Studying a wildland urban interface maintained by Native Americans from 1100 to 1650

Ancestors of the Jemez Pueblo used fire 27 different ways

Conceptual map of landscape zones Hemish people
Figure 2 from the publication. Conceptual map of landscape zones and 27 fire and wood uses for Hemish people.

A paper being published this week looks at an area in Northern New Mexico that was populated by Native Americans living within a wildland urban interface (WUI) that was sustainable from approximately 1100 to 1650.

Below are excepts from the publication.

Researchers combined ethnography, archaeology, paleoecology, and ecological modeling to infer intensive wood and fire use by Native American ancestors of Jemez Pueblo and the consequences on fire size and intensity. Initial settlement of northern New Mexico by Jemez farmers increased fire activity within an already dynamic landscape that experienced frequent fires. Wood harvesting for domestic fuel and architectural uses and abundant, small, patchy fires created a landscape that burned often but only rarely burned extensively.

Depopulation of the forested landscape due to Spanish colonial impacts resulted in a rebound of fuels accompanied by the return of widely spreading, frequent surface fires. The sequence of more than 500 years of perennial small fires and wood collecting followed by frequent “free-range” wildland surface fires made the landscape resistant to extreme fire behavior, even when climate was conducive and surface fires were large. The ancient Jemez WUI offers an alternative model for fire management in modern WUI in the western United States, and possibly other settings where local management of woody fuels through use (domestic wood collecting) coupled with small prescribed fires may make these communities both self-reliant and more resilient to wildfire hazards.

Policy implications

The Jemez ancient wildland urban interface (WUI) obviously contrasts with modern WUI in the American West in ways that make the ancient WUI an imperfect analog for modern conditions. The economic, technological, and political differences are irreconcilable but they do not obviate the relevance of the ancient WUI for modern problems. The cultural contrasts between ancient and modern WUI highlight opportunities to cultivate more resilient communities by supporting particular cultural values.

Two of the important characteristics of the Jemez ancient WUI are: 1) That it was a working landscape, in which properties of the fire regime were shaped by wood, land, and fire use that supported the livelihoods of the residents; and 2) that there was much greater acceptance of the positive benefits of fire and smoke.

We emphasize that these are malleable cultural features, because reshaping western United States culture by learning from indigenous cultural values may be critical for building adaptive and transformative resilience in modern communities. Learning to value the positive benefits of fire and smoke and to tolerate their presence will undoubtedly be critical to WUI fire adaptations.

Furthermore, the ancient WUI highlights two key processes that may make modern WUI more resistant to extreme fires: 1) Intensive wood collecting and thinning, particularly in close proximity to settlements; and 2) using many small, patchy fires annually (approximately 100 ha) rather than using larger burn patches (thousands of hectares) to restore fire and reduce fuel hazards, particularly closer to settlements.

Many WUI communities—especially rural and Indigenous communities—rely on domestic biomass burning for heat during the winter. Public/private–tribal partnerships to thin small diameter trees and collect downed and dead fuel for domestic use could have dual benefits for the community by meeting energy needs and reducing fuel loads. Tribal communities that have deep histories in a particular forested landscape may be ideal partners for supervising such a program. Lessons from the Jemez ancient WUI also suggest that federal and state programs to support prescribed burning by Native American tribes, WUI municipalities, and private land owners would provide equal benefit to modern communities.

It is imperative that we understand the properties and dynamics of past human–natural systems that offer lessons for contemporary communities . The Jemez ancient WUI is one of many such settings where centuries of sustainable human–fire interaction offer tangible lessons for adapting to wildfire for contemporary communities.

Authors of the paper: Christopher I. Roos, Thomas W. Swetnam, T. J. Ferguson, Matthew J. Liebmann, Rachel A. Loehman, John R. Welch, Ellis Q. Margolis, Christopher H. Guiterman, William C. Hockaday, Michael J. Aiuvalasit, Jenna Battillo, Joshua Farella, and Christopher A. Kiahtipes.

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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.

4 thoughts on “Studying a wildland urban interface maintained by Native Americans from 1100 to 1650”

  1. You can not rely on this trivial article about how the Native Americans used Fire . They did not have the same weather patterns that Climate Change has ravished the earth with .

    1. John, I gather that you have never studied much about historical climate shifts nor Native American cultural practices. Have been a forestry firefighter and have studied the weather and the natural environment and its impacts by fire for the last 41 years, I gather that you are very naïve. The Native Americans actually managed and terra formed on scale we do not think today. They managed their environment from sea shore to the mountains. Upon arrival of the Spanish they described seas of grass and valleys of smoke. The native people were so in tune with the environment and its shifts that the planned their burns before the rains came. Now the went through a warming period in what we call the Medieval period, if you look Chaco canyon and Mesa Verde you would surprised and when it fell due to climate warming- Here is some reading for your education.

  2. I struggling with the notion of doing 100 hectare prescribed burns in the urban interface areas of the Sierra Nevada foothills that are fire disasters waiting to happen. The areas that are not already wall to wall housing tracts probably have one to 4 houses per acre. By the time you get defensible space established, you already don’t have anything left to burn. And getting that many people to pay attention to their defensible space is tough.

  3. I did a study of the impacts of Blanca Forest Products in The San Luella Valley. The firm harvests small diameter pine on two large ranches 70,000 acres. Pine is harvested to improve elk habitat and reduce large fire frequency. The area experienced a very large fire several years ago that burned home hundreds of homes in the urban interface. The mill provides 70 high paying jobs in one of the poorest communities in the nation and provides firewood for traditional Indeo-Spanish families in the valley that use wood for cooking and heating. Natural elk movement corridors are widened enough to provide fire breaks and conifer spacing is improved to provide more forage for elk and other wildlife. There have also been significant benefits for water quality and fishing.


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