Fire Suppression, the Carceral State, and Black Ecological Knowledge

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As I write, major wildfires burn in the state of California. A mixture of droughts, human-altered landscapes, dense vegetation, and development have resulted in over 4.1 million acres burned this year. Among those fighting the blazes, clearing brush, and creating firelines are California inmates, low-paid, high-risk workers. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports, as of October, that approximately 1,800 inmates work at fire camps, down from over 3,000 in 2017. While racial statistics appear unavailable, 1.”] qualitative evidence suggests that Black people have been among those who have and continue to work these frontlines.

The convergence of Black inmate labor with these fires offers a circuitous yet textured entry into a conversation about Black relations with this primary force. Resonant with my contemplations of water and the night’s sky, I turn to fire as a powerful phenomenon affecting the environment and Black life. As actors engaging with fire, Black inmate firefighters highlight an intersection of the histories of settler-colonialism, slavery, patriarchy, and the carceral state—how these hierarchical systems affected Black people and the dominant approach to fire. These fire workers serve as a touchstone for varied forms of Black and environmental precarity as well as epistemologies of fire themselves. They guide another path into the efforts of Black Ecologies to examine Black people’s relationship with the environment and its knowledge.

Hurricane Katrina was a watershed in witnessing Black vulnerability to ecological destruction. Poet Nikki Finney’s Left registers the historic pile-on of elemental abuses to Black people in the midst of the hurricane’s ruination and dispersion:

                People who outlived bullwhips & Bull/               Connor, historically afraid of water and routinely/               fed to crocodiles, left in the sun on the sticky tar-/               heat of roofs to roast like pigs, surrounded by/               forty feet of churning water, in the summer/               of 2005….

Finney has us confront the history of an inflicted racialized environmental logics that “speculated whether or not some people are surely born ready, accustomed to flood, famine, fear;” and, I add, fire.

JT Roane and Justin Hosbey’s conceptualization of Black ecologies provides a framework for considering Black vulnerability and relations with fire. Their call to examine how Black life has borne the weight of environmental crises pairs with a summons to explore how Black people and communities have understood, often creatively responded to, and subverted ecological devastation. They give special attention to Black “insurgent knowledge” emergent often in the context of disaster. With a similar frame, Tyler Parry pointedly takes up fire and its historical deployment in the subjection of Black people. From fire-heated brands to path-lighting torches, Parry draws together the ravages of fire in Black life but also its careful and generative uses by Black communities to resist, liberate, and preserve kin-building practices. These scholars’ work provides a foundation for understanding the social and cultural nature of Black relationships with fire and the environment.

In general, fire in the West has been established as the domain of experts— firefighters and pyrogeographers, those knowledgeable about controlling fire. The ethos of suppression and management have governed this approach to fire, particularly in California where the land and structures are susceptible to hot-burning and fast-moving fires. Within this ethos and its rubric, Black vulnerability to fire, for example, is framed as resulting from socio-ecological features more so than geography. For example, although Black people do not tend to reside in the most fire hazardous places, research suggests that Black economic inability to minimize fire threat and survive after a fire disaster places them at risk. Additionally, Black communities may be at risk to smoke pollution from prescribed burns.

But Black vulnerability also intertwines with the mainstream paradigm of fire itself.

Fire suppression intimately connects to what Roane and Hosbey name as the “imperial management” and “toxic stewardship” characterizing Western relationships with the environment. As the dominant Euro-centric approach, it may come as no surprise, that the EPA Program Manager for the Cold Springs Rancheria of Mono Indians, Dr. Jared Dahl Aldern, characterizes the history of fire suppression as “very much tied up with social and political oppression of Native American people.” The history and ethos of fire suppression and fire fighting emerge out of a framework of taming and control of people, those othered, deemed primitive, and subordinate. The colonial belief that California’s indigenous people’s use of cultural burning practices was reckless, and like its practitioners, in need of restraint, influenced the founding of a western vantage on fire. Fire, as an instrument of intimidation and violence, as well as the unruly extension of indigenous people and ways, was conceived within a rationale of mastery and suppression still permeating outlooks on fire and non-white bodies today.

The carceral state, now a practitioner of fire suppression and management, emerges out of an overlapping history of racial hierarchy and dominance. The roots of the prison system in slavery and its patriarchal impulse to subjugate and discipline draw attention to the thread connecting prisons and conventional approaches to fire. Black inmate firefighters, in their Blackness, incarcerated and firefighting status, represent another vulnerability, in the fact of their bodies, the hazardous work they do, and their future employment and life post-release.

Yet, the proposition carried through Parry, Roane and Hosbey, and now this essay encourages an attunement to the many relations Black people have with the environment, including fire knowledge. The experience of Michael Allen, a Black firefighter and inmate who served in a California fire camp offers a brief example. Although trained under dominant views of fire suppression, his statement suggests more: “When I had got up to the front the flames were high and hot. I could feel myself growing stronger instantly. . . . Sometimes I was 3 to 4 feet from the fire and at other times I was two feet away. As I worked, I could feel my arms and shoulders become heavy as mortar stones. But that only fueled me.” The strength Michael garnered in fighting fires undoubtedly was impelled by a desire to protect people and land, worthy and much needed service. As firefighter and incarcerated man, Michael sought to contain this force all the while feeling his strength and service grow, his indomitable spirit kept alive in a space that would characterize him as vulnerable. In his proximity to the flames, his words suggest moving towards them, to understand why they rage and if possible, to work with them.

Fire unquestionably commands respect and understanding. But relating to it, perhaps seeing it as a living force in need of cultivation—a need mutual to people and elements— offers a robust ecological counterpoint to fire suppression and one worth investigating in Black life.

With respect, rather than fetishization, I turn to indigenous eco-cultural burning because it speaks to another way of relating to fire and the environment. Ironically, or again not so, the cultural burning practices of indigenous peoples to which modern fire suppression was a response, have attracted western eyes as a technique to work with these unwieldy fires. Frequently associated with California and Australian indigenous or first peoples, cultural burning, also known as fire-stick farming, is the ecologically-minded use of fire to enhance the growth of vegetation and wildlife, in a sustainable way. These practices involve relationships with fire that are anti-hierarchical and reverential to the way it resources an ecology. In the words of Tribal Chairman Ron W. Goode of the North Fork Mono Tribe, the practice, as is the desire, is to create the “right kind of fire” recognizing its varied nature. The fires in the US and Australia reveal the limits of systems of management and suppression’s capacity to hold or carry the energies of today.

Black people’s relationship with fire necessitates being interpreted as what environmental scholar Don Hankins calls, “a complex affair…..muddled by colonial laws, policies and practices.” There are hazards, breaks, and degradations, but also within these same strictures, the possibilities of alternative epistemologies, historically and contemporarily less explored. One less overtly anticipated outcome manifests in a possible shift in consciousness, reflected both in the sustained advocacy that led to the signing by California’s Governor Newsom of AB 2147—a bill that will enable former inmates to have low-level felony convictions expunged whereby removing some obstacles to a professional career in firefighting. The history of volunteer Black firefighting in this country might offer another place of investigation, as does, following Parry, the everyday uses of fire by Black folk past and present. Contrary to the patriarchal and hierarchical grounds of fire suppression, we may draw on an eco-cultural approach to consider the “interrelated and interdependent” aspects of fire that have linked and continue to connect Black life to the natural world. Such approaches invest in the work of Black Ecologies and their envisioning as sites of potential environmental knowledge and stewardship.

  1. 2017 data from the Public Policy Institute of California indicates that of the approximate 115,000 persons incarcerated in the state, “28.5% of the state’s male prisoners are African American” and “25.9% are African American [women
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Celeste Henery

Celeste Henery is a cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of race, gender, and health. Her work explores what it means to feel well in a world crosscut by inequality. She is a Research Associate in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

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