Feet to the fire

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Don Hankins, at the Butte Creek Ecological Reserve in the first rains after the Camp Fire, shows where prescribed burning affected wildfire’s spread.

Don Hankins had Nov. 8 marked on his calendar long before it became a notorious day in California history. That Thursday evening, he was scheduled to speak at the Chico Creek Nature Center about fire ecology, an emphasis of his research as a Chico State professor.

Needless to say, the talk didn’t happen. The Camp Fire ignited early that morning and by afternoon had enveloped the Ridge. Hankins tracked the progress from his home in Forest Ranch until receiving an evacuation order.

The Butte Creek Ecological Reserve, one of two owned by the university, burned extensively—only 5 percent of the vegetation escaped flames. The fire did not reach as far north as the other, the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve, or neighboring Forest Ranch.

Fire will come there, though. Hankins, field director for the reserves, plans to continue the prescribed burns he’s performed at the Big Chico Creek site since 2007 and also initiated at the Butte Creek site. They’re part of a management system that integrates techniques and concepts from indigenous people native to the land—something he’s studied and advocated.

As wildfires devastate California, and officials lower their protracted resistance to controlled burns, Hankins’ work has gained prominence and significance.

“His work is paramount; his work is critical,” said Calli-Jane DeAnda, executive director of the Butte County Fire Safe Council, which until the Camp Fire was based in Paradise. Hankins has been a member for 12 of her 14 years with the council.

“We need all the tools in the toolbox,” DeAnda continued. “Don is the academic and professional expert at the type of prescribed fire he’s been doing on his own property and the reserves for Chico State.

“It’s about the culture we’re creating around that, a culture that can understand how we really use this tool—where it’s appropriate, when it’s appropriate, how we do this.”

Hankins’ “how” goes back centuries—and, locally, draws on the Mechoopda. Tribal members go out with him to the reserves, or onto their land south of Chico, to perform burns that bolster wildlife. They’ll time their fires to burn specific grasses, clearing the way for others, and draw out certain seeds. Native species replace invasive species; animals find forage; the Mechoopda glean materials for food, baskets and other items.

In the process, lands lose some of their load of fire fuels.

“It’s awesome when you get to take part in it and see it,” said Kyle McHenry, a Mechoopda tribal council member who serves as environmental and cultural affairs officer. “That’s how our ancestors have done it for thousands of years. It’s a pretty powerful connection when you actually get to do that, then come back in the spring and see all those new grasses and things come back revitalized.”

Traditions permeate Hankins. Raised in the Central Valley, he absorbed native ways from his grandfathers: one Osage, one Me-Wuk. Hankins speaks the Me-Wuk language.

His endorsement of tribal practices goes beyond cultural affinity. Throughout his studies at UC Davis—conservation biology as an undergraduate, geography for his doctorate—he kept finding connections between fire and the environment. Fires as occur in nature, or set with the specific intent of enhancing wildlife, provide benefits.

That eye to nature represents a key distinction between his prescribed burns and those of Cal Fire and foresters.

“I don’t cut lines,” Hankins said, referring to the earth-moving that firefighters may use to control their burning. “We read the landscape: We look at where moisture is within the landscape, where vegetation communities shift—and at the right time of year, you don’t need to cut a line. You can use the dew and the moisture that’s retained at the edges of the area you want to burn to stop the fire.”

His training does include contemporary tactics. Hankins completed instruction in wildland firefighting and earned certifications for planning and implementing prescribed burns in Australia, where he’s taught certification courses. Likewise, he’s trained U.S. firefighters on prescribed burning.

The burns he conducts for Chico State—coordinated with the reserves’ manager, Eli Goodsell—range from several-acre research projects, sometimes with students, to 100-acre reductions in conjunction with Cal Fire.

“It’s a tool on multiple levels,” Goodsell said, noting ecology as an overriding principle.

Hankins emphasized that a prescribed burn is not fire let loose upon land. Neither he nor Cal Fire, for instance, would “just light it and walk away.”

Nonetheless, for the past half-century, residents and regulators alike have bristled at allowing these burns.

In his time on the fire safe council, Hankins has found “people on the board generally support the idea, but it’s where—and how do you have that confidence to put prescribed fire on the landscape, particularly within that wildland-urban interface?

“People are a little bit leery burning next to houses,” Hankins continued, “but at the same time, that’s one of the tools you have to be able to use to protect those houses. It’s very effective.”

McHenry endorses the traditional approach to prescribed burning but doesn’t flatly oppose the fuel thinning Cal Fire undertakes.

“Just for overall society to see that fire is useful, not something to be feared or suppressed, is a turning point,” he said. “I think it’s good both ways [of prescribed burning]; having fire on the ground is better than not having fire on the ground.”