Farming through Wildfire Season: The Key role of Farmers in Building Wildfire Resilience

By Katie Brimm and Natalia Pinzón

Originally written for and published by the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

Wildfire becomes more a part of agriculturalists’ (farmers, ranchers, orchardists, grazers etc) lives across the world every day. Climate change, combined with years of fire suppression policies, have brought an unsettlingly new normal of increasingly devastating wildfires. The size, longevity and intensity of these fires are rapidly increasing, with record-breaking fire seasons every year – a trend expected to continue. On top of that, drought conditions mean hotter and drier weather such that, in many areas, we now have a year-round fire season. Conditions like these put agriculturalists, and thus, our local food systems, at unprecedented risk. Each year, tragic stories of farmers losing everything haunt communities of small-scale, sustainable farmers as producers are faced with severe property, crop, livestock, labor, and market losses. Yet with livelihoods tied to a reciprocal relationship with nature, farmers and ranchers are key players in building large-scale resilience in a rapidly changing world.

Wildfire Suppression and Land Privatization

Across the globe, humans live and produce food in regions that evolved with naturally occurring wildfires. Wildfires burned regularly through these lands for millions of years. In response, the native vegetation adapted to burn periodically. In fact, many tree and plant species in the Mediterranean evolved to rely on wildfires for successful seed reproduction and can withstand (and even benefit from) low-intensity wildfires. Humans also adapted; Indigenous people in fire-adapted regions coexisted with wildfire and understood the natural and regenerative force of wildfire on the environment. Many Indigenous groups lived, and continue to live, in a reciprocal relationship to fire, using fire as a tool to manage fuel loads and encourage the growth of certain plant crops to support their own foodways and culture, a practice known as cultural burning.

Today we are far from a reciprocal relationship with fire. While wildfire is a natural part of many ecosystems, historically fires were smaller, more frequent, and less intense. Their regularity contributed to large-scale fuel load reduction, which reduced the occurrence of high-intensity fires because there simply was not enough vegetation to fuel them. Cultural burning also supported this process on human-stewarded land. However, European forest managers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw fire as an enemy. Combined with colonization, this brought a nearly global abolition of cultural burning by Indigenous peoples – a process also seen in the United States. Colonization also ushered in the enclosure of “the commons,” such as air, water, and land – these resources are held in common even when owned privately or publicly. Land that was once managed in common was divided and privatized as we know it today.

Now, choked by fuel load, devastating wildfires sweep fire-prone regions. This is due to a dangerous mix of climate change and the nearly 100 years of extreme fire suppression from heavy-handed policies leftover from the 1900s. Without communal land management or cultural burning, private entities and public land management agencies alike are now overwhelmed by keeping up with fuel load reduction. Unfortunately, wildfires and the vegetation that fuels them are now growing faster than we can treat them.

Farmers and Ranchers: Stewarding Forests and Land

Farmers and ranchers steward land as part of their profession. Historically, ranchers also burned rangelands to reduce fire hazards and improve grazing for livestock and wildlife. While farmers are only a portion of the private landowners in the United States, they are critical in building wildfire resilience. Many California family farmers manage some portion of forest, especially those farming at the wildland-urban interface (WUI) which is where the greatest wildfire risk for humans exists. For these reasons, farmers and ranchers play important roles in wildfire management and recovery. 

Research finds that when it was historically permitted, upwards of 200,000 acres were burned by ranchers in a given year. Fire was a tool frequently used by various communities living within fire-adapted ecosystems. Today, farmers and ranchers are leading the way with prescribed and targeted grazing of sheep, goats, and cattle for fuel load reduction of grasses and shrubs. By doing so, they’re helping make these essential practices – burning and grazing of fuel loads – more accepted after decades of skepticism and pushback. We’re seeing the practice of integrating (and re-integrating livestock) for this purpose finally being understood. As an added benefit, the proper management and delicate timing of livestock grazing can actually benefit the land through nutrient cycling and invasive species management.

Agricultural activities also provide a wildfire buffer at the WUI interface. Farms that include agroforestry, which integrates crops and livestock into the grasses, shrubs and trees of native forest, can provide both food and fuel load management. Fields, vineyards, and grazed landscapes can serve as strategic fuel and fire breaks which can slow or stop the progress of a wildfire. Ecologically managed farms which have a high level of organic matter in their soils replenish groundwater, effectively contributing to a buffer against wildfires for their residential neighbors. Farmers also support climate change mitigation by building healthy soilmanaging forests, fuel breaks, providing buffers and replenishing the ecosystems that are impacted by wildfires.

Agricultural Abandonment and Wildfire

To drive home how important agriculture is to wildfire resilience, we can look at the worldwide trend of agricultural abandonment, which is the end of agricultural activities and complete withdrawal from the land. According to Yale 360, “The United States has lost almost 98,000 square miles of farmland just from 1997 through 2018. And according to one recent estimate, the European Union could have up to 82,000 square miles of abandoned farmland by 2040, or roughly 11 percent of the area that was being farmed at the start of the century.” As a consequence, multiple European studies have found that agricultural abandonment in their Mediterranean regions is one of the biggest drivers of wildland fire. Why? As farmlands are abandoned and the land is no longer managed, the vegetation grows unmanaged and contributes to a high fuel load.

In California, farmland abandonment is prevalent. The massive loss of farmlands in the US, especially medium and small-sized farms, also means the loss of important wildfire buffers and the ecosystem services they provide. With increased population sprawl from cities and a desire to live near wildlands, WUI areas are being developed more and more. Working to keep small and medium-sized family farms in business not only provides food security (since these smaller farms are more likely to sell locally) but also ensures more wildfire breaks.

Agriculture is fundamental in addressing the issue of wildfires. Farmers and ranchers manage forests, establish fuel breaks, provide buffers, and replenish the ecosystems that are impacted by wildfires. In addition, family farmers provide social capital and jobs that revitalize rural economies. We’ve seen how farmers are critical to the social fabric necessary for supporting rural communities during a wildfires disaster – they provide mutual aid, emergency response, and recovery. During and after a  disaster, people often look to farmers as community leaders in recovery.  For these reasons and more, we believe it is urgent to support family farmers in wildfire adaptation.

Check out our Farming through Wildfire Season program at Farmer Campus, which includes a robust online course, a downloadable workbook, and a myriad of case studies, videos, and podcasts all meant to educate the public while empowering farmers and ranchers to build wildfire resilience on their land and in their communities.

Editor’s Note: Katie Brimm and Natalia Pinzón Jiménez are a two-woman team and co-founders of Farmer Campus. Together they draw from an incredible network of farmers, professors, extension agents, nonprofits and professionals that steward, advise and contribute to their work. Katie has worked for over a decade in the food movement as an educator, writer, activist, and no-till farmer. She ran an international solidarity travel program focusing on Food Sovereignty where she gained an intimate connection to farmer & peasant issues, leading her to co-found Farmer Campus. As a publishing writer, she centers underrepresented voices in the food movement as well as climate resilience. As a Colombian immigrant working in three continents, Natalia has seen the diversity of ways that farmers and peasants are impacted by and responding to globalization and climate change. She specializes in agroecology as a means to reduce global climate risk as a PhD Candidate in Geography at UC Davis. In this blog, Katie and Natalia offer insights about the relationship between farming and wildfire resilience.