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.

30,000 acres burned so far in prescribed fire in South Florida

prescribed fire in Everglades and Biscayne National Parks
Cross-boundary prescribed fire in Everglades and Biscayne National Parks. NPS photo.

Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Park are conducting a cross-boundary prescribed fire this week in South Florida. So far they have completed 30,000 acres. Everglades is continuing ignitions today and tomorrow, April 4 and 5, 2019.

prescribed fire in Everglades and Biscayne National Parks
Cross-boundary prescribed fire in Everglades and Biscayne National Parks. NPS photo.

The south Florida National Parks often ignite prescribed fires with a helicopter-mounted device that drops plastic spheres which ignite after hitting the ground. It’s called a Plastic Sphere Dispenser, or PSD. Much of what the parks burn is vegetation over standing water. If the sphere lands in water it may not ignite the vegetation, but every sphere does not have to be successful.

The burn pattern in the photo below illustrates the paths of several helicopter flight lines. The direction of spread is being determined by a wind blowing from left to right.

prescribed fire in Everglades and Biscayne National Parks
Cross-boundary prescribed fire in Everglades and Biscayne National Parks. NPS photo.

When the PSD was first developed several decades ago it was called an
Aerial Ignition Device, or AID. When acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS, became a serious health issue, firefighters dropped the AID label and renamed it Plastic Sphere Dispenser, or PSD.

New Jersey Forest Fire Service enters their 84th year of improving forests with prescribed fire

prescribed burn US Air Force’s Warren Grove Bombing Range
A prescribed burn at the U.S. Air Force’s Warren Grove Bombing Range in Ocean County, NJ. Photo: Trevor Raynor

Michael Achey and Marie Cook of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service (NJFFS) wrote this article about their prescribed fire program, which is entering its 84th year in the state.


The NJFFS is the agency responsible for protecting life, property, and New Jersey’s natural resources from wildfire. One of the ways we accomplish our mission is by an aggressive hazardous fuel mitigation program, specifically using prescribed fire.

History and Purpose of Prescribed Fire in New Jersey
NJFFS has been using prescribed fire on state lands since 1936, primarily to reduce hazardous fuel accumulations. Other beneficial effects of these treatments include providing high quality wildlife habitat and resilience in forest health. While reducing the threat to public safety posed by hazardous fuels is always the primary mission, this year’s signing of the New Jersey Prescribed Burning Act has given fire management officers additional latitude for using prescribed fire as a tool to achieve several other ecological objectives. While prescribed burning takes place statewide across all ownerships, much of the activity is concentrated on state lands in fire-adapted Pine Barrens communities.

The state has proposed over 30,000 acres to be treated by prescribed burning this season, a seemingly ambitious goal having come off one of the wettest years current fire managers have ever experienced through the course of their careers. Prior to treatment, all proposed prescribed burn units are approved through a Departmental review process that considers natural resource, historical and ecological concerns, after which burn plans are prepared by local fire managers for each unit. At the time this article was written, towards the culmination of NJ’s prescribed burn season, approximately 15,000 acres of public and private land had been treated.

prescribed fire New Jersey
Students from the 2019 Prescribed Fire Exchange work on prescribed burns in New Jersey’s Pinelands region. Photo: Michael Achey
prescribed fire New Jersey
Students from the 2019 Prescribed Fire Exchange work on prescribed burns in New Jersey’s Pinelands region. Photo: Michael Achey

Education and Outreach
The 2019 burn season marks the second formalized annual Prescribed Fire Exchange, a program created to provide opportunities for students and practitioners outside NJFFS for training and exposure to prescribed fire techniques utilized in New Jersey. Students from Northern Arizona University, University of Idaho, and Utah State University have received training so far, as well as professional staff from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, New York’s Central Pine Barrens Commission, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources. NJFFS is extremely proud of this budding program which continues to receive praise from past and current participants. While our roots hold firm to tradition, we are continually seeking ways to improve our programs and expand the scope of their benefits. Anyone interested in participating in future exchanges should contact NJFFS state headquarters located in Trenton, NJ.

Research
Beginning in 1926, the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station’s program in the NJ Pinelands has served as a regional hotspot for research of fire and forest management practices.  Over time, the development of a landscape-scale approach of creating a mosaic with prescribed fire each year has resulted in fuel hazard reduction and promotion of forest health and regeneration.

Today, this program capitalizes on the constantly emerging breadth of new knowledge and technology including satellites and laser-based sensors, to drive research on aspects of fire that were once impossible to study.  With topics such as fire spread through ember showers, fire effects, physics-based modeling of fire spread, and technological approaches to assessing hazardous fuels at the wildland-urban interface, this research contributes to the evolution of universally applicable fire science knowledge. Most importantly, the work strives to meet a balance of risk and ecosystem service needs with growing populations and changing forest and climate conditions.

prescribed fire stats New Jersey
2019 NJ Prescribed Burning Statistics as of March 21, 2019; “Other” denotes government land not in state ownership.

Additional information about the Silas Little Experimental Forest and the New Jersey Forest Fire Service and their prescribed burning program.

Are stand replacement fires “bad”?

Cranston Fire
Cranston Fire, July, 2018. InciWeb photo.

The video below, paid for by a grant from the U.S. Forest Service, advocates active management of forests as one of the methods of preventing catastrophic wildfires. Most land managers and members of the public will agree with that very general statement, with exceptions for certain parks and wilderness areas.

The video defines active management as thinning to reduce fuels,  prescribed fires, and “managing natural fires when they start”. It begins with Doug Grafe, Fire Protection Chief of the Oregon Department of Forestry stating,”It’s the public perception that catastrophic stand replacement fires are bad. And they are.”

The interviewer enthusiastically said, “Yes they are”.

Chief Grafe continued, “And they’re not natural.”

At the end of the video the narrator says “fire is complex”.

Agreed. It is too complex to throughly explain in a 96-second film which is apparently intended to shape public opinion about how to manage forests.

Not all stand replacement fires, in which most or all overstory trees are killed, are catastrophic, unnatural, or bad. Fires in lodgepole pine, for example, are either creeping and slow moving or rapidly spreading, intense, stand replacing crown fires occurring at 50 to 300-year intervals.

In addition to prescribed fire, thinning, and fuel management, “active forest management” in recent years has been a dog whistle for increasing logging, used by lobbyists and others that make their living from the timber industry. The president used the term along with “health treatments” in a Presidential Order signed on the Friday before Christmas in which he directed a 37 percent increase in timber harvesting.

The moral of this story is, active forest management in most landscapes has many benefits, but beware of how it is defined.

Fire “is like giving the forest a bath”

Whaley Prescribed Fire Black Hills of South Dakota
The Whaley Prescribed Fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota, January 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In this video, Matt Jolly, an ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, talks about the natural and important role of fire in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. He explains that fire “is like giving the forest a bath”.