast garden with burning, pruning, sowing, weeding, and tilling the soil. They harvested at the right time and in the right amount. In return, the land provided them with leaves such as mint for teas and medicines; grains and seeds for cakes, breads and soups; bulbs, and fruits such as Manzanita, elderberry, choke cherry, sourberry, wild strawberry, blackberry, wild grape and gooseberry.

The oak tree, which produces acorns, the main staple of the Indian diet, received special fire protection from the native people. By directing the smoke from fires built under the trees, they were able to keep the mistletoe at bay. If you’ve ever seen a mistletoe-covered oak tree, you have an idea of the damage it can do if left unchecked.

Even to this day efforts are made to enhance the output of oak trees with the smoke from prescribed fire. Lois Connor Bohna, a Mono tribal member who gathers and processes acorns is always on the lookout for stands of healthy oak trees, free from bugs and mistletoe. “From a good group of oaks,” said Lois, “I can harvest up to three thousand pounds of acorns every year.”

Tending basketry plants was also an important part of Indian use of fire. The Mono woman, who was the primary basket weaver in the Tribe, knew how to gather. She knew when to gather. She understood the elements, such things as that the redbud stick is most pliable and the red color the deepest if cut during the coldest days of wintertime, or that sourberry is good when cut in spring as well as winter.

The weaver looks for materials that will produce baskets that can withstand day-to-day usage, whether for cooking over hot coals, holding water, or carrying a baby. For example, when selecting bluebrush branches for the rims of cradle boards, winnowers, and sifting baskets the weaver will look for brownness, roundness, length and no lateral or side branches, those characteristics of young, healthy plants that grow after fire has been put on the land and the old, dry, inflexible, white sticks have been eliminated.

One might ask how ancient indigenous use of fire in the forest could inform twenty-first century forest restoration planning. It’s been suggested that, by discovering the approaches used by the Indians in a particular ecosystem, forest managers will be able to tailor their restoration practices to each environment and avoid a one-size-fits-all policy. “A major thrust of restoration ecology,” wrote anthropologist M. Kat Anderson in her introduction to Omer C. Stewart’s Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness,

is to restore ecosystems to a semblance of the historic structures, composition, and functions prior to major Euro-American settlement and development. Ecological restoration can be defined as the practice of reestablishing the historic plant and animal communities of a given area or region and the renewal of the ecosystem and cultural functions necessary to maintain these communities now and into the future.


Anderson, M. Kat. Taming the Wild: Native American knowledge and the management of California’s natural resources. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2005.

Blackburn, Thomas C. & Anderson, Kat, eds. Before the wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians. Ballena Press Anthropological Papers. 1993.

Cermak, Robert W. Fire in the Forest: A history of forest fire control on the National Forests in California, 1898-1956. USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region. 2005.

Goode, Ron. Cultural Burn. Tribal Chair North Fork Mono Tribe: Personal Paper Presented to the Dinkey Collaborative. 2014.

Stewart, Omer C. Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness. Henry T. Lewis & M. Kat Anderson, eds. Norman, Oklahoma; University of Oklahoma Press. 2009.