Fire On the Mojave: Stories of Fire in the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California by Ruth Nolan

“Fire up Thunder Creek and the mountain / troy’s burning ! / The cloud mutters / The mountains are your mind…” — Gary Snyder

On a 110 degree June day in 1983, I was on a bus heading towards the San Jacinto Mountains, part of the Mojave Greens blue card wildfire crew. As we descended from Victorville, our home base, through the Cajon Pass and east along Interstate 10, the header of smoke on a massive—and rapidly growing—wildfire enticed everyone on the crew. Whistles and shouts of excitement quickly gave way to silence as we neared our destination: a fire camp being hastily erected at a park in Cabazon, where we would disembark from the bus and wait for our firefighting assignment.

Just before we arrived, one of the guys on the crew made a loud and sarcastic comment: “I’ll bet it’s those Morongo Indians from the reservation again, setting fires. They do that all the time, so they can get some work, putting those fires out!” Everyone laughed nervously, and I wondered if his statement was true or not, but there was no time to find out. I was too busy bracing myself to get ready to hike up the imposing slopes of the northern face of Mt. San Jacinto—one of the steepest mountain escarpments in North America—and face heat, smoke, and other dangers I could only imagine, all as part of a day’s work cutting fire line to help stop the spread of the wildfire.

More than thirty years later, as I embark on a year-long, multimedia sabbatical project, “Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Inland Southern California Mountains,” I haven’t forgotten that crude comment. For a long time, I’d brushed it off as an urban legend, a culturally insensitive and blatantly untrue fabrication, which indeed it turned out to be.

However, I’ve learned that our Inland and Desert Native American tribes have a long, intimate relationship with wild land fire management, developed, through centuries of living in close relationship to the land, a thorough knowledge of the vital role that wildfires in our foothill, mountain and deserts play in helping sustain a healthy ecology here. As it turns out, our region’s Native Americans have long been far ahead of the curve of later 20th and early 21st century wildfire management policies, and we have much to learn from their traditional wisdom and experience.

For example, research by noted Native anthropologists and scholars Thomas C. Blackburn, Kat Anderson, and Dr. Lowell Bean, in the book Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians (Malki Press-Ballena Press), reveals that our region’s Native American people did indeed sometimes light deliberate fires right here in our mountains and deserts, as did Native people throughout California.

However, far from resembling the types of careless human behaviors that tragically fuel many of today’s wildfires—a carelessly dropped cigarette butt, or an abandoned campfire, for example—fire strategies practiced by our local tribes played a vital role in their ability to survive and live sustainably in our rugged geographic landscapes. In fact, wildfire agencies such as the United States Forest Service are increasingly turning to this wisdom as a critical resource in wildfire management as climate change, the current historic drought, and increased development in areas known as the “urban-wilderness interface” fuel larger and more dangerous fires throughout the Western U.S.

According to these researchers, records demonstrate that desert Native American people of the past routinely burned stands of Native palm trees—another important resource—as a means to kill off pest and disease, and to help favor new palm growth and germination. They also set fire to mesquite groves—which provided a vital food source—as a way to kill mistletoe from the trees.

The Cahuilla, Kumeyaay and Chemehuevi, Indians, among others in our area, also burned grasses in the desert and mountains here as a way to strengthen the population of deer, antelope and rabbits, another important food source. Clearly, these people possessed an intimate relationship in the behavior and uses of wildfire that enabled them to survive here in some of the harshest of geographies.

One of the many goals of my “Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Inland Southern California Mountains” project is to include representations such as these, from the many story-threads in our region’s longstanding history and relationship with wildfires, both present and past.

It’s unlikely that wildfires will be leaving our region anytime soon, and in fact of such unprecedented influences such as climate change, it may well be the stories of wildfires, beginning with the people who have been present here the longest, that in the end allow us to continue to survive and even thrive in a place where wildfires have long scarred, shaped, and helped regenerate the land we call home.

It’s been many years since I faced that wall of flame, with its impressive white header of smoke billowing high up into space, as a frightened but enervated young woman on one of our local wildfire crews, but the story of that fire in the San Jacinto Mountains near Cabazon, and the strange rumor I heard, stay with me to this day, as vivid and clear cut as a forest of trees after flames have scoured the land clean, leaving only the lonely, haunting black skeletons of what were once lush green trees, buried in foot-deep ashes.

Starting from there, I begin my journey today, telling my own fire stories and learning much from the fire stories of those who were here long before I was born.

Follow Ruth Nolan’s “Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California”