Researcher finds that Native Americans ignited more fires than lightning

Data was collected in the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains in California

A California professor’s dissertation has won a prestigious award for her work that determined fires 1,500 years ago in the Sequoia National Forest in Southern California were predominantly ignited by Native Americans rather than by lightning. Until the last 100 years or so most forests in the Western United States had far fewer trees per acre than today. Suppressing fires caused by lightning, arson, and accidents has resulted in overstocked forests that can lead to very large wildfires that threaten lives and property and are very difficult to control.

Prescribed fires can over time lead to stand densities that replicate the pre-Columbian condition, but in modern times the practice has not been widely used in the Western United States at landscape scale.

Professor Anna Klimaszewski-Patterson
Professor Anna Klimaszewski-Patterson. (Photo courtesy of Anna Klimaszewski-Patterson)

“We should be taking Native American practices into account,” said Anna Klimaszewski-Patterson, a Sacramento State assistant professor of geography, whose dissertation on the subject recently won the J. Warren Nystrom award from the American Association of Geographers (AAG).

“After all, they are stakeholders who have been here a heck of a lot longer than we have,” she said. “We should probably be looking at their traditions and incorporating them” into forest management.

Klimaszewski-Patterson uses paleoecology – the study of past ecosystems – as well as environmental archaeology and predictive landscape modeling in her current work, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. She won the Nystrom award after presenting her paper at the AAG’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

Using computer models and pollen and charcoal records to track changes in the forest over time, she has found that forest composition dating back 1,500 years likely was the result of deliberate burning by Native Americans, rather than natural phenomena such as lightning strikes. Those forests featured wide open spaces, resembling parks.

More information about the research.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

8 thoughts on “Researcher finds that Native Americans ignited more fires than lightning”

  1. Well Homo sapiens did all kinds of things. They drove most large mammals to extinction. So looking at what Sapiens did in the past is not necessarily advisable. Homo sapiens also kept slaves so should we also emulate that?

    1. “looking at what Sapiens did in the past is not necessarily advisable”? What sort of nonsense is that? We can only learn from the past if we look at/study it. It’s only by looking at the past that you came to a conclusion about slavery. If we want to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, we need to learn as much as we can from the past. If you want to keep your head in the sand, that’s your choice.

    2. Really? That seems a rather trite response and reason to throw out the thousands of years of sophisticated land management practice from the people 100% dependent on their local surroundings. And which have since proven to be hugely beneficial on nearly every level, and by any measure, of ecosystem health and productivity.
      My only complaint of this article is that it sounds like it’s new news. This was practically an assumption when I was in college in the 90’s, and our operating principle for most of the restoration work I did in CA for 10 years.
      It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. What I’d like know is how this data is going to be applied so we can get our butts moving on some stewardship practices.

      1. Amen!! Not an assumption when I was in college 60 yrs ago, but several observant foresters had already published articles in prestigious journals documenting traditional Native American and colonial use of fire to sustain healthy fully functional plant communities throughout the US. The periodic use of intentional fire by natural resource managers has sustained healthy plant communities for thousands of years world-wide. We live on a fire planet whose landscape mosaics continue to be shaped and sustained by fire. Investigators and natural resource managers have provided the knowledge and tools to show both the appropriate and inappropriate use of fire. Wildland fires will occur; the only questions are whether humans will set them, and if so where, when and how?

  2. Mr. Gabbert, I would like to call your attention to an article that appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune two weeks ago and hear what you have to say.
    It’s hard to tell good science from propaganda nowadays, and Dave Thomas seems to me to be a propagandist. Whether or not roads are useful to firefighters, and it is hard to believe they are not, this blaming of modern fires on climate change seems to miss the boat entirely. How can a longer fire season (by 2 months or more) be blamed on a fraction of a degree of temperature rise? How can blame be assigned with any probability when so many factors are involved, probably all more important than climate change? E.g., that forests from the Dakotas to California are so much more dense now than 100 years ago, or that non-native trees like eucalyptus have been introduced that are quite a bit more flammable than most native species. Combining fire suppression, logging bans, prohibitions on debris removal and grazing, it appears that environmentalists are the biggest cause of more severe fires.

    What’s your take on it?

    Regards, Glenn Foster

    1. You know there can be multiple causes for things, maybe climate change is not a big factor in catastrophic fires? Maybe all the other factors you mention are more important. (besides simply blaming environmentalists, which is just your political axe to grind, and is just stupid). However, that does not mean anthropomorphic climate change is not happening, because it certainly is. Certainly fuel loads in forests is a big factor, and what led to that came before the environmentalist movement. Climate change can still be a significant variable. Regardless, climate changes is also effecting a variety of other earth ecosystem processes. So don’t take too much comfort in your rather myopic conclusions.

  3. One thing to recognize is that American Indians were dealing with a very different situation than currently exists. While we surely want to work toward a forest system where beneficial fire is an integral part, that cannot be done in forests that are much denser than during pre-European settlement days. A large amount of restoration mechanical and manual treatment is needed first.

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