Notes on processes of unearthing: Wildfires and the entanglements of space on the unceded lands known as California

By: Anousheh Gul Kehar

I am thinking with entanglements of the wildfires on the unceded lands known as California, dedicated to analysing and locating openings to dismantle the abstraction that is the wildland-urban interface.

 

My research is invested in centring the social, cultural reproduction of life by studying the intertwined relations of wildfires. Seeing the wildfires as, in, and with its many fragments. Thought of as multiple unearthings, I employ a study of fragments as sites, growing into other fragments, to understand both the dominant practices related to the wildfires that undermine life and more significantly, practices of imagining, rehearsing to develop collective futures outside of settler colonialism and racial capitalism’s parameters. It leads me to consider the vastly disparate and connected political economy of land use (real estate development, incarceration) and Indigenous burning practices. Here I share some reflections from the ongoing research process.

 

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To understand some of the ways that the wildfire is entangled is to see it in connection with land use. As the concept of land use is itself intertwined in ongoing techniques of (settler) possession in the context of California, USA, non-exceptionally, I am learning that it must be thought of together with the means by which many Indigenous lands remain dispossessed and life undermined.

 

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The wildfire has expansive scales and registers

wildfire/fire:

it is a reaction,

process of combustion,

moving from unstable to stable forms,

the wildfire/fire

is not singular,

it is a part of,

made of,

from,

in reaction to/with

and it produces

produced, producing

changing

making anew.

 

The wildfire is complex – spatially, temporally, it is entangled.

wild, in itself, is an abstraction worth unpacking.

And here, I am reflecting on wild as a constructed colonial understanding,

a colonial incarnate.

Because wild is a scientifically accepted terminology—burgeoned with coloniality,

categorizing,    a familiar and foundational feature of Western epistemology,

inadvertently, acknowledging the absence of knowledge—on the part of coloniality.

And in turning the lens on the coloniality of wild, I am wondering about the violence that comes with such colonial processes of categorizing.

It manifests a type of civilness that is nothing if not harmful, humanness that is separate from nature.

In these understandings, I am learning, wild is also nature:

It is lush, pristine, untouched, uncontrollable,

hence, wild     

destructive,     

sublime,

wild is contingent, multiple

In a sense, I think with

wild as property

dispossession

and here, wild is criminalized

 

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Many of the attributes of wild follow into the construction of the wildfire, not just in syntax, but in substantiations of soil, grasslands, movement, shrubs, in historic regimes and ecosystems, and in makings on stolen and occupied lands. Perhaps it is evident with the growing wildfires rolling through the lands, poisoning the air, contaminating the water, modifying the soil, destroying homes, and upending life-sustaining systems—making life vulnerable. In thinking with the wildfires in areas of southern California today, I am reflecting on wild as a function against the complex ecological processes mediated by sophisticated knowledge, skill, and meaningful labour by Indigenous peoples.

 

In centring wildfire, attention is given to processes (sub)urbanization attempts to make invisible–processes which all but certainly congeals extractivism. In thinking about the aesthetics of lushness and the misinterpretations of nature devoid of human processes, I consider that the (sub)urban environment is based on a desire for wild. And I wonder about the extent to which this continues in processes of land use in the present with constructed ideas on the aesthetics of landscapes.

 

In areas of southern California, since the early part of the twentieth century, there exists the desire to be close to wildlands—to be abutted with what is understood as natural landscapes, undeveloped.

 

But what is termed as wildlands and perceived as natural landscapes in southern California is in fact, tangled in land and water as property and commodity, sources of extraction, conservation, investment, and real estate.

 

The wildfires are an intricate part of historically tumultuous and contested practices of land use and fire policy in California—a context marred by colonial processes of genocide, servitude, dispossession, diaspora, unratified treaties, complex disenfranchisement, industrial processes, extraction of resources and labour, violence of making invisible, and centring capital, and incarceration.

 

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Before Spanish and American occupation, parts of southern California were modified and maintained with burning practices by the Indigenous peoples, who had deep and sophisticated understandings of the ecosystems and were skilful in exercising meaningful labour.

 

I am learning that the forests were sparse, with openings between canopies to let in light for healthy ecosystems, waters, and lands.

Grasslands were a notable feature. Microecologies, biodiversity, and mosaics of vegetation were preferred and shaped with burning practices.

 

But colonizers and settlers lacked knowledge of these ecosystems, dismissed knowledge of the Indigenous peoples, negated their labour, and made Indigenous burning practices undesirable over time. These practices were not banned immediately, nor did they stop entirely. However, processes of removing fire from the lands did take place—and for the most part, institutionalized fire suppression and fire management continued well into the twentieth century.

 

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In different periods of Spanish and American settlement, there was heavy reliance on timber and lumber for construction. The light-filled forests were gutted for production and then regrown into thick forests in a frenzy to ensure steady supplies of wood. Valued as a resource by colonizers and settlers, wood in some ways is tangled with the aesthetics of lushness, a bountiful nature, and a dense forest.

 

The US Forest Service manages federal lands and resources. One way in which it generates revenue, historically and in the present, is through timber sales. However, today, most forests the US Forest Service manage in southern California are for recreational purposes: to be consumed as an aestheticized commodity in a distinct way for example, as Nature or national parks. This requires continuing dispossession. A reminder of the many ways “US sovereignty rests on anti-indigenous concepts of race and place.”[1]

 

In processes of (sub)urbanization in southern California, the aesthetic of wildness is a coveted and constructed commodity. It is nature as the extractable sublime. In these categories, land is withheld by federal, state, and private institutions—including research universities mostly in Western United States such as the University of California.[2] Of course, use of the areas withheld is controlled, limited, and prohibited in many ways, and contested especially by Indigenous peoples wanting access to their ancestral lands.

 

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The US Department of Agriculture’s US Forest Service and the US Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, with a California office, oversee much of the lands and waters in southern California. Land use policies have, historically and into the present, ossified their acquisition and management practices.

 

In different ways, these institutions are grown out of the US Geological Survey, established in 1897: to map resources for extraction and thus for building the foundations of the US and its first cities proper, the labor underpinning which is made invisible time and time again just as the labour that built the settlements of the Spanish missions earlier is made invisible. But I digress. Extraction is tied to the concept of the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI). This concept appeared in a research budget document prepared in 1987 by the US Forest Service. It was described here as follows: “Where large urban areas are adjacent to State, Federal, and private forest lands, the intermixing of city and Wildland has … brought about major problems in fire protection, land use planning, and recreation impacts.”[3]

 

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An article from 2020 suggests that “home ownership in a fire-prone, wildland-adjacent neighbourhood has become an increasingly valuable investment for those who can afford it. This situation is likely creating perverse incentives for continued development of the wildfire-prone WUI for high-end Housing.”[4]

 

In dismantling the separation between seemingly different types of land use in California—prisons and housing development—Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s book Golden Gulag has had many important contributions to make. One of these contributions is to show that there comes a recognition of relations of landscape where prisons do not sit outside of environmental concerns, where land use is not fixed, and where housing developments are not disconnected from people who are made unfree and put in prison. There is an entire world to open up through Gilmore’s book. Here I briefly want to think with the book to reconsider the fact that part of California’s prison population is enlisted in the fight against wildfires. I take my cue from Gilmore’s reformulation of incarceration as a question of political-economic reconfiguration rather than one premised on the often-repeated ties of prisons and labor. With those made unfree and then enlisted in fighting wildfires, arises a specific type of relationship between where the wildfires are and who fights them and an opportunity for examining social-environmental relations that produces it and is produced by it.

 

There is a complex network of firefighters in California, which is constantly being reorganized under hierarchical structures. Those imprisoned who are made to fight wildfires are part of the Conservation Camp Program, a vocational training program running since 1945 under the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The unfree are given less than minimum wage for fighting the wildfires. During an emergency, those at work are allotted an extra one U.S. dollar per hour and for a single day’s labour while two days are deducted from their prison sentence: a transaction known as 2-for-1.[5] In 2014, “California fought court orders to apply those 2-for-1 release credits to other rehabilitation work programs”[6] so as not to see a decrease in those made unfree fighting the wildfires. The program was becoming less popular with the unfree due to the potential life threat and the fact that once released, they could not be employed as firefighters due to obstructions resulting from their criminal records.[7] However, in September 2020 a bill titled AB 2147 was signed into law. “Under, AB 2147 a person who participates as part of a state or county fire camp would be eligible to apply for expungement upon release from custody, and if the expungement is approved could seek various career pathways including those that require a state license.”[8]

 

The precarity continues.

 

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To give a better sense of what the WUI entails today, I can share some of my findings.

 

In the same article I mentioned earlier, the authors outline the WUI, writing that:

Southern California’s WUI is concentrated along the coast in coastal sage scrub and chaparral ecosystems whose high vegetative fuel loads, Mediterranean climate, and proximity to ignition sources from urban areas and roads combine to produce periodic wildfires (Faivre, Jin, Goulden, & Randerson, 2016; Jin et al., 2014).[9]

 

And they note that “For the purpose of [their] analysis, Southern California is defined as the following ten counties, which collectively cover the southern portion of the state: Imperial, Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura.”[10]

 

Further federal, state, and/or academic institutional publications provide different descriptions of the WUI as follows:

The encroachment of urban development into largely natural areas. In California this interface often occurs in foothills and higher-elevation areas that developed more recently after valleys and lower-elevation agricultural lands were fully developed.[11]

 

A compilation titled Encyclopedia of Wildfires and Wildland-Urban Interface Fires, describes that WUI “ is the area where wildland vegetation meets or mixes with humans and their development, including houses and infrastructure. The term is mainly used in the context of wildfire to define the potential risk that WUI fires pose to human settlement.”[12]

 

The California Fire Science Consortium, coordinated by UC Berkeley, describes that “Due to the ubiquitous nature of fire losses in the wildland-urban interface of California, the WUI module of the California Fire Science Consortium encompasses the entire state.”[13]

 

And so, the WUI is defined in different ways, even within the state of California.

 

Hence the data on the WUI is unclear and inconsistent, varying in the way it is collected, analyzed, interpreted.

 

I have come to see the WUI as a precarious space

in which life is endangered.

—damaged by extractivist economies, waste and pollution, and subsumed in the understandings of climate collapse.

 

I want to recall, here, that the WUI is premised on land being wild—its being constructed as wildland. And in relation to early US federal and state policies, wildland was defined as unsettled lands —tangled with dispossession

and burgeoned with the colonial construction of wild, which made invisible the labour of Indigenous peoples cultivating the lands and waters prior to colonization and settlement.

 

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To summarize, I consider:

wild as an aesthetic tangled in land use;

capital—tangled with developers and with design practice—as premised on this aesthetic;

And wildlands as a set of preservation and conservation practices that prolong the life of this fetishized aesthetic to prepare it for extraction, while also transforming the life giving capacities of fire regimes into destructive wildfires.

 

Recall Libby Porter here, who writes on dispossession and displacement not as one and the same but as working in tandem because of the politics that underpin both and that are premised on “liberal rights and subjectivities.”[14] The context of Porter’s writing is a different reading of the urban, but I believe it could speak to the context of the wildfire, helping recognize the different structures shaped by colonization, settlement, and capitalism—structures that entrap dispossession and subjugation, instilling extractivism.

 

I find it useful to conclude with Mishuana Goeman’s work, which teaches us, through the literary work of E. Pauline Johnson, “to think through the way colonial relationships are mapped onto bodies through legal constructs that are both produced and productive of spatial and social relations with the state”[15]

—relationships that are hidden in the construction of wild as an aesthetic.


Notes
[1] Meredith Alberta Palmer. “Rendering Settler Sovereign Landscapes: Race and Property in the Empire State.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 38, no. 5 (October 2020): 793–810. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263775820922233.

[2] Land-Grab Universities, A High Country News Investigation by Robert Lee, Tristan Ahtone, Margaret Pearce, Kalen Goodluck, Geoff McGhee, Cody Leff, Katherine Lanpher and Taryn Salinas. https://www.landgrabu.org/

[3] U.S. Department of Agriculture, “1988 Budget Explanatory Notes for Committee on Appropriations–Forest Service,” 1987. The 1988 federal fiscal year ran October 1, 1987–September 30, 1988; quoted in Sommers, W. “The emergence of the wildland-urban interface concept.” Forest History Today, Fall, 2008. 12–18.

[4] Jessica Debats Garrison, Travis E. Huxman, “A tale of two suburbias: Turning up the heat in Southern California’s flammable wildland-urban interface,” Cities, Volume 104, 2020, 102725, ISSN 0264-2751, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2020.102725. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264275119301568)

[5] Nicole Goodkind, ‘Prison Inmates Are Fighting California’s Wildfires for About $3 a Day’, Fortune, 1 November 2019, https://fortune.com/2019/11/01/california-prisoners-fighting-wildfires/

[6] Ibid.

[7] Nick Sibilla, ‘Inmates Who Volunteer to Fight California’s Largest Fires Denied Access to Jobs on Release’, USA Today, 20 August 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/08/20/californias-volunteer-inmate-firefighters-denied-jobs-after-release-column/987677002/

[8] https://a47.asmdc.org/press-releases/20200911-governor-signs-reyes-bill-provide-employment-opportunities-inmate

[9] Jessica Debats Garrison, Travis E. Huxman, “A tale of two suburbias: Turning up the heat in Southern California’s flammable wildland-urban interface,” Cities, Volume 104, 2020, 102725, ISSN 0264-2751, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2020.102725.

(https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264275119301568)

[10] Jessica Debats Garrison, Travis E. Huxman, “A tale of two suburbias: Turning up the heat in Southern California’s flammable wildland-urban interface,” Cities, Volume 104, 2020, 102725, ISSN 0264-2751, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2020.102725.

(https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264275119301568)

[11] Mooney, Harold A., and Erika Zavaleta. 2016. Ecosystems of California.

[12] Manzello, Samuel L. 2019. Encyclopedia of wildfires and wildland-urban interface (WUI) fires. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-51727-8.

[13] http://www.cafiresci.org/

[14] Libby Porter. “Possessory Politics and the Conceit of Procedure: Exposing the Cost of Rights under Conditions of Dispossession.” Planning Theory, vol. 13, no. 4, Nov. 2014, pp. 387–406, doi:10.1177/1473095214524569.

[15] Mishuana Goeman, Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations (London; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 45.


Image

2020-09-10 – Massive smoke layer consumes Pacific West Coast – GOES-17 GeoColor [https://rammb2.cira.colostate.edu/]
NOAA/CIRA/RAMMB


About the author
Anousheh Gul Kehar completed her master’s in Architecture and bachelor’s in Art and Architectural History at the University of Houston. She is now a PhD researcher at Vienna University of Technology. Her research focuses on the spatial constructs of decolonial and anti-imperial considerations of diverse and specific political, social, economic, and legal connections.

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