Fire, Native Peoples, and the Natural Landscape
Each of the seven chapters is written by a different author about a different subregion of the West, evaluating the question of whether the fire regimes extant at the time of European contact were the product of natural factors or whether ignitions by Native Americans fundamentally changed those regimes. An introductory essay offers context for the regional chapters, and a concluding section compares results from the various regions and highlights patterns both common to the West as a whole and distinctive for various parts of the western states.
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The final section also relates the findings to policy questions concerning the management of natural areas, particularly on federal lands, and of the "naturalness" of the pre-European western landscape. Chapter 2. Edited by Thomas Vale. Pub Date:. February Add to Cart. E-book Format.
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Native American use of fire
What is the natural cause of fire? Lightning caused fires at lower elevations in California are extremely rare. However, once humans starting with Native Americans entered the scene, the number of fires gradually increased to levels today that are damaging shrubland ecosystems Photo of the famous Yahi Indian, Ishi. Natural systems adapted and survived for millions of years before humans ever entered the scene. Fire was used in aboriginal times to modify the environment in a way that best suited survival needs.
The historic observation that some Native Americans used fire to modify the landscape does not mean it is something we should emulate today.
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The best fire history data we have applies to conifer forests using fire scars from tree ring studies. Unfortunately, this information does not allow us to distinguish between human caused or lightning caused ignitions. So it is extremely difficult to determine the frequency or impact of Native American burning. However, despite such limitations, it is still possible to conclude that in certain forests with high lightning frequencies, Native Americans had little, if any, significant impact.
In those systems, past logging practices, over grazing, and fire suppression have disrupted the normal fire pattern. An effort to return them to more natural conditions by allowing fire to play its natural role is a reasonable goal. In contrast, the impact of Native American burning in the coastal portions of California was probably quite significant.
They almost certainly increased fire frequencies over what was naturally possible due to lightning. For example, in the , acre Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area only 2 lightning fires have been recorded over the past 25 years. Ecosystems within the coastal region of Southern California were likely the most heavily impacted by Native American burning and may have ultimately set the stage for the successful spread of invasive European grasses in the early 's.
Southern California oak savannas in the past, such as those seen along US Highway between Lompoc and San Luis Obispo, were likely covered by an understory of sage scrub, not grass as we see today see photos below.
Therefore, suggestions that Native American burning activity was an essential and natural part of the natural environment are not reasonable when California ecosystems thrived for millions of years prior to the arrival of human beings on the North American continent. This activity probably resulted in the elimination of large tracts of native shrubland communities. We cannot afford to emulate this pattern today because we have increased fire frequencies in many shrubland ecosystems beyond their ability to recover. In addition, increased fire frequency and other unnatural disturbances allow the spread of non-native, invasive weeds into native ecosystems, something Native Americans did not have to contend with.
Some have also claimed Native Americans used controlled burning to prevent large wildfires. There is little reason to believe Native Americans could prevent the occurrence of large wildfires on the broader landscape. Indeed, one ethnographic report describes a massive wildfire in San Diego County prior to the time of European contact that resulted in a significant migration of Native American residents to the desert.
Such would likely have been the case with Native Americans as well, especially since they didn't have the vast fire suppression forces available today. The notion that establishing a Native American burning regime will prevent catastrophic fires is demonstrably incorrect based on the re-burning of approximately 70, acres scorched in Southern California during fires. Instead of basing fire management practices on incomplete records from prehistory, we need to look forward and formulate plans based on fire science.